Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment
The 1990s was an outstanding decade for bringing
issues of reproductive health and rights, violence
against women, and male responsibility for gender
power relations to the centre of global and national
debates on human rights and human development.
The UN conferences of the 1990s, particularly the
World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993),
the ICPD (Cairo, 1994) and the Fourth World
Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), were central
to a major paradigm shift in population policy.
In Cairo, the world’s governments reached a consensus
that affirmed their commitment to promote
and protect the full enjoyment of human rights by all
women throughout their life cycle. They also agreed
to take action to accord more power to women and
to equalize their relationships with men, in laws,
economic systems and within the household.
|ACTIONS TO EMPOWER WOMEN|
Countries should act to empower women and should take steps to eliminate inequalities between men and
women . . . by: . . . eliminating all practices that discriminate against women; assisting women to establish and realize their rights, including those that relate to reproductive and sexual health; . . . eliminating violence against women; . . . eliminating discriminatory practices by employers against women such as those based on proof of contraceptive use or pregnancy status; . . . [and] making it possible through laws, regulations and other appropriate measures, for women to combine the roles of child-bearing, breastfeeding, and child rearing with participation in the workforce.
|—from the ICPD Programme of Action, para. 4.4.
The ICPD Programme of Action included, for the
first time in a major international population policy
document, a full and detailed chapter (Chapter IV) on women’s empowerment and gender equality. In part,
it stated that: “. . . improving the status of women
also enhances their decision-making capacity at all
levels in all spheres of life, especially in the area of
sexuality and reproduction”.
Gender equality and women’s empowerment were
at the heart of the ICPD vision. The Programme of
Action’s sexual and reproductive health and reproductive
rights goals are strongly linked to, and mutually
reinforcing of, its goals for women’s empowerment
and gender equality. The ICPD made a major new
commitment in its objective “. . . to promote gender
equality in all spheres of life, including family and
community life, and to encourage and enable men
to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive
behaviour and their social and family roles” (para. 4.25).
The ICPD also called on countries to “take full
measures” to eliminate exploitation, abuse, harassment
and violence against women, adolescents and
children (para. 4.9). And it called for men to take shared responsibility for parenting, valuing children
of both sexes equally, educating them and preventing
violence against them. It also urged actions to ensure
that men actively participate with women in responsible
behaviour in sexual and reproductive matters
In various countries, the paradigm shift of the
ICPD also helped catalyse important changes in the
approach of the UN system at the country level. For
instance, in India, the ICPD approach has strong
synergy with the UN Development Assistance Framework
(UNDAF), which prioritizes gender equality and
decentralization as crosscutting themes for all UN
system assistance to India. The framework’s main
objectives in promoting gender equality are to enhance
women’s decision-making capability, to promote equal
opportunity and to support policy change.
In India, the collaborative actions identified to
promote gender equality are:
- Development of a gender policy analysis framework;
- Support for a comprehensive gender-disaggregated
- Support to promote gender equality;
- Assistance in developing gender-sensitive state plans;
- Promotion of inter-agency action research on gender.
In 2003, the Office of India’s Registrar-General
and Census Commissioner, the Ministry of Health and
Family Welfare, and UNFPA drew attention to the
problem of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide,
and the resulting decline in the number of
girls relative to boys, publishing a booklet entitled,
Missing: Mapping the Adverse Child Sex Ratio in India.
In its 1999 review of ICPD implementation, the
UN General Assembly called for redoubled action to
redress gender inequalities, including the elimination
of harmful practices, attitudes and discrimination
against women and girls. Zero tolerance among the
public was urged for son preference, unequal care for
or valuing of girl children, and all forms of violence directed against women—including female genital
cutting, rape, incest, sexual violence and trafficking.
Governments were encouraged to adopt legal changes,
as well as encourage changes in the social, cultural
and economic spheres.(1)
Significant progress has been made in implementing
these goals in the ten years since ICPD, but this progress
has been uneven and still faces many challenges.
UNFPA’s 2003 global survey of national progress presents
a mixed picture.(2) A number of countries have
introduced laws and policies, but less has been done
to translate these into programmes, implementation
Nonetheless, important steps have been taken.
For instance, in Mexico, the Women’s Health
Programme under the Secretary of Health has been
training health sector employees to promote gender
equity in their specific areas. Indonesia is implementing
the President’s Instructions on Gender
Mainstreaming in National Development through
regional and provincial development management
teams that include government staff, local NGOs and
researchers. Iran has established special centres for
women police to provide services to women victims
of violence, and prevention and counselling services
including telephone hotlines.
In India, despite the continuing gender disparity
in education, gender gaps in literacy appear to be
diminishing in some of the states that traditionally
have had the most serious problems, according to the
2001 Population Census. Innovative attempts are being
made, as in the state of Haryana, to increase girls’
school attendance by providing escorts to reduce
families’ concern about threats to their security. In
Mexico, the National Population Council has initiated
a major attempt to expand the scope of data collection
on a broad range of issues related to sexual and reproductive
NGOs, too, have undertaken a range of programmes
to make real the ICPD’s promise of gender
equity and equality. In Calabar, Nigeria, for example,
the Girls’ Power Initiative mobilizes and empowers
girls to take charge of their lives by opposing violence
and demanding their rights. A corresponding programme for boys trains them to become more gendersensitive
and supportive young men.
ADDRESSING INEQUALITY IN HEALTH PROGRAMMES.
Many programmes to reduce unintended pregnancy
work in settings where women have little autonomy
and tend not to be assertive in their relationships
with husbands or health care providers.
Interventions such as the Better Life Options programme
for young women in India,(3) the Programme
for Adolescent Mothers in Jamaica(4) and the Training
of Trainers in Health and Empowerment in Mexico(5)
aim to strengthen women’s practical skills in longterm
thinking, problem-solving and decision-making,
and to persuade them that they are capable of making
important decisions about their lives and health.
Some successful programmes educate women about
reproductive and human rights; others offer training
in literacy, employment skills, legal rights, parenting,
child health, and social mobilization.