Q&A: 'We Can't Continue to Pay Lip Service to Gender Equality'

  • Thalif Deen interviews UNFPA Executive Director THORAYA OBAID (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

'A key success is the extent to which gender equality has been recognized and established as a pivotal development issue,' says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

She points out that gender equality has been a significant component not only of the Beijing Platform, but also of the 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the General Assembly in 2000.

All of these - along with the fact that the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is close to universal ratification - are accomplishments that call for celebration, she added.

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Obaid said the international community should invest adequate human and financial resources to the fight against gender inequality, violence against women and maternal death and disability.

'We cannot continue to pay lip service to gender equality; we have to move from putting it on paper and to really putting it into practice,' she said.

She said world leaders should not just say they are committed, but must prove their commitment with tangible allocations of budgets and people.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: From the UNFPA perspective, what are your expectations of the two-week session of the CSW, the global policy making body dedicated to gender equality? A: My primary expectation is that member states and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will generate stimulating and challenging analysis of progress made in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action.

The complete set of recommendations from Beijing remains extremely relevant to the U.N. System, to the MDGs and to the ICPD agenda - which UNFPA helps address - and I look forward to discussions on how we can bring those key outcomes closer together.

For example, all the commitments on women's rights, women's empowerment and poverty reduction are common to both mandates and reinforce each other. So, we should build on our successful experiences of working with countries and communities to make these issues relevant and make solutions and actual implementation locally owned and sustainable. I also look forward to hearing more about what partners are doing to ground their work at the local level and to ensure that women's rights are enshrined not only in laws, but are also implemented at community levels, where most violations occur.

Q: What are the successes and failures of the Beijing Platform for Action? How much of it was implemented and how much remains to be implemented - particularly in relation to reproductive rights? A: A key success is the extent to which gender equality is being increasingly recognised as integral to all development, humanitarian and emerging issues, from climate change to the financial crisis.

These international commitments have made it possible to increase the gender responsiveness of legislatures in many countries and facilitated a significant body of human rights instruments that promote and protect women's rights.

Q: Are there any 'lessons learned' in gender empowerment? A: I also hope to witness a great deal of South-South exchange that is rich and immediately relevant. While there are successes, the ultimate end result for which we all striving - implementation of all the laws and programmes that lead to gender equality - has so far been elusive. I look forward to sharing success stories and evidence about how we can bring true gender equality closer to reality.

Q: Has gender empowerment been perceived as a challenge? A: We all realise that achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women is a challenge for all of society - men and women. It is not just a women-specific issue, but a concern for society as a whole. When women are empowered, when they do not suffer violence, when they can deliver their babies without dying or becoming disabled, when they can be educated and when they can earn incomes - all of these are good not only for women, they are just as good for men.

Q: Is there a role for men in the quest for gender empowerment? A: When men and women have a respectful relationship in which they recognise each other as equal partners, men will benefit as much as women. So, a lesson we have learned is that we cannot achieve gender equality without engaging many actors in the society.

We are learning to engage and involve new partners to identify and work on common interests and goals. We at UNFPA have been working on this.

For example, in Azerbaijan, UNFPA conducted a study on gender equality by comparing CEDAW with some widely recognised Islamic references and books. The result showed the parallels between CEDAW and many aspects of Islam, even though we recognise that there are differences as well.

Issues of common concern in both were showcased, including violence against women, child marriage, respect for the dignity of women, and equality in the economic and political participation of women. These findings were then used to produce training materials to sensitise religious leaders.

Q: What challenges do women still face? A: The main challenge is the need to bring about consistent, widespread and sustainable realisation of gender equality where it counts - on the ground, in the lives of women and yes, of men as well, and in their communities. Gender equality is about both women and men.

During this CSW session, I urge delegates to determine how they can support localised approaches that facilitate ownership of human rights and gender equality by those who are seen as the gatekeepers of social structures, systems and institutions and also by new community facilitators of change.

New alliances need to be built with a common understanding that part of the process of change is contesting existing practices and reaching for common understanding of the relevant human rights principles. This requires negotiations and discussions within communities, with women and men participating.

Another challenge is to seek ways to pass the torch to the younger generation, so that young women and men may take up the fight against gender inequality in their own way. This may differ from my generation's way, for instance, because young people live in a new century with its own dynamics and they also have their own ways of bringing about change.

We should look at how well we, in the older generation, have done at mentoring young women and men and facilitating the necessary space for them to take centre stage, take the microphone and really tell us what they feel and think about these issues and how we can all tackle them.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service