Hague Forum background paper - Chapter 3

Gender Equality, Equity and Empowerment of Women

93. As one of its key principles, the ICPD Programme of Action emphasizes that advancing gender equality, equity and empowerment of women, eliminating all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility are cornerstones of population and development-related programmes and are central to the notion of sustainable development (Principle 4). The Programme of Action also sets out as an important objective to encourage and enable men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour and their social and family roles (paragraph 4.25). These aims, goals and objectives are important conditions for building a sustainable, just and developed society.

94. The rationale for the promotion of gender equality, equity and empowerment of women population and development programmes is underscored by the fact that women's disadvantaged social position, which is often related to the economic value placed on familial roles, helps perpetuate poor health, inadequate diet, early and frequent pregnancy and a continued cycle of poverty. From infancy, females in many parts of the world receive less and lower quality food and are treated less adequately when sick than are males. In countries where women are less educated, they receive less information than men and have less control over decision-making and family resources. They are also less apt to recognize health problems or to seek health care.

95. Women's low socio-economic status also exposes them to physical and sexual abuse and mental depression. Unequal power in sexual relationships exposes women to unwanted pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. With changing social values and economic pressures, girls are engaging in sexual relationships at earlier ages. Additional health risks for women also arise from the general level of underdevelopment that are reflected, for example, by poor roads and lack of transport. This may hinder women from receiving timely medical treatment for pregnancy-related complications. Inadequate water supply, lack of electricity and poor sanitation impose extra burdens on women because of their household responsibilities, such as fetching water and fuel wood.

96. Building on agreements from previous international conferences on population and on women, the consensus reached at the ICPD set the stage for two major strategic shifts in the formulation and implementation of population and development programmes. The first shift entailed adopting an even stronger gender perspective in programmes, such that the focus would no longer be on women separately, but rather on the social context in which they live. This includes the unequal gender and power relations that circumscribe their lives and enable or hinder them from benefiting from population and development programmes. The second shift involved the adoption of a rights-based approach to enable women to secure and safeguard their reproductive and sexual rights.

97. Promoting the ICPD goals of gender equality, equity and empowerment of women has, for many countries, meant the adoption of a dual strategy. On the one hand, activities focusing exclusively on women or men may be necessary in specific contexts where gender gaps are wide, provided that doing so does not promote gender stereotypes or inadvertently reinforce gender inequalities. Women-specific programmes are still considered important because of the biological and social burden that women carry, relative to men, in reproduction. Such programmes are, therefore, useful in implementing strategies for the empowerment of women. On the other hand, many countries have also adopted the mainstreaming of gender concerns in all population and development activities as a means of achieving the commitments made at the ICPD. Gender mainstreaming entails, among other things, addressing issues related to equality between men and women in opportunities and access. This has meant careful planning both for the strategies used and for the outcomes expected to be achieved.

98. This chapter assesses the progress made to date in various countries in promoting gender equality, equity and the empowerment of women. The areas covered include the adoption of a gender perspective or gender mainstreaming; the creation of an enabling environment for gender equality; advocacy for the integration of a rights-based approach to population and development programmes; protection of the rights of the girl child; and the promotion of male responsibility, especially with regard to reproductive health. The chapter concludes with proposals for pursuing the goals of gender equality and empowerment of women.

Incorporating a Gender Perspective

99. The ICPD Programme of Action emphasizes the incorporation of a gender perspective in the development of population programmes. The PoA notes that while women are generally the poorest of the poor, they are also key actors in the development process. They are often omitted from policy dialogue, or their needs and priorities are defined on their behalf by others, too often in terms which actually reinforce preconceived roles and relationships which are normally characterized by inequalities and inequities.

100. In attempting to implement the agenda of ICPD on gender issues, many countries have promoted planning and policy formulation processes in which the definition of key stakeholders has widened to include previously excluded groups. At the policy level, the greatest challenge has been in promoting the legitimacy and, indeed, necessity, of gender equality as a fundamental value that should be reflected in all population and development choices and in institutional practices. In this respect, gender equality issues cannot be divorced from other fundamental challenges that countries face, such as democratization processes.

101. For many countries, an immediate action following the ICPD was to assess the extent to which the existing policy environment was conducive to mainstreaming gender concerns. In many cases, the absence of a conducive environment prompted countries to establish a policy framework in which gender concerns could begin to be addressed systematically and at all levels. The main strategy used was to develop gender and development policies and action plans to guide various sectors in this endeavour. The development of gender-disaggregated data played an important role in this respect. The process was accelerated considerably by the preparations for, as well as the aftermath of, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.

