Feature story

Gender equality key to development, says UNICEF report

11 December 2006

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Photo credit : UNICEF/S.Noorani

The State of the World’s Children 2007 report published on 11 December by UNAIDS Cosponsor UNICEF underlines that empowering women is pivotal to the health and development of families, communities and nations.

The report emphasizes the fact that gender inequality and the low status of women in society are two of the principal drivers of HIV. Latest data show that women now make up 48% of all people living with HIV, and the proportion of women infected with HIV is increasing in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected by AIDS, 60% of all adults and three out of four young people living with the virus are female.

“When women are empowered to lead full and productive lives, children and families prosper,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.

Despite progress in women’s status in recent decades, the lives of millions of girls and women are overshadowed by discrimination, disempowerment and poverty. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by AIDS and women in most places earn less than men for equal work. Millions of women throughout the world are subject to physical and sexual violence, with little recourse to justice. As a result of discrimination, girls are less likely to attend school; nearly one out of every five girls who enroll in primary school in developing countries does not complete a primary education. Education levels among women, says the report, correlate with improved outcomes for child survival and development.

“If we care about the health and well-being of children today and into the future, we must work now to ensure that women and girls have equal opportunities to be educated, to participate in government, to achieve economic self-sufficiency and to be protected from violence and discrimination,” Veneman said.

The AIDS epidemic illustrates all too vividly how much needs to be done to overcome the social, cultural and economic factors that put women at risk of HIV and that unduly burden them with the epidemic’s consequences.

“Governments have made repeated commitments to improve the status of women and acknowledged the linkage with HIV,” said Sarah Russell of the UNAIDS-led Global Coalition on Women and AIDS. “In some areas, they have made progress. But by and large, efforts have been small-scale and haphazard. There is an urgent need for more systematic approaches.”

The State of the World’s Children shows how promoting gender equality and empowering women – Millennium Development Goal number 3 – will propel all of the other goals, from reducing poverty and hunger to saving children’s lives, improving maternal health, ensuring universal education, combating AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

“UNICEF’s new report calls for seven key interventions to empower women,” noted Russell.

A roadmap to gender equality

  • Education : Key actions include abolishing school fees and encouraging parents and communities to invest in girls’ education.
  • Financing : Little recognition has been given to the resources needed to meet the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Investment to eliminate gender discrimination must be integrated into government budgets and plans.
  • Legislation : National legislation in property law and inheritance rights should ensure a level playing field for women, alongside measures to prevent and respond to domestic violence and gender-based violence in conflict.
  • Legislative quotas : Quotas are a proven method of ensuring women’s participation in politics. Of the 20 countries with the most women in parliament, 17 use some form of quota system.
  • Women empowering women : Grassroots women’s movements have been vocal champions for equality and empowerment and should be involved in the early stages of policy formation so that programmes are designed with the needs of women and children in mind.
  • Engaging men and boys : Educating men and boys, as well as women and girls, on the benefits of gender equality and joint decision-making can help nurture more cooperative relationships.
  • Improved research and data : Better data and analysis are critical, especially on maternal mortality, violence against women, education, employment, wages, unpaid work and time use, and participation in politics.

“Immediate and sustained action on all seven tracks will be critical if the world is to make meaningful progress towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support,” she added.