Women have gained ground in the struggle for equality with men over the past 10 years, but serious challenges remain, including the rise in trafficking of women and girls and their disproportionate representation in the ranks of the poor and those infected with HIV/AIDS, senior United Nations officials said today.
They were addressing the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which this year is conducting a 10-year review of the implementation of the Declaration and Programme of Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing ("Beijing+10").
Other speakers included representatives of the four countries that hosted the major UN conferences on women: Mexico, Denmark, Kenya and China.
According to the head of the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Under-Secretary-General José Antonio Ocampo, among the improvements in the situation of women were "increased awareness, policy reforms, improved legislative frameworks and institutional development at the national level in many countries."
Efforts were being made to engage men and boys more actively in the promotion of gender equality and more attention was being given to gender-sensitive budgeting and the critical roles played by non-government organizations (NGOs) in awareness-raising, advocacy, monitoring and programme delivery, he said.
On the other hand, violence against women persisted, their participation in political decision-making was low, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS was high and both the pandemic and armed conflicts had a disproportionate impact on women's lives, Mr. Ocampo said.
He drew attention to DESA's "World Survey on the Role of Women in Development," which showed women migrating by themselves to become the principal wage earners for their families, or fleeing from conflicts, natural disasters and other negative situations.
"While migration can empower women, women migrants can face significant discrimination and exploitation," he said. "Women refugees and trafficked women and girls face particular problems, including vulnerability to sexual violence."
At least 45 of the UN's 191 Member States now had laws against domestic violence and 21 more were either drafting such laws or amending criminal assault laws to include domestic violence, the Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Noeleen Heyzer, said, giving her list of achievements.
"And quotas or other affirmative measures have been adopted to increase women's representation in political decision-making in countries in all regions, including many countries emerging from conflict that are striving to build peaceful, more democratic societies," she said.
The pace of change has been too slow since the Decade for Women began 30 years ago and the Beijing conference was held 10 years ago, however, she said.
Women could not wait another 30 years for positive action when "it is still a woman's face we see when we speak of poverty, of HIV/AIDS, of violent conflict and social upheaval, of trafficking in human beings," Ms. Heyzer said.
The Special Adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, Rachel Mayanja, said, "Although no country has successfully addressed all critical areas of the Platform, many countries, both developing and developed, have shown that significant progress can be achieved by empowering women and reducing discrimination against women."
Despite that progress, "gender inequality is deeply entrenched in policies, legislation, attitudes, traditions and societal institutions," she said. "The challenges facing us, therefore, are formidable."
She challenged the CSW to devise new approaches to meet the requirements of the era of implementation.
Over the years, for its part, the UN Commission on Human Rights had appointed a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, called for the integration of women's human rights and a gender perspective into its work and that of all specialized agencies and human rights mechanisms and treaty bodies, Commission Chairperson Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia said.
It was time to build on successes and avoid complacency, he added.
Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), stressed it was important to develop a better understanding of the strategies needed to respond to the challenges remaining.
Discrimination against women affected not only women, but children, families and communities, he said.
The First Lady of Mexico, Marta Sahagun de Fox, noted that the first women's conference in 1975 in Mexico City was the start of a long journey towards ensuring respect for women's rights.
Women began then to have a voice in social and economic processes in which they had had no say and nations were experiencing a gradual but steady cultural change towards a more just life for women, she said.
The 1980 Copenhagen conference contributed important building blocks to the Beijing Declaration, the Platform of Action and the Beijing+5 review document, said Eva Kjer Hansen, Denmark's Minister of Social Affairs and Gender Equality.
She stressed the importance of eliminating violence against the 25 per cent of women who would experience it, calling domestic violence "outrageous and totally unacceptable by all moral and ethical standards."
Kenya, which hosted the 1985 conference, had put women's access to land and credit and measures combating domestic violence laws among its priorities and was joining the international community in rededicating itself to the goals set in Beijing, said the country's Minister of Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services, Ochillo Ayacko.
Meanwhile, China had spared no effort in fulfilling its commitments under the Platform for Action and UN Member States should take this 10th anniversary as a new starting point to honour their pledges, said the Vice-Chairperson of China's National Committee on Women and Children, Zhao Shaohua.