102. The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Namibia and Uganda are among the countries which developed comprehensive national polices on women or on gender following the ICPD. In these and other countries, national action plans indicating the areas needing action to promote gender equality were also developed. In Thailand, the Government prepared a comprehensive 20-year plan to ensure the adoption of a gender perspective in planning processes. This plan addresses women's concerns in the judicial system, in research and data collection systems, and in the health sector. Ecuador and Paraguay adopted five-year plans for the promotion of equal opportunities for women. The creation of an enabling environment included other sectoral policies, such as in Venezuela, where the reforms of both the educational and the health sectors systematically incorporated a gender perspective.

103. The adoption of a gender perspective in reproductive and sexual health programmes is a benchmark for the achievement of the goals of the ICPD Programme of Action. It is now evident that gender relations and sexuality are intimately linked to issues such as effective use of contraceptives, unwanted pregnancy and STIs. This link is forged in a person's socialization into sexuality and gender roles. The process of socialization begins early in life in both the family and the community and is reinforced by basic social institutions, the mass media and other factors, and this often subsequently leads to the political, economic, legal and cultural subordination of women.

104. Many countries have begun to grapple with double standards regarding male and female sexual behaviour as well as certain beliefs and practices regarding women's bodies and sexuality which have negative health consequences. These include beliefs that women should be ignorant about sexuality Cso that they will not be promiscuousC which exposes them to a high risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancy and may make them reluctant to seek health care. These and other social constructions of sexuality and gender relations are a denial of basic rights and an important determinant of reproductive and sexual ill-health.

105. To address this situation, countries have employed a number of strategies. For example, Zimbabwe established a reproductive health task force to ensure that gender concerns are reflected in reproductive health policies and services. El Salvador on the other hand developed a Family Law Code to streamline and clarify formerly ambiguous gender-related issues.

106. The incorporation of a gender perspective into population and development programmes has not been easy. One common problem has been the absence of a consensus on the best and most effective strategies to use to promote gender equality, equity and empowerment of women in different social, cultural and political contexts. This has slowed the integration of these concerns in sometimes vital planning and programming processes. Another difficulty has been posed by the lack of gender disaggregated data and research studies which use gender appropriate methodologies to evaluate the impact of strategies that are being used. Most available data are based on quantitative methodologies and statistical analyses of a few variables. Certain limitations thus arise in the extent to which such data and analyses can elucidate some of the emerging issues related to gender equality, equity and empowerment of women. Even in those countries where these problems are not severe, national action plans to integrate gender concerns in population and development programme have not always been allocated sufficient resources to implement them fully.

Changing the Environment

The Legal Context

107. The achievement of the ICPD Programme of Action goals demands the creation of an enabling environment as the basis for the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. The ICPD Programme of Action reiterated the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which enshrined women's rights within the context of the human rights doctrine, making clear that culture and history can no longer justify limitations on women's rights. This is because the treatment of women in criminal or family law codes reflects the way in which their role is conceptualized in many societies. In most instances, women embody a series of physiological, social or psychological conditions that make them "victims" to be protected. Throughout, the concept of women as subordinate is based on biological, social and economic definitions of women's experiences. Laws then formalize this perception. International mandates provide the necessary criteria by which norms can be transformed. As a result of these conferences, all countries now have an obligation to revise their legal systems in accordance with international mandates.

108. For the majority of countries, this has meant dismantling old laws that discriminate against women and girls and instituting large-scale legal reform. In this regard, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has been a useful reference instrument to broaden the notion of fundamental rights and to adapt national norms to international standards.

109. With 162 State parties and 97 signatories, CEDAW has been ratified by all but a few countries. Among those that have ratified it, several have still to implement it, and CEDAW remains one of the international conventions with the highest number of reservations. Some countries that have not ratified the Convention have cited religious grounds. Non-implementation is often hindered by reservations on certain clauses of the Convention as well as by traditional norms and values.

110. Many Latin American countries have made major progress in changing discriminatory laws or in enacting laws that protect women. The Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Sanction and Eradicate Violence Against Women, enacted in 1994 in the course of preparations for the ICPD, is an example of the application of gender analysis to the formulation of regional legislation to protect and respond to the needs of the female population. Its existence created additional impetus for individual countries to adopt similar legislation. Thus, Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama all enacted laws that make violence against women a serious crime. Violations of such laws are classified as torture. Honduras and other countries even created a Special Public Defender position for women and unprotected minors. Additional law reforms in Latin America include new labour laws eliminating discrimination in the labour market; reform of agricultural laws to improve women's access to land; and new educational laws to eliminate sexist language in pedagogical materials and to promote gender equality in access to educational opportunities.

