‘Culture an ally for achieving gender equality’, says Director-General of UNESCO in New York
A high-level breakfast in the margins of the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York, gave delegations from around the world the chance to debate the rich and complex relationship between culture, gender, and human rights.
Organized by UNESCO and co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Peru to the United Nations, the event drew inspiration from the ground-breaking 2014 UNESCO report “Gender Equality, Heritage and Creativity”, which explored the challenges and opportunities for gender equality in cultural life.
Panelists from leading international organizations, NGOs and universities joined UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova and moderator Jennifer Clement – the first female president of PEN International - to debate and discuss strategies for strengthening the ties between culture, and women’s empowerment and sustainable development – the priority theme this year’s Commission on the Status of Women.
In her opening remarks, Irina Bokova noted that: “Culture must be seen as an ally for achieving gender equality, holding a range of solutions to change social norms and tackle discrimination… As Governments join efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda, we must be clear -- gender equality is the ultimate game changer, and a vast untapped potential, for more inclusive and just sustainable development. No society can flourish with only half of its creative talent, with half of its intelligence.”
This was echoed by Ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Peru to the United Nations and Chairman of the Group of Friends of Culture and Development, who underlined that “the way cultures are transmitted is essentially through the mother and we need to make the linkages between culture and gender for sustainable development.”
Ambassador Young-ju Oh, Deputy Permanent Representative of Republic of Korea to the United Nations observed that “inequality and discrimination against women exist everywhere; women are denied equal access to cultural rights.” She highlighted that “achieving gender equality is not only a goal, but a precondition for inclusive societies.”
Farida Shaheed, former Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights and Executive Director of Shirkat Gah, spoke of the need for a paradigm shift away “from viewing culture as an obstacle to women’s rights, to one of ensuring women’s equal enjoyment of cultural rights.” In response, Tarcila Rivera Zea, Executive Director of the Centro de Culturas Indígenas del Perú (CHIRAPAQ), drew upon her own experience as a lifelong advocate for indigenous rights. She said: “In indigenous cultures women are the basis and the continuity of culture, but men are always there at the principle table and we are in the kitchen. Why are we not at the principle table? We believe in innovation of our practice.”
Ambassador Dho Young-shim, Goodwill Ambassador of the Sustainable Development Advocacy Group gave an impressive account of the evolution of women’s roles in the Democratic Republic Korea and presented a concrete women’s empowerment project in African countries. She insisted: “I would like to see more women seize economic opportunities.”
Then, Janet Blake, Professor at Shahid Beneshti University in Teheran, spoke of the ways in which intangible cultural heritage is gendered and contributes to the creation, negotiation and transmission of gender roles and norms at the community level. She emphasized that “as cultures can change, so gender roles can change and thereby overcome discrimination.”
John Scott, from the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, spoke about the challenges of mainstreaming gender in the safeguarding of natural heritage. He illustrated how traditional knowledge on biodiversity is gendered and concluded: “Participation in strategy development is important, but it has to be appropriate to ensure that all voices are heard.”
Barriers to women’s participation in the creative sector were eloquently presented by Yarri Kamara, who wrote about the challenges facing African women entrepreneurs in the performing arts sector and designer fashion sectors in the UNESCO report. She explained how the obstacles to equal participation vary from subsector to subsector and region to region: “While stigma may be the strongest hurdle to participation in the arts in Africa, and a double work day may hold back women from working in the performing arts, the issue in Europe is inequality in decision-making positions.”
In the discussion with the diplomatic community and the UN agencies Thailand noted the potential of traditional crafts for income-generation for women and India illustrated how dances, traditionally only practiced by men, today also include women. OECD highlighted that discussions on cultural rights and gender should be continued in the context of attaining the fifth Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality with UNESCO’s support.
The Director-General in her closing remarks emphasized that “something new is emerging on debates on cultural rights, heritage and women’s empowerment. The creative sector is fostering income generation for women and cultural industries are one of the fastest growing industries. The legal instruments in the field culture, heritage and creativity exist and they have an impact on women’s empowerment. “I am asking everyone to invest in this potential of culture for gender equality and sustainable development. UNESCO is ready to lead the process.”
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