"Men must learn what gender equality means," says UNFPA during UNCSW conference

Liz Ford – WNN Improve It

Woman attending UNCSW
At the UN Global Headquarters in New York city a woman sits in the seats reserved for delegates glancing at the conference syllabus as she attends last year’s 57th UNCSW – United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Image: IWHC

(WNN/GNDV) New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Men must learn what gender equality means and stop trying to control women’s lives if future development goals are to have any real traction, the head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said on Monday.

Speaking at a side event at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UNFPA, said existing power structures are preventing women from exercising their rights, which will undermine the impact of the next set of sustainable development goals.

At an event organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Osotimehin said: “Why is it possible for men to have access to condoms without any question, but when it comes to providing contraception to women and girls, the whole world comes against you? It’s about power. Men want to determine what women do and tell them what to do and how to do it. That must stop. Men must learn to accept gender equality.”

He added that women’s rights and gender equality should not be separated. “Implicit in [achieving] gender equality is rights. Going forward, human rights must be the basis of the agenda.”

Opening the event, which discussed the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights to the development agenda after 2015, when the millennium development goals expire, Carmen Barroso, a regional director for IPPF, told a packed auditorium that if the vision of a world free of poverty and inequality was to be realised, securing women’s sexual and reproductive rights “is not only important in itself, but essential”.

“From decades of experience we know that women and adolescent girls who have control over their sexuality are healthier in childbirth. We know if they control their sexuality, they are more likely to complete education and improve the economy of themselves and their families,” she said.

Saraswathi Menon, director of policy at UN Women, added that the annual CSW meeting, which this year is assessing progress against the MDGs and discussing what should be included in a new set of goals, provided a “once in a generation chance to position women’s rights front and centre”.

She said the MDGs had ignored recommendations made at two key international summits – signed in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995 – that made explicit the importance of women having control over their own bodies for the wider goal of achieving sustainable development. Menon said the next set of goals must not be confined to reproductive health and childbirth.

An IPPF report, published on Monday as international leaders assembled in New York to review progress on women’s rights against the MDGs, outlined four key requests for the post-2015 goals. Chiming with calls from women’s rights activists, some world leaders and UN agencies, the IPPF is advocating a standalone goal on gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment. Its targets would include universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and an end to violence against women; universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as a target under any health goal; sexual and reproductive health and rights to be mainstreamed across all other goals; and all targets and goals to be disaggregated by age, sex, educational background, economic status, location and ethnic group. Strong accountability systems would underpin the goal, with sufficient money made available to achieve it.

The IPPF report also contains data that mapped countries’ progress on sexual and reproductive rights and health, including how they perform on equality legislation, contraceptive prevalence rates, access to abortion, female genital mutilation and child marriage. The data comes with the caveat that only 22 of the 42 indicators included have data for more than 50% of countries.

Sexual and reproductive rights are the most controversial area of any discussions about women’s rights. Campaigners opposed to them believe they can undermine marriage and traditional family roles as well as encouraging abortion and sex among young people. The last point has led to a push back on sex education in schools in some countries, which is something women’s rights activists want to see addressed.

A number of countries have tabled changes to the wording of this year’s CSW outcome document to reference women’s right to access safe abortion in cases of sexual violence, and acknowledge the high number of women who die each year from unsafe abortions. The document also notes the failure of the MDGs to mention discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, or experienced by sex workers.

These points are likely to be the subject of fierce debate – and, ultimately, trade off – as discussions continue over the next two weeks. Campaigners, often with a religious affiliation or from more conservative groups, have been lobbying governments to come out strongly against these issues.

At last year’s CSW, explicit mention of sex workers and sexual orientation was removed from the outcome document on violence against women and girls in order to get sign-off from member states.


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