111. In Asia, China, the Philippines and Viet Nam adopted specific legislative changes to protect women from sexual harassment and violence.

112. In Africa, the 14 countries that constitute the South African Development Community (SADC), namely Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have all pledged to enact laws against violence against women. Mauritius has already done so and followed the enactment with a mass information campaign. In Gabon, the Government is approving a law on the social protection of women, mothers and children. Zimbabwe put into effect an inheritance law that protects widows.

113. Despite the measures that have been taken, the legal environment for women is still far from satisfactory. Women in many countries continue to be suffer from the lack of legal protection for exercising, in particular, their sexual rights. Patriarchal perceptions of women's good behaviour, proper manners, honour, chastity and virtue are still evident in many laws. Where these have been successfully removed from legal texts they, nonetheless, often pervade the judicial mentality used to interpret them. One such example is the widespread failure by the judicial system to enforce the minimum age at marriage for girls, where it has been enacted, because cultural and social imperatives and, increasingly, economic factors, still favour early marriage for girls. Similarly, many countries have not recognized the concept of rape within marriage, despite the new dimension introduced by HIV/AIDS. This makes it very difficult for married women to negotiate the practice of safe sex with their partners and currently HIV transmission rates for married women are among the highest. Other legal impediments restrict women's access to essential health services on the basis of age, marital status, spousal consent requirements or other factors.

Women in Policy Positions and at Decision-making Levels

114. The underrepresentation of women in positions of power and decision-making means that their perspectives and visions are often excluded from population and development policies and strategies. A significant increase in the numbers of women taking an active role in decision-making, including participation in electoral politics, is, therefore, essential if they are to influence policies.

115. To address this problem, many countries have created or strengthened institutional mechanisms, such as women's ministries or women's bureaus, for women's equal participation in policy processes. Brazil, for instance, established the Women's Intersectoral Health Commission in the National Health Council at the Ministry of Health. It is a high-level organ whose aim is to involve women in planning, managing and monitoring reproductive health-care services. Among its functions is the monitoring of public health policies from a gender perspective.

116. In Asia, some countries have promoted women's participation in the planning, managing and monitoring of reproductive heath programmes. In Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Philippines and Thailand, Governments enhanced the participation of women by nominating them to high-level policy bodies, including review and oversight bodies at both the central government and regional levels. Some Caribbean countries have adopted similar strategies.

117. In the political arena, achievements have been mixed, with gains made in several countries, but ground lost in others. In general, the environment for political activities is still not conducive to women's participation. Women who want to enter politics find that the political, public, cultural and social environment is often unfriendly or even hostile to them. In many countries, traditions continue to emphasize, and often dictate, women's primary roles as mothers and housewives. This type of gender ideology serves to discourage women who wish to break out of their traditional sex-segregated motherhood roles and, often, to penalize those who do.

118. However, many countries have responded positively by taking strong measures to increase the number of women in electoral politics (Table 3.1). In Morocco, four women were appointed as Secretaries of State in 1997. In Ghana, the numbers of women in Parliament as well as those holding cabinet posts has increased. In Ecuador, the Government approved a law to promote the political participation of women by establishing an obligatory 20 per cent of representatives to be women in the popular election ballots for all legally recognized parties. In Costa Rica, reform of the electoral code established a quota for women, set at 40 per cent for all official election lists.

Table 3.1 Parliamentary seats held by women, 1 January 1997 (as percentage of total)

Africa, sub-Saharan


Arab States



East Asia


South Asia


Southeast Asia and the Pacific



Eastern Europe and CIS


Western and Southern Europe


Nordic Countries


Latin America and the Caribbean


North America


Source: United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1997.

119. Women's low socio-economic status also stands in the way of their entry into the higher levels of decision-making. Socio-economic obstacles include poverty and unemployment, inadequate financial resources, illiteracy, limited access to education, and the dual burden of domestic tasks and professional obligations. So in spite of the obvious advantages evident in broadening the scope of participation in politics and in public life through the adoption of democratic practices in many countries, women, by virtue of their reproductive roles, are still unable to reap the just rewards of democratization. Therefore, women still need to be empowered at family and community levels to have self-esteem and confidence to enter the political arena outside the home, while the society at large also needs to recognize that women's perspectives in politics are essential to sustainable development.

Strengthening Institutions

120. One of the major challenges emphasized in the ICPD Programme of Action is how to institutionalize and sustain change related to gender equality, equity and the empowerment of women. The process of institutionalization requires broad-based alliances that support the adoption of procedural and technical processes which ensure that social practices that promote gender equality become continual and fully sanctioned by prevailing norms. It also entails the creation of capacity among staff to undertake policy analysis from a gender perspective so as to clarify policy objectives, establish measurable goals and timetables and design appropriate operational tools.

