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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2004: Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment
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Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment

Global Survey Results
Legal Progress
The ICPD and the MDGs
Challenges: Filling the Half-empty Glass

Legal Progress

Over the past 10 years, many countries have adopted new laws or amended legislation to advance gender equality, seeking to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on sex as well as to prevent genderbased violence and increase penalties for those who inflict it.

Among the countries adopting legislation to outlaw discrimination based on sex are Malta, Mauritius (this legislation also ensures equal rights for women regardless of their pregnancy or marital status) and Mexico. Colombia and Slovenia enacted laws to promote equal opportunities for women with men, and a decree in Costa Rica calls for improvements in the living conditions and opportunities of poor women.

Djibouti passed legislation adopting a National Strategy for the Improvement of Women in Development and a National Action Plan, which states that all policies and laws will be evaluated based on their impacts on the integration of gender into development. The law also details activities the Government will take to promote reproductive health and equal education for women, and to improve women’s participation in decision-making (in the public sphere and the family) and in economic development. The Republic of Korea passed a law establishing a Commission on Gender Equality to manage policies on gender.

A number of constitutions, newly drafted or amended, contain strong provisions on gender equality. For example, Bahrain’s 2002 constitution, while noting the Shari’a is the principal source for laws, affirms the equality of women and men in politics and in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Cuba’s 2002 constitution affirms that spouses are equal in rights and duties. Timor-Leste’s post-independence constitution affirms equal rights for women and men in marriage and the family and within social, economic and political life.

Rwanda’s 2003 constitution also guarantees equal rights of spouses in marriage and divorce, outlaws discrimination based on sex, and establishes a National Human Rights Commission and a National Council of Women. It also guarantees the right of women and men to vote and run for office, calls for equal pay for equal work and establishes the right to education. In 2002, Togo amended its constitution to ensure gender equality before the law and in labour relations.

Poland has established a Plenipotentiary for the Equal Status of Women, located in the Prime Minister’s office, to analyse women’s legal and social status and promote equity through laws and policies.(6)

In 2000, in Azerbaijan, a presidential decree instructed the Government to ensure women and men are represented equally in the state administration and have equal opportunities under ongoing reforms. Government institutions were also directed to appoint a gender focal point in each district office.(7)

GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE. Addressing domestic and sexual violence directed against women is another priority for many governments’ legislative action.(8) In Bangladesh, new laws make violence against women a punishable offence, and codes of conduct address sexual harassment in the workplace. Belgium, Peru and Yugoslavia have amended laws to define sexual harassment and make it a crime for which victims can sue and seek restitution.

Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay, among others, have passed laws increasing penalties for gender-based violence. In Brazil, a 2003 law established a national, cost-free telephone hotline operated by specially trained staff for women to report domestic abuse.

Human trafficking has also been the subject of legal changes. Many countries enacted laws to combat trafficking of women and girls and many ratified international treaties.(9) The Democratic Republic of the Congo outlawed trafficking in children in its 2002 labour code.

While most governments say they recognize the importance of promoting gender equity and women’s empowerment, many find it difficult to work directly with women at the community level. Accordingly, in countries such as Jamaica, Malaysia and Mozambique, women’s NGOs are implementing such programmes. NGOs are often more effective in working with victims of gender-based violence, since they are perceived as being more sympathetic and are more likely to be trusted.

NGOs are also training police officers, judges and others in how to deal with victims of gender-based violence when they seek help. In Ethiopia, for example, the Association of Women’s Lawyers is working against domestic violence and sexual abuse. Ethiopia’s National Council on Traditional Practices and other NGOs are actively working to eradicate harmful traditional practices like female genital cutting. In the Philippines, NGOs have established women’s crisis centres for victims of domestic violence.

Jamaican NGOs including the Association of Women’s Organizations in Jamaica, Fathers’ Incorporated and the Bureau of Women’s Affairs collaborated between 1999 and 2002 to increase public awareness of gender-based violence. They worked to increase media coverage of the issue, and to educate police, the judiciary, and health and legal professionals about the importance of a strong response to violence against women and of support systems for victims.

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS. During the past decade, NGOs in many countries have become increasingly involved in monitoring reproductive rights and using the reporting procedures for international human rights instruments that their governments have ratified. Many submit “shadow reports” to complement those submitted by the government and attend sessions of the relevant monitoring committee when the report of their country is being examined.

In some countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria, human rights commissions can play an important role in ensuring that reproductive rights are observed and can provide redress in cases of violations. Other countries have ombudsmen or other mechanisms that civil society groups can use.

MALE INVOLVEMENT. NGOs are recognized as often being more effective than government agencies in encouraging men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour and their social and family roles. In Cambodia, for example, Men against Violence against Women actively participated with women’s and other NGOs in a 16-day campaign on gender-based violence.

In the Philippines, NGOs are actively promoting male support for women’s empowerment and rights with respect to reproductive health. And the Women’s Centre of the Jamaica Foundation counsels young male parents and trains male peer educators through its programme, Young Men at Risk.

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