UNFPA - 2008 Annual Report

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Culture, gender and human rights

Empowering women, reducing poverty and realizing human rights

In Afghanistan, a faith-based initiative supported by UNFPA draws on Islamic teachings and Afghan cultural values to educate Afghan men and adolescent boys about women's health and rights. Mawlawi Saddiq Muslem, a senior Supreme Court official who collaborated with UNFPA to develop the project, says religious teachings can convince men to pay more attention to women's health: "Having a healthy mother and a healthy family is what it means to have a healthy marriage in Islam." Muslim clerics who participate in the programme receive life-saving information on reproductive health, gender-based violence and the benefits of spacing births.

With the right opportunities, women have the capacity to exponentially improve the health and well-being of themselves, their families and their communities. However, long-standing discrimination and violence against women and girls and poor reproductive health minimize women's contributions.

UNFPA has long advocated for policy and legal reforms that enable women to live in dignity and freedom, without fear. UNFPA promotes women's rights, health and well-being through a culturally sensitive approach that emphasizes human rights and dignity. The Fund's programming on gender-based violence, for example, recognizes the need to work with cultural attitudes as well as to change laws and policies. In 2008, the Fund made important strides in mobilizing faith-based organizations, as part of the broader cultural constituency, to promote gender equality and human rights.

Drawing on Culture to Achieve Gender Equality

UNFPA draws on the positive attributes that every culture possesses when devising strategies to end deep-rooted practices that violate the rights of women. UNFPA partners with a diverse range of actors, including women's organizations, human rights groups, parliamentarians, religious and traditional leaders, faith-based organizations and indigenous peoples, to realize the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Millennium Development Goals.

UNFPA's State of World Population 2008, Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, focused on the need for development strategies that place culture and cultural considerations on a par with political and economic factors. Advancing human rights, according to the report, requires an appreciation of the centrality of culture to sound policymaking. Culturally sensitive development strategies, the report states, can reduce harmful practices against women and promote human rights.

The "Youth Supplement" to UNFPA's State of World Population 2008 showed how young people influence culture and are themselves shaped by it, in areas such as human rights, gender equality and development. The supplement advocated for development programmes that help youth maximize their opportunities.


UNFPA's consultations with faith-based organizations around the world led to the first Global Interfaith Network on Population and Development. The network was launched in Istanbul with the participation of more than 160 faith-based organizations and religious leaders from all major faiths and regions. Members of the network agreed to work together and with UNFPA to fulfil the promises of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Millennium Development Goals in areas such as HIV and AIDS, maternal health and the empowerment of women.

UNFPA convened the first meeting of an inter-agency working group on faith-based organizations. The group, comprising 10 United Nations bodies, discussed possible strategies for coordinating work with faith-based organizations. UNFPA also supported the participation of several representatives of faith-based organizations in a UNAIDS consultation, in which a broad strategy for engagement on HIV and AIDS issues was elaborated and is now being piloted by UNAIDS.

UNFPA launched Culture Matters: A Legacy of Engaging Faith-Based Organizations at the Global Forum of Faith-Based Organizations. The publication shows how UNFPA country offices have engaged over 200 faith-based organizations over the course of decades on a range of population and development issues. It summarizes lessons learned and provides policy implications.

UNFPA developed the Training Manual on Culturally Sensitive Approaches to Development Programming to support capacity-building training on cultural sensitivity for United Nations country teams in Bangladesh, Brazil, Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Jordan.

In Latin America, representatives from health ministries in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met with UNFPA staff to strengthen efforts to reduce maternal mortality among indigenous women.

Empowering Women and Girls

UNFPA regards gender equality as a vital concern for all organizations and governments. In line with its Strategic Plan for 2008–2011, UNFPA concentrates on supporting national capacity to implement policies and legal enforcement, with an emphasis on promoting and protecting reproductive rights and ending gender-based violence.

UNFPA is providing global leadership in the development of policies and programmes that will help achieve Millennium Development Goal 3, which aims for gender equality and women's empowerment. Given the connection between gender equality and development as a whole, UNFPA urges nations to keep gender issues high on the agenda as they devise strategies to reach the other seven Millennium Development Goals. UNFPA is also working with partners to promote sociocultural environments that are friendly to gender equality, women's empowerment and reproductive rights.