121. For many countries, this has meant taking steps to assist organizations and institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, in using instruments and measures that are compatible with the goals of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The presence of such instruments, permeating all structures, pre-empts the tendency to treat issues pertaining to gender equality as peripheral to the organization's or institution's mandates.

122. Estonia, for example, took steps to establish a strong national machinery for promoting gender equality at all levels of government by creating an inter-ministerial committee and a Bureau of Equality. Indonesia and other countries developed gender-sensitization training materials to build capacity in gender analysis for cadres in various institutions.

Advocating a Rights-based Approach

123. The integration of a human rights approach is one of the fundamental goals of the ICPD Programme of Action and is necessary for the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women. The basis for a rights-based approach is the affirmation that human well-being and health are influenced by the way a person is valued, respected and given the choice to decide on the direction of her or his life without discrimination, coercion or neglect. Many countries have used CEDAW as a strategy to that effect. A number of countries have also begun to propose and to implement affirmative action programmes as interim measures to enable women to exercise rights that, hitherto, had been out of their reach.

124. Dialogue has also been established with the six human rights treaty bodies to find ways in which the treaty bodies can interpret and apply human rights standards to issues relating to women's health. Another purpose would be to encourage collaboration in the development of methodologies and indicators for use both by the treaty bodies and by United Nations agencies and other bodies to promote, implement and monitor women's rights, in particular, their reproductive and sexual rights.

Protecting the Girl Child

125. Considerable progress has been made in many countries in advocating for the protection of the girl child as a major step towards challenging practices that perpetuate the low status of women. Ghana, for instance, took steps to eliminate traditional and religious practices that jeopardize the reproductive and sexual health of the girl child. It enacted a law against FGM, which also criminalizes, inter alia, discriminatory widowhood rites and punitive actions, including their seclusion from society, against women suspected of practising witchcraft. In Burkina Faso, a law banning FGM went into effect in 1997, while in 1998 the President of Senegal banned the practice. In Eastern Uganda community based efforts to eradicate FGM have resulted in a decline of the practice of 36 percent.

126. With regard to education, a variety of interventions are being implemented to narrow gender gaps in educational attainment and to remove gender-based discrimination in educational systems. Cambodia created a Working Group in the Ministry of Education to address the issues of girls' enrolment and retention levels in school. In the United Republic of Tanzania, the Government established additional day classes for girls in secondary schools in communities where girls' secondary education was adversely affected. Many countries have also used curriculum reform processes to ensure that curricula became more gender-sensitive in both their content and in the images they presented.

Emphasizing Male Responsibility and Partnership

127. Although progress towards ensuring that men take equal responsibility for their own as well as their partners' reproductive and sexual health was slow initially, the gains since 1994 have been impressive. There is now clearly a more open dialogue about the manner in which various cultural practices perpetuate gender stereotyping and gender inequalities.

128. Some countries have tried to guarantee accountability among men by enacting laws that make it illegal not to acknowledge their responsibility regarding their offspring. Brazil, for instance, enacted a civil code reform that facilitates the identification of fatherhood through DNA tests. At the same time, changes to the Penal Code were proposed to increase penalties for men who have sex with girls under the age of 14.

129. The changing perspectives of men on a wide range of population and related issues are being documented, thus creating a basis for the development of appropriate interventions. Research on masculinity in different sociocultural settings is demonstrating that men's roles as custodians of ideology, knowledge and financial resources make them critical and potentially strong agents for change towards the goal of gender equality. Such research is also attempting to decipher why the social construction of male gender identities seems to predispose many of them towards violence against women, and how this can be deflected. Costa Rica, for example, has undertaken a national study on masculinity, sexuality and responsible fatherhood to investigate the attitudes of men, their sexual practices and their fatherhood roles.


130. Despite the achievements so far, much more remains to be done to address continuing gender inequalities that constrain the ability of women and girls to experience high standards of reproductive and sexual health. The persistence of traditional, religious and cultural attitudes and practices that subjugate women, such as FGM, also impacts negatively on the reproductive and sexual health of women and girls.

131. Some of the mechanisms for promoting gender equality within government structures have suffered from underfinancing in relation to their often huge tasks. Structurally, some bureaus have no access to high-level policy processes, which may hinder their efforts in gender mainstreaming. Although many government ministries or departments suffer generally from the lack of technically qualified staff, those tasked with the promotion of gender equality may be relatively more deprived because of the scarcity of personnel trained in the relevant techniques: gender and development is a fairly recent field of specialization in most academic institutions.

