Gender equality: the missing link in the development and peace equation
UNESCO and the Hellenic National Commission for UNESCO co-organized a UNESCO Future Forum on the theme “Gender Equality: The Missing Link? Rethinking the Internationally agreed Development Goals beyond 2015” scheduled from 9 to 11 September 2010 in Athens, Greece.
This high-level meeting took place a few days before Heads of States and Governments gather in New York for the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations to review the progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In this global agenda, the international community committed itself to take specific time-bound action on such issues as gender equality, poverty, hunger, illiteracy and HIV/AIDS by 2015.
At the opening of the Forum, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, stated that governments and communities must fully realize that “It is increasingly clear that a cross-cutting approach to gender equality is essential not only to the realization of women’s rights, but to the achievement of the wider goals of development and peace. [...] We need to rethink internationally agreed development goals in terms of the missing link of gender equality with a view to ensuring that women’s rights and potential are woven into the social and cultural fabric of all nations. All the development goals reinforce each other, but none can be reached without empowering girls and women with the capabilities and confidence they need to live in freedom and dignity.”
The opening ceremony took place on the archaeological site of Pnyka, a venue of high historic significance. It is the location where the citizens of Athens convened to take decisions – without women – and so the message of this Forum was that democracy must be uniquely based on equality.
A large number of eminent personalities and prominent women leaders in their respective fields took part in the opening, in addition to the Director-General of UNESCO, the Greek Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, Georgios Nikitiadis, and the President of the Hellenic Commission for UNESCO. The speakers included Eleonora Mitrofanova, Chairperson of UNESCO’s Executive Board, Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Tatiana Koke, Minister of Education and Science of Latvia, Bibiana Aido Almagro, Minister of Equality of Spain, Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, Minister of State for Family and Population Affairs of Egypt, Emma Bonino, Vice-President of the Italian Senate, Carol Bellamy, former Executive Director of UNICEF and Nafis Sadik, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS and former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Against the background of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, and the six Education For All Goals objectives, this exceptional group of women leaders had a simple message to deliver for the future: after years, decades even, of proclaiming that women and men are equal, it is more urgent now than ever to move gender equality to the centre of the global peace and development agenda and start taking effective action so as to close the missing link between political declarations and concrete action. They offered a few directions.
Share power and cooperate. Peace and development cannot be achieved without systematically involving women and integrating gender equality perspectives in key political, economical and societal policy decision. Eleonora Mitrofanova was adamant about this: despite incremental progress, “Women still do not have the same access to political and national institutions.” Women and men must cooperate to achieve this, especially men in power positions, who must accept to allow real access to women.
Girls’ and women’s education, a smart investment. Society at large has much to gain from women’s and girls’ education. Yet, women represent two thirds of the 796 million illiterates recorded by UNESCO throughout the world. Education and gender equality should be fully recognized as mutually reinforcing catalysts of development: “the MDGs cannot be realized,” Irina Bokova said, “unless girls and women have the knowledge and the skills that education provides to better their lives and that of their families and communities.”
Gender equality is an objective in and of itself but it is also a strategy to achieve all Internationally Agreed Development Goals. When the MDGs were proclaimed, only two of them explicitly mentioned women’s rights and empowerment as an objective. But as women are the disadvantaged half of humanity, addressing their well-being and equality will automatically give a boost to the realization of the development objectives. We need to systematically refine our policy tools to better integrate the gender perspective in every aspect of development.
Address women’s reproductive and sexual health. When the major development agendas were set, the international community shied away from acknowledging the fundamental importance of reproductive and sexual health as a critical element to enable women to better control their lives. But there can be no sustainable achievement of the MDGs if such practices as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are not vigorously combated and banned or if women cannot be educated about the risks they face concerning HIV/AIDS. Women and men together must have the courage to make reproductive and sexual health a key component of development.
Culture is a driving force for development. As gender equality forces us to address such practices and behaviours that are often deeply ingrained in traditional values and practices, we cannot rely on formal political frameworks only. The cultural dimensions of development must be fully acknowledged if the international community is to address gender equality to its full extent.
All those directions point to one goal: place gender equality and women’s empowerment at the core of development. In the words of the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, “through education, information and awareness-raising, we must change attitudes and behaviour, and end discriminatory practices, in every country, in every family, in every culture and in every situation.”
The participants in the UNESCO Future Forum all concurred that this task required the cooperation of every actor, welcoming the recent establishment of UN Women, the new UN Entity on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women specifically established to guarantee that no aspect of development can be envisaged and implemented without gender equality at its foundations.
The Forum continued its deliberations until 11 September and addressed the following specific issues in a series of panel discussions with an audience of some 200 persons:
- The Strategic Role of Gender Equality in Development
- From Violence Against Women to Women’s Leadership in Peace
- Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Environmental Challenges
- UNESCO’s Role in Fostering Change: the Nexus of Education, the Sciences, Culture and Communication and Information