(HN, March 2, 2012) -- This week, the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women opened on Monday at United Nations Headquarters in New York. It's special focus? The development of `Rural Women'.
For the next two weeks, leaders - men and women alike - are meeting to focus on women's visibility, contributions, and empowerment, in poverty and hunger eradication, development, climate change adaptation, conflict resolution, gender inequality, technology and energy access, and ending female genital mutilation and sex slavery.
The session, led by Chile's former President and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, is also preparing the agenda for the UN Rio+20 Conference that Brazil will host in June. The Commission was established by ECOSOC resolution 11, June 21, 1946; just a year after the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945. Of the 160 signatories, only 4 were women - Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic), Virginia Gildersleeve (United States), Bertha Lutz (Brazil) and Wu Yi-Fang (China).
The Commission's mandate was expanded in 1987 to include the functions of promoting the objectives of equality, development and peace at the national, sub regional, regional and global levels. Following the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, the General Assembly mandated the Commission to integrate into its program a follow-up process to the Conference, regularly reviewing the critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action and to develop its catalytic role in mainstreaming a gender perspective in United Nations activities.
45 member states of the UN serve as members of the Commission at any one time. The Commission consists of one representative from each country elected by the Council on the basis of equitable geographical distribution: 13 members from Africa; 11 from Asia; 9 from Latin America and Caribbean; 8 from Western Europe and other States and 4 from Eastern Europe. Members are elected for a period of 4 years. (SEE BELOW FOR FULL LIST)
In her opening speech to delegates, UN Deputy Secretary General Aisha-Rose Migiro welcomed attendees from around the world which included government officials, rural women, representatives of the UN and civil society; the media and the private sector to review progress, share experiences, good practices, analyze gaps and agree on actions to empower rural women.
Migiro, called for `systematic and comprehensive strategies' to empower women and girls in rural areas as `key agents of change' by maximizing their `potential to combat extreme poverty and hunger for themselves'. "If rural women had equal access to productive resources", she said, "Agricultural yields would rise and hunger would decline".
Further, "They are leaders, producers, entrepreneurs and service providers, and their contributions are vital to the well-being of families, communities and economies, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals".
World population demographics put the number of women and men in the world as roughly equal (with men just slightly ahead by a few hundred million). The idea is that women are becoming the most effective catalysts of sustainable development, and they must be supported.
Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), said empowering women, "Requires a transformation in the way governments devise budgets and make and enforce laws, policies and land rights; including trade and agricultural policies, and how businesses invest and operate. Private sector partnerships are crucial”, she said.
"Let us be clear. This is not just hurting the women. It is hurting all of us”, said Bachelet. "It's a matter of human rights, equality and justice on behalf of women.
According to a UN Women's report released last week, rural women and girls comprise 1 in 4 people worldwide and they constitute a large share of the agricultural workforce.
The gathering squarely noted that not only do women face gender inequality - despite progress; they also face blowback from Mother Nature too. How to bring women online while also creating sustainable solutions is a major focus of the conference.
Some 86% of the global rural population of both genders derives a livelihood from agriculture, with an estimated 1.3 billion people engaged in small scale farming or working as `landless laborers'. Increasingly, almost 70% of agriculture laborers are women, producing the majority of global food grown; while playing key roles in rural economic activities, such as planting crops, saving seeds and selling their produce. Not to mention, performing virtually 100% of household labor.
In South Sudan, women farmers are working with a host of civil society groups like the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Norwegian People's Aid, Catholic Relief Services and Concern Worldwide, organizing themselves to engage in climate-resilient crop production and sustainable pursuits like goat rearing and bee keeping. The women grow food drought-tolerant crops such as cereals, legumes, sorghum, bulrush or pearl millet and vegetables in order to improve their children’s overall nutrition and bring in a small, market-based income.
In Mexico, rural women have organized themselves to struggle against financial and environmental crises. In many cases, local NGOs have assisted in this process by building formal structures and developing capacities. 39% of Mexican households are rural.
But still, generally worldwide, women continue to face lower mobility, less access to training, market information, and financial resources.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, rural women can tap just 5% of the services and facilities including bank credits, public services, welfare, employment and the market; a mere 3% of the $7.5bn in official allocations for rural advancement and agriculture between 2008-2009 were assigned to gender equity. Additionally, rural women constitute one-fourth of the world’s population and while women have equal property ownership rights in 115 countries and have equal inheritance rights in 93, gender disparities in land holdings persist worldwide."
The conference platform posits that if rural women had equal access to productive tools such as seeds, tools, and fertilizer; and laws were loosened - agricultural yields would rise by up to 4% and there would be 100 million to 150 million fewer hungry people worldwide.