UNFPA participated in the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality. The network, consisting of United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, focuses on gender issues and promotes gender equality throughout the United Nations system. As co-chair of the Network's Violence Against Women Task Force, UNFPA initiated multisectoral joint programming on violence against women in 10 pilot countries, bringing together United Nations country teams, governments and civil society.

UNFPA's Strategy and Framework of Action for Addressing Gender-Based Violence: 2008-2011 played a key role in guiding work related to this major health and human rights issue in 2008.

UNFPA continued to assess the progress that its country offices have made in addressing gender equality and women's empowerment. The Fund's work and progress in this regard have been reflected in the Strategic Framework on Gender Mainstreaming and Women's Empowerment 2008-2011, which sets the Fund's goals for empowering women and incorporating gender issues into programming. Country case studies of such progress are also reflected in the booklet, Gender Snapshot: UNFPA Programming at Work.

The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme and Trust Fund, launched in 2008, influenced governments to pledge greater commitment and accountability in the accelerated abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting within a generation. As a result, high-level government officials of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Kenya launched the initiative in their respective countries. Other countries, such as Egypt, Senegal and Sudan, created or strengthened national mechanisms to support accelerated abandonment of these practices.

Also through the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme and Trust Fund, networks of parliamentarians, religious leaders, NGOs, civil society and the media were created to advocate for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting. As part of this initiative, 17 African countries will strive to reduce these practices by 40 per cent by 2012.

UNFPA participated in the 52nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which focused on financing for gender equality and women's empowerment. UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid spoke at the launch of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's campaign, "Unite to End Violence Against Women." UNFPA also published the Technical Report of Global Consultation on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, which summarizes the deliberations of the global consultation on this issue and offers important lessons and approaches that could lead to the abandonment of the practice.

With the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, UNFPA updated a distance-learning course, "Gender Mainstreaming: Taking Action, Getting Results." This course offers students an understanding of gender equality and the empowerment of women within a human rights framework. UNFPA partnered with UNICEF, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Development Programme to develop the "Inter-Agency E-Learning Course on Gender," the first of its kind to serve all four agencies.

As part of its Strategic Framework on Gender Mainstreaming and Women's Empowerment, UNFPA identified the engagement of men and boys as one of UNFPA's six strategic priorities. Experience has shown that men can play a positive role in building gender equality and improving men's and women's health.

The importance of engaging men and boys throughout UNFPA's gender equality programming is reflected in the Fund's membership in the Steering Committee of the MenEngage Alliance, a global partnership of NGOs and United Nations agencies that seeks to engage boys and men in efforts to achieve gender equality.

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid became one of more than 100 "Torch-Bearers" to pro-mote Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality and women's empowerment. "MDG3 Champion Torch" recipients included officials from governments, the private sector and international organizations, and became part of the MDG3 Network, which aims to increase global attention to the goal and the importance of the economic empowerment of women.

Promoting Human Rights

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid (left) receiving the MDG3 Champion Torch from Ulla Tørnæs, Minister for Development Cooperation of Denmark, in May. The Executive Director drew attention to the Fund's commitment to Millennium Development Goal 3, which promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women.

UNFPA strives to apply universally recognized human rights standards to all aspects of its work. The International Conference on Population and Development's Programme of Action, which emphasizes the rights of individual women and men to enjoy equal rights and protection in population and development programmes, guides the Fund's work. To expand and enforce human rights to benefit women and girls, the Fund works with actors ranging from governments to grass-roots leaders.


UNFPA completed a comprehensive training package that will better enable the Fund to support governments and civil society in promoting human rights through its programming, a product of extensive collaboration with academia, human rights advocates and UNFPA country offices. The Fund worked with four regional human rights centres to facilitate the transfer of knowledge.

At a high-level panel on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNFPA launched UNFPA at Work: Six Human Rights Case Studies, which highlighted national initiatives to promote and protect human rights, particularly in the areas of gender, women's empowerment and culture.

UNFPA supported Women on the Frontline, a series of seven investigative documentaries on gender-based violence. The half-hour documentaries aired worldwide on BBC World for seven weeks, in multiple languages, reaching an estimated 220 million households.