United Nations concern for the advancement of women began 50 years ago, with its founding in 1945. In its Charter, the Members of the UN declared their faith in fundamental human rights and in the equal rights of men and women. Since then, UN action for the advancement of women has taken four clear directions:

  • promotion of legal measures,

  • mobilisation of public opinion and international action;

  • research and training;

  • direct assistance to disadvantaged groups.

Promotion of Legal Measures

Legally binding UN conventions, or treaties, have helped to define and promote women's human rights. All State parties are committed to honouring the provisions of such treaties and providing women with legal protection. These legal instruments include:

* The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949) calls for the punishment of those procuring others for prostitution.

* The ILO Convention on Equal Remuneration (1951) establishes the principle and the practice of equal pay for work of equal value.

* The Convention of the Political Rights of Women (1952) commits Member States to allow women to vote and hold public office on equal terms with men.

* The Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957) aims at protecting the right of a married women to retain her nationality.

* The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962) decrees that no marriage can occur without the consent of both parties.

* The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) paves the way for equal opportunities for girls and women.

* The 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, often described as an international bill of rights for women, prohibits any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex that impairs or nullifies human rights and fundamental freedoms of women in all areas. More than 150 countries have ratified this Convention. A UN Committee regularly monitors progress in implementing the Convention and holds hearings on reports submitted by State parties. Work is now underway to draft an optional protocol to the Convention which will introduce a right to petition, or an individual complaints procedure.

* The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) cites violence against women as "one of the crucial mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men". The UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to collect data and recommend measures to eliminate such violence and its causes.

Mobilisation of Public Opinion

During the past 20 years, the United Nations has held four global conferences on women:

Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). These conferences helped to define gender equality and action needed to overcome them.

  • The Mexico City Conference, which coincided with the observance of International Women's Year, "was the start of an international effort to right the wrongs of industry", says the 1985 State of the World's Women. This led to the proclamation of 1976-1985 as the UN Decade for Women.

  • The Copenhagen Conference adopted an Action Plan for the second half of the Decade.

  • The Nairobi Women's Conference adopted a Programme for the Advancement of Women to the year 2000. About 120 Governments have reported progress in meeting the targets set at that Conference.

  • The Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women saw representatives of 189 Governments adopt a new five-year Global Action Plan, aimed at equality, development and peace. More than 100 Governments have made formal commitments to carry out such specific actions as allocating additional funds for education and health, changing laws and increasing women's participation in decision-making.

The UN has drawn international attention to the needs of girl-children, millions of whom are raised in an environment of neglect and abuse. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which calls for protecting the rights of all children, has now been ratified by 179 countries, more than any other international treaty.

Prompted by the 1990 World Summit for Children, the Organisation of African Unity adopted by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation declared 1991-2000 "The Decade of the Girl Child" and the USA initiated a $100 million project to promote literacy for girls in developing countries.

Research and Training

Before the UN Decade for Women (1976-1985), separate statistics for men and women were scant. The UN Statistical Division, the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and the ILO have been instrumental in developing methodology for gathering statistics that measure the value of women's work, both paid and unpaid, more accurately.

The World's Women 1970-1990 and The World's Women 1995, two key UN statistical reports on women, provide data and analysis on the status of women's lives and work. These statistics, according to Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, provide "the facts needed to pinpoint the sources and effects of persistent inequalities and take action against them worldwide". Most countries have now begun to include a gender dimension in their statistical analysis for use in national policy formation.

The UN has consistently advocated that addressing the issue of equal rights for women is a means to solving a number of socio-economic problems, including uncontrolled population growth and non-sustainable development. It is now widely accepted that investing in women leads to higher economic growth, better health and higher education for entire nations. UN advocacy, has also led to an inclusion of gender components in development projects, nationally and internationally.

Providing Assistance

The UN devotes about 80 per cent of its work to development activities. Women are fast becoming key beneficiaries of aid in such areas as health, education and environment.

Since the 1990 World Conference on Education for All, 153 countries have joined in UN-led efforts to eliminate gender stereotyping in education and make education and empowerment of girls and women a key priority.

  • The World Health Organisation's Global Action for AIDS has drawn international attention to the impact of AIDS on women and girls. Over 7,500 people become infected every day, nearly half of them women, with the AIDS-causing HIV virus.

  • The United Nations Population Fund, another UN entity, provides one fourth of the world's aid for population and planning programmes. Since 1969, it has provided over $43.1 billion in assistance to virtually all developing countries.

  • The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), working in partnership with UN Development Programme (UNDP), provides direct financial and technical support to development projects for women in developing countries.

  • Women and girls are major beneficiaries of direct assistance provided by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

  • Funds and technical assistance provided by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank have consolidated programmes providing credit to rural women.

The results of such international efforts are already evident. According to UNDP's 1995 Human Development Report:

  • The life expectancy of women in developing countries increased by nine years between 1970 and 1990 - 20 per cent more than the increase in men's life expectancy. In 1992, the average life expectancy of women in all developing countries stood at 62.9 years, up from 53.7 years in 1970. In industrial countries, women's average life expectancy in 1992 was 79.4 years, up from 74.2 years in 1970.

  • Fertility rates have gone down by a third: from 5.7 to 3.5 live births per women in developing countries and from 2.3 to 1.9 in developed countries.

  • Combined female enrolment in primary and secondary education has jumped dramatically, from 38 per cent in 1970 to 68 per cent in 1992.

  • The number of women in policy-making positions has gone up: worldwide in 1994, 5.7 per cent of cabinet ministers were female, compared with 3.3 per cent in 1987.




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