Addressing Culture, Gender and Human Rights to Achieve the MDGs

1 July 2010
Author: UNFPA

Good afternoon. I am so pleased to be on this panel with such strong leaders and I thank all of you for coming.

Distinguished Delegates,
Colleagues and friends,

As my friend and colleague UNDP Administrator Helen Clark has just stated, and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has underlined, human rights are not only at the very heart of the Millennium Development Goals; human rights are at the heart of all development in all sectors. Together we need to keep human rights beating strong if we want to achieve the MDGs and keep the promise of 2015.

I thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for organizing this important ECOSOC panel discussion. My colleagues and I at UNFPA are gratified that the UN Human Rights Council last year adopted a landmark resolution on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity as a human rights issue. The health of women is certainly an issue of equity and human rights and it is an indicator of a just society.

Today in this panel, I would like to make three key points:

First. As we work to achieve development goals, I strongly believe that we need to address human rights, gender and culture together to make greater progress;

Second. We need to pay more attention to the right to sexual and reproductive health, which is central to advancing women’s empowerment, improving maternal health, and achieving all of the Millennium Development Goals, and we need to keep the promise of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.

Third. We need to focus on priorities, political will and partnerships as we count down to 2015.

Let me start with my first point on addressing culture, gender and human rights together to make greater progress.

I have devoted my entire career to social development and the empowerment of women. I would like to see a world where all women can enjoy their human rights and equal opportunities and play their full and equal role in society and building a better future for all of us.

Based on my own experiences and insights, and also on the experience of UNFPA and our 110 country offices, I believe that a human rights-based approach that integrates gender responsiveness, and cultural knowledge and understanding of the context, is the most effective and sustainable way to achieve the MDGs. We have institutionalized this approach within UNFPA to make greater progress as we move forward.

This approach reinforces legislative changes because laws are absolutely necessary to protect human rights. But we have also seen that while laws are critical, they are not always sufficient to bring about the necessary behavioural change in people and communities. People need to build a culture of human rights within their families, workplaces, communities, places of worship, and within their societies. Building this culture of human rights requires that the rights are not only articulated verbally but demonstrated in action, through change in relationships between women and men and between generations, a change that brings about solidarity in a new way of sharing decisions in the families and communities. So we need to address gender, culture and human rights together and work from the top down, bottom up and across all segments of society to foster positive change for women that is lasting and owned by the communities and countries themselves.

I firmly believe that change cannot be imposed from the outside, to be lasting change must come from within, led by the women and men, old and young, in their own communities. This culture, gender, human rights approach promotes listening, and community dialogue. It is a dialogue among the communities themselves to identify harmful practices that violate the rights of girls and women and agree on action to change.

This is particularly important in the area of women’s health and rights as we address issues such as child marriage, and also prenatal sex selection that has led to tens of millions of girls missing from society. This approach is important as we address violence against girls and women, female genital mutilation/cutting, and maternal mortality and morbidity.

Now to my second point. We need to pay more attention to the right to sexual and reproductive health.

I say this because reproductive health and rights are absolutely fundamental to women’s empowerment and gender equality. If a woman can make decisions about the number and spacing of her children, if she can make reproductive decisions without coercion, violence or discrimination, then she can enjoy broader opportunities for education and decent work and she can improve the quality of her own life and contribute more fully to her family, community, society and our collective future.

Of course, we know that women stand a better chance of enjoying their right to sexual and reproductive health if active steps have been simultaneously taken to protect the full range of their human rights as adopted by you member States in the various agreements, conventions, treaties, and programmes of actions.

Today women constitute the majority of the poor and illiterate and their human rights are violated on a massive scale. An imbalance in relations between women and men impedes women’s attainment of healthy and fulfilling lives and this operates on many levels, from the most personal to the highly public. Achieving change requires legal, policy and programme actions that will improve women’s access to livelihoods and economic resources, alleviate their extreme responsibilities with regard to housework, remove legal and social barriers to their participation in public life, and raise social awareness and mobilization about equality between men and women.

We also know that women are facing disproportionate consequences of climate change and must be part of decision-making to find solutions for mitigation and adaptation. After all, it is often the resilience of women that allows families and communities to survive despite hardships caused by natural or man-made disasters and crises.

And we know that education is one of the most important means of empowering girls and women. And here I would like to make an important point. While we have made progress in primary education for girls, we also need to push more vigorously for secondary education, which brings tremendous benefits to girls in terms of skills and knowledge and enjoying broader life options. Investing in adolescents girls is a priority that will benefit current and future generations.

We also know that if every woman had access to reproductive health services, such as family planning and pregnancy related care, preventable maternal death and disability such as fistula would not be as common as they are today in many countries and communities. They would be rare. It makes sense to work towards integrated health services that meet women’s needs throughout their lifecycle and for this there is growing momentum.

I welcome the growing movement for women’s health and rights, and the commitments made at the recent G8 Summit in Canada, and the Secretary-General’s Joint Action Plan to improve the health of women and children. We know that partnerships guided by human rights are the way forward.

And this brings me to my third point: In the countdown to 2015, we need to focus on priorities, political will and partnership.

We are making progress, and we can make much more if we care, share and dare to make the health and rights of women and girls a priority and continue to build broad- based partnerships and political will around this priority.

This means taking forward the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Platform for Action of the Beijing Women’s Conference, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Around the world, these visionary agreements are being used by women to demand their rights and governments are responding by investing in achieving their goals. And my colleagues and I at UNFPA will continue to champion women’s rights as human rights.

Thank you.

Related content

How is menstruation related to human rights? When does menstruation start? What are common myths and taboos about menstruation? What is period poverty?
A new report by UNFPA offers, for the first time, a global view of women’s decision-making power over their own bodies. The findings are dismaying.
This handout offers key messages to the ENGAGE multimedia presentation on policy changes and investments needed to realize the sexual and reproductive rights of persons with disabilities.