Press Release

12 November 2008

New Report Shows Cultural Sensitivity Critical to Successful Development Strategies, Women's Equality

UNITED NATIONS, New York—Development strategies that are sensitive to cultural values can reduce harmful practices against women and promote human rights, including gender equality and women’s empowerment, affirms The State of World Population 2008 report from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, launched 12 November 2008, reports that culture is a central component of successful development of poor countries, and must be integrated into development policy and programming.

The report, which coincides with this year’s 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is based on the concept that the international human rights framework has universal validity. Human rights express values common to all cultures and protect groups as well as individuals. The report endorses culturally sensitive approaches to development and to the promotion of human rights, in general, and women’s rights, in particular.

“Human rights are everybody’s work, and being culturally sensitive and understanding the context is everybody’s business,” said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA.

Culturally sensitive approaches call for cultural fluency—familiarity with how cultures work, and how to work with them. The report suggests that partnerships—between UNFPA and community-based institutions and leaders, for example—can create effective strategies to promote human rights and end their abuses, such as female genital mutilation or cutting.

Culturally sensitive approaches seek out creative solutions produced within cultures, and work with them. “Communities have to look at their cultural values and practices and determine whether they impede or promote the realization of human rights. Then, they can build on the positive and change the negative,” said Ms. Obaid.

The State of World Population cautions that cultural sensitivity and engagement do not mean acceptance of harmful traditional practices, or a free pass for human rights abuses – far from it. Values and practices that infringe human rights can be found in all cultures. Understanding cultural realities can reveal the most effective ways to challenge these harmful cultural practices and strengthen beneficial ones.

Despite many declarations and affirmations in support of women’s rights, the report argues, gender inequality is widespread and deep-rooted in many cultures. Coercive power relations underlie practices such as child marriage—a leading cause of obstetric fistula and maternal death—and female genital mutilation or cutting. These and other harmful practices continue in many countries despite laws against them. Women may even support them, believing that they protect their children and themselves.

The UNFPA approach encourages change from within, says the report. The Fund works with governments and a variety of local organizations and individuals through a “culture lens”. “There are people within every culture who oppose harmful cultural practices. Our experience shows that we can work closely with them for cultural change to protect human rights,” said Ms. Obaid.

The report emphasises the importance of a culturally sensitive approach not only to development, but also to humanitarian response. It stresses that humanitarian assistance in conflicts must protect whatever progress women have made towards gender equality, including reproductive health and rights. Describing women as victims and men as aggressors ignores cultural realities and the variety of responsibilities that women take in wartime as heads of household, breadwinners, caregivers and combatants.

Culturally sensitive approaches are essential for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, says the report, including Goal 5: to improve maternal health. “To be healthy throughout the life cycle – before pregnancy, during pregnancy and after pregnancy – is a human right,” said Ms. Obaid.

The report concludes that analysing people’s choices in their local conditions and cultural contexts is a precondition for better development policies.

“Cultures change, for better or worse, in good times and bad. The report is about promoting human rights in all circumstances,” said Ms. Obaid. “Culture is not a wall to tear down. It is a window to see through, a door to open to make greater progress for human rights.”