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.
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
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.
Convention of the Political Rights of Women (1952)
commits Member States to allow women to vote and hold public office on equal terms with
The Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957)
aims at protecting the right of a married women to retain her nationality.
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
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.
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
The Mexico City
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
the World's Women. This led to the proclamation of 1976-1985 as the UN Decade for
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.
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
The UN has drawn international attention to the needs of
girl-children, millions of whom are raised in an environment of neglect and abuse.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Health Organisation (WHO).
Funds and technical assistance provided by the
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.