Population Issues- 1999

Empowering Women

Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Health and Family Planning

Empowering Women

Population and Sustainable Development

Population Trends:
The Numbers and Beyond

Demographic Trends by Region

Migration and Urbanization

Knowledge that Empowers

Breaking the Data Barrier:
A Priority for Research

Challenges for the 21st Century

The New Generations, the Family and Society

"Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility, are cornerstones of population and development-related programmes," according to Principle 4 of the ICPD Programme of Action. "The human rights of women and the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights."

The Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in March 1995, called for equal educational and work opportunities for women.

The Platform of Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in September 1995 also called for universal access to quality health services by 2015; equal land, credit and employment access to women; the establishment of effective personal and political rights; and the education of girls and young women as the key intervention for the empowerment of women.

In 1997, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated that women’s rights are fundamental human rights. Women's social status and access to education, employment and health care are closely linked to economic development. Women in many countries still lack the right to own land, to inherit property or to have access to credit; girls are denied schooling; female workers routinely face job discrimination; and women's sexual and reproductive health needs are widely neglected.

Women often face legal and institutional barriers to economic activity outside the home, including laws or customs that deny them the right to own land, inherit property, establish credit or move up in their field of work.

Enhancement of their productive roles is especially important for women whose status in society has been dependent solely on their reproductive capabilities. In the absence of other sources of status, a woman’s ability to decide about a marriage partner or family size is limited This is true for women in all countries.

Education is a critical ingredient in the empowerment process. Of the 960 million illiterate adults in the world, two thirds are female. The ICPD Programme of Action calls for universal enrolment in primary school by the year 2015, a time line influenced by the magnitude of the task. Despite progress in expanding access to primary education throughout the world, an estimated 130 million children - including 90 million girls – are not enrolled in primary school. And while enrolment in primary and secondary school totals nearly 900 million children worldwide, there are about 85 million fewer girls than boys enrolled.

The level of education achieved by a woman is also strongly associated with both lower infant mortality and lower fertility. In poorer countries, where access to health care is often limited, each additional year of schooling is associated with a
5 to 10 per cent decline in child deaths. And the impact of a woman’s educational attainment on family size is second only to that of access to family planning services. In combination, high levels of education and access to family planning services translate into both lower infant mortality and lower fertility.

Gender discrimination often begins long before a girl enters school. Deep-rooted traditions of son preference can result in both passive and active neglect. A girl may be given less food than her brothers, be less likely to see a doctor when ill or be prevented from attending school in order to help with household chores and child care. Access to new technologies is compounding the problem of son preference in some countries, where sex-selective abortion is a growing problem.

Men’s involvement

The ICPD Programme of Action recognizes that men, in most societies, exercise preponderant power in nearly every sphere of life, ranging from personal decisions regarding the size of families to the policy and programme decisions taken at all levels of government. Achieving gender equality, equity and women’s empowerment will require the support of men.

Men also must play an active role in stopping the abuse of their daughters, wives, mothers and sisters by joining the effort to eradicate all forms of gender-based violence including domestic violence, child prostitution and rape.

Encouragement of joint decision-making in the family and of male support for their partners’ choices related to reproduction is a vital component of an empowering and participatory approach to reproductive health.

Family planning programmes traditionally focused primarily on women via maternal and child health programmes. This approach generally neglected "male methods" of contraception – condoms, vasectomy and withdrawal. It also placed responsibility for contraception decisions solely on women and impeded efforts to promote male responsibility. It may even have deterred contraceptive use by women, particularly in cultures where men dominate reproductive decision-making. (Where partners disagree on the number of children or the use of contraceptives, the man's views will usually prevail.)

The development and use of male methods of contraception which are safe, effective, reversible and acceptable would expand the options for both men and women, attract additional users and improve reproductive health. Male cooperation and responsible sexual behaviour will be required to counter the AIDS pandemic and rising STD rates, since the male condom is the most widely available barrier to disease transmission. Men also need to be educated on the implications of their sexual behaviour for their partners’ health.

Programmes can be made more attractive to men in several ways: separate clinics for males; modifying existing clinics at little cost, to make men feel more welcome and to offer a broader range of services; services in the workplace; community-based services for men, such as distribution of condoms and information; commercial and social marketing; and promoting positive images of men and women.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation is a major public health issue: an estimated 130 million women world-wide have undergone some form of the procedure. It is practised, in one form or another, in around 40 countries, mostly in East and West Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of migration from these areas, it is now also practised in Europe and North America.

Each year it is estimated that about 2 million or more girls are at risk of mutilation. The procedure is usually performed on young girls or adolescents, and sometimes when a woman has just given birth. Because it is typically performed outside the medical system, without anaesthesia, using unclean instruments, it can have grave health consequences. The commonest type of female genital mutilation is excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, accounting for up to 80% of all cases. The most extreme is infibulation, which constitutes about 15% of all procedures.

Governments, international organizations including UNFPA, women's organizations, human rights groups, and national and international media are focusing increased

attention on the practice. The ICPD was the first international conference to speak out plainly against it, calling on the international community to eliminate the practice, which, it stressed, violates basic human rights and constitutes a major lifelong risk to women's health. The Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women similarly urged governments, international organizations and NGOs to help eliminate the practice.


Women and AIDS

A number of factors increase women’s risk of HIV infection:

  • women’s customary economic and social dependence on a male partner
  • inability to negotiate the use of condoms or to refuse sexual intercourse with their spouses
  • practices such as genital mutilation, proof of fertility prior to marriage, and anal intercourse as a way of preserving virginity
  • less access to STD prevention programmes for women, leading to untreated illnesses which increase the risk of HIV transmission as much as 5 to 10-fold
  • women under 18 are more vulnerable to STDs
  • lack of educational and economic opportunities increasing economic dependence and the likelihood of turning to commercial sex
  • women’s physiology, which puts them at greater risk during heterosexual intercourse New studies from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) show that women tend to have less access than men to HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. In sub-Saharan Africa infected women are thought to outnumber infected men by 6 to 5. While women accounted for 41 per cent of all infected adults worldwide in 1997, women now represent 43 per cent of all people over 15 living with HIV and AIDS. The studies also show that by the year 2000, an estimated 13 million women worldwide will have been infected with HIV, of whom more than 4 million will have died of AIDS.8 As more women become infected, there is a consequent increase in infections among children resulting from mother-to-child transmission.

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