Mobile is Key
Mobile phones are changing lives and strengthening economic enterprises, providing information about credit, markets, weather updates, transportation or health services - changing the way rural women and men obtain services and conduct business.
In a recent global survey, 93% of women reported feeling safer because of their mobile phone, 85% reported feeling more independent, and 41% reported having increased income and professional opportunities.
Sisters Doing it For Themselves
Women on the ground in the global South aren't waiting. They are already busy deploying a combination of indigenous techniques and adaptive agricultural methods to stave off the impacts of climate change, and in June on the eve of the Rio+20 Summit, UN Women will join the Government of Brazil in convening a high-level meeting on women and sustainable development.
It All Starts With Education
"Women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people," the UN said and, "Just 39% of rural girls attend secondary school". Far fewer than rural boys (45%), urban girls (59%) and urban boys (60%). A lack of a high school education can mean poverty and even earlier death, and even a lack of local schools is a reason fewer girls attend high school.
"Data from 68 countries indicates that a woman’s education is a key factor in determining a child’s survival," according to UN statistics. "Every additional year of primary school increases girls’ eventual wages by 10–20 percent. It also encourages them to marry later and have fewer children, and leaves them less vulnerable to violence."
If Women Ruled The World There Would Be No War
In a study of 24 major peace processes since 1992, UN Women found that women composed only 2.5% of peace signatories, 3.2% of mediators, 5.5% of witnesses and 7.6% of negotiators.
War is always most devastating to women and children who are often the victims of rape, abuse, and sexual slavery during and after conflict. But when women's interests are not represented at the negotiation tables, in the post-resolution restructuring process, or in the governance bodies established after the war, the interests of children and families are almost always omitted from discussions. The UN recognized this 12 years ago when it voted to "ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels; urging governments to `adopt a `gender perspective'".
For instance, in Egypt, rural women are receiving identity cards so they can obtain social services, and are able to vote and can have a say in shaping the future of their country. In India, more than a million women are now members of local village councils. This has changed their lives for the better, and also the lives around them.
From Costa Rica to Rwanda, where quotas have been used, more women are in positions of decision-making. They are using their voices to secure land rights, to understand political processes, to engage with governance and policy issues, to tackle domestic violence, to improve healthcare and employment, and to demand accountability.
But in other parts of the world, a recent study which covered 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific showed that the proportion of elected representatives in rural councils who are women ranged only from 0.6 percent to 37%.
In her speech UN Women's Bachelet pointed the finger at her own organization, the UN too, saying, "Here in the United Nations, we must lead by example. From 2007 through 2010, the UN experienced an unprecedented increase in women at the most senior levels - from 17% to 29% at the Under-Secretary-General level, and from 20% to 25% at the Secretariat at the Assistant Secretary General level".
Last December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Member States to take concrete steps to increase the political participation and leadership of women, including the follow through on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Labor Organization conventions, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the report on the Social Protection Floor, that UN Women launched last year.
Still, despite all the progress of the global women's empowerment movement, many conference speakers have lamented the need to `reality-check' the situation by reminding delegates that currently in the world: "925 million people were chronically hungry, of whom 60 percent were women. Moreover, 884 million people in the world lack access to potable drinking water; 2.6 billion people do not have access to sufficient sanitation facilities; and 1 billion people do not have adequate access to roads and transportation systems."
What future will we leave our children?
The African Women’s Decade (2010-2020) is a bold political initiative that aims to put women at the centre of development on the continent. Launched in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2010, with roots traceable to the UN First World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975. However, the disheartening reality is that very few women in Africa actually know about the Women’s Decade and the policies set out to be implemented during this decade.
What's clear from this 56th Conference on Women is that women worldwide want change, they want to have their voice be heard, and they are impatient for equality and solutions to their own problems. Out of sheer survival, many women are taking circumstance into their own hands and making progress despite the world.
Because these life situations, cannot stand: In Afghanistan - 87% of women are illiterate; in Pakistan 90% of women face domestic violence and more than 1,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year according to the Human Rights Commission. In the DRC 420,000 women are raped every year; while in India, 100 million people, mostly woman and girls are victims of traffickers.
Before they go though from UN Headquarters next week, the commission will agree on urgent actions needed to make a real difference in the lives of millions of rural women by making recommendations for other policy forums, such as the Rio+20 and, they will celebrate International Women's Day on March 8th. A celebration indeed.
Full List of Current UN Women's Commission Members:
Argentina, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Comoros, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, Haiti, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Philippines, South Korea, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Thailand, US, Uruguay, Zimbabwe.
---- HUMNEWS (c) 2012