132. In addition, many new government structures have been given challenging terms of reference, with multiple tasks of policy and strategy development; technical support to operational departments; monitoring and functioning as watchdogs vis-à-vis gender equality and women's empowerment issues; and networking with women's organizations and the civil society. To perform their tasks adequately, many of the machineries established for women's participation still require strengthening in resource mobilization and technical capacity for monitoring and policy analysis. Their organizational structures and number of staff should also reflect their large mandates. Most important, measures should be established to ensure that these mechanisms are able to hold sectoral ministries accountable with regard to the promotion of gender equality, equity and empowerment of women.

133. Efforts to improve the education of the girl child are constrained at two levels. At the macrolevel, there is an overall scarcity of resources earmarked for the educational sector. This is sometimes compounded by weak political will to invest in the education of girls. At the microlevel, cultural attitudes still result in greater family investment in the education of boys as opposed to girls.

134. Finally, it is essential to note the increasing privatization of many social services in different countries of the world has often had a greater impact on women than on men. With regard to health, the declining role of the state is introducing inequities in access to health because of the increasing cost of private sector health provision. This means that it is the poor, a large proportion of whom are women, who are often shut off from access to health services. In this context, women are also shouldering more of the health burden accruing to families who can no longer afford hospitals, forcing the ill to be looked after at home, often by women. Another factor with gender implications is the globalization of the world economy, which has sometimes led to the incorporation of women into industrial work characterized by lower wages; poor working conditions, often marked by occupational hazards; and absence of workers' rights, including maternity leave and collective bargaining.

Further Action Required

135. Governments should develop multisectoral coordination and inter-disciplinary technical teams to systematically address gender, population and development issues at community and national levels.

136. Governments should promote zero-tolerance of gender-based violence through the enactment and enforcement of appropriate laws, the implementation of CEDAW and the undertaking of studies that demonstrate the multiple consequences of gender violence on the health of women and girls and its impact on public health expenditures.

137. Civil society, especially NGOs, should strengthen their advocacy efforts to increase and sustain broad-based political will for the promotion of gender equality. This can be accomplished through the creation of NGO coalitions and consortiums which pool their different expertise together.

138. Parliamentary groups should establish strong linkages with the civil society, especially the NGOs, to strengthen advocacy for the utilization of international instruments and conventions, such as CEDAW, to gauge progress towards gender equality at the national level.

139. Civil society, especially NGOs, should reinforce their IEC campaigns to create awareness in communities and among religious and other public opinion leaders about the negative impact of some prevailing traditional attitudes and practices on women's self-determination and their capacity to make decisions that affect their own lives and/or to participate in national decision-making. Equally, programmes that aim at eradicating harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, must be expanded and reinforced, building on the lessons learned from earlier successes and failures.

140. Governments should ensure that population and development programmes support and reinforce the positive roles that men play in reproductive and sexual health while safeguarding an enhanced position for women in society. Operational programmes should, therefore, incorporate strategies that enlist the support of men for the promotion of reproductive and sexual health and rights of their partners, while also enabling men themselves to take responsibility for their own reproductive and sexual behaviour.

141. Governments should reinforce their support for the protection of the health of the girl child, including increased investment in her education, life-skills development, and promotion of equal conditions of employment for both young women and men. These efforts should also include strategies and activities that encourage and enhance gender-sensitive socialization processes for boys at home as well as at all levels of both formal and informal education.

142. NGOs should reinforce advocacy for strengthening legal frameworks and policies to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls and to enforce them effectively. Mechanisms to monitor, document and redress human rights violations, especially with regard to vulnerable groups such as refugees, should be put in place.

143. Governments and civil society, especially NGOs, should strengthen collaboration and cooperation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. This can be achieved through the establishment of national mechanisms such as Commissions for Gender Equality with a mandate of comprehensive monitoring of progress towards the achievement of ICPD goals.

144. The private sector should establish mechanisms that monitor the institutionalization of gender equality norms and values, including elimination of sexual harassment and the active promotion of the empowerment of women, in accordance with international conventions and practices.

145. Governments, the United Nations and the donor community should support the development and wide availability and application of gender-disaggregated data and the development of appropriate indicators for monitoring progress towards gender equality. In particular, the gender-differentiated effects of globalization need to be well researched and understood so that appropriate measures can be put in place to safeguard inter alia women's health.

146. The United Nations, donors and the international community should support the provision and development of technical capacity at the national level to develop and institutionalize effective strategies for gender main streaming, through both North-South and South-South strategies.

147. Governments and the international community should allocate more resources for the implementation of comprehensive strategies which ensure that women's needs and concerns are well reflected in population and development policy and programming processes.

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