From its Headquarters to its furthest field work, UN marks Women's Day

8 March 2006

From its towering Headquarters in New York to the seared fields of Nigeria, from Secretary-General Kofi Annan to case workers fighting rape in Nepal to special goodwill ambassador Nicole Kidman, the United Nations today marked International Women's Day with calls to boost the role of women in decision-making.

From its towering Headquarters in New York to the seared fields of Nigeria, from Secretary-General Kofi Annan to case workers fighting rape in Nepal to special goodwill ambassador Nicole Kidman, the United Nations today marked International Women's Day with calls to boost the role of women in decision-making.

“The international community is finally beginning to understand a fundamental principle: women are every bit as affected as any man by the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century ? in economic and social development, as well as in peace and security,” Mr. Annan said in a message.

“The world is also starting to grasp that there is no policy more effective in promoting development, health and education than the empowerment of women and girls. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended,” he added.

He noted that there are now 11 women Heads of State or Government and three countries ? Chile, Spain and Sweden ? now have gender parity in Government. “But we have far, far more to do,” he warned. “The rate of progress overall is slow.”

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) said women needed to take power into their own hands. “Today, we call for a Global Coalition of Women Economic Decision-makers committed to making change happen in the lives of ordinary women and men on the ground,” UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer declared. “It is important to act now.”

UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador, Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman, who starred in The Interpreter, a film about political intrigue inside the UN, shone a spotlight on the need to end violence against women, particularly violence against the hundreds of thousands of women and girls caught in the crossfire of conflict.

“We must protect women and children caught up in conflict situations, and we must care for women affected by sexual and gender-based violence,” she said in a video statement.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted its role in Nepal in bringing legal and other assistance to victims of gender-based violence in refugee camps in Nepal and its efforts to curb the scourge. “UNHCR has focused its preventive activities towards bringing about a change in the attitudes of the refugee population towards women,” agency country representative Abraham Abraham said.

UNHCR, where women hold three top posts ? Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin, Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller ? noted much progress had been made in fighting gender discrimination. But there is still a long way to go, the three said.

Striking a positive note, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighted the power of Nigeria's enterprising women and their key role in agriculture and rural development towards eliminating hunger and contributing to economic, political and social advancement.

In the northwest State of Katsina, under a beating sun, so close to the desert that much of the terrain is dry and hardened, wives, mothers and children gather in the women's compound of a small farming community that is part of the National Special Programme for Food Security. They have taken a small loan to buy simple spaghetti-making machines to allow them to supplement their mainly subsistence incomes.

In a country where two-thirds of the population live on less than $1 a day, and credit is not readily available for those without existing capital, the challenge for Nigerian women is formidable. “Yet in this sometimes difficult environment, some women have found a niche and are making enormous strides that could, one day soon, change the face of the country,” FAO said, citing other examples of female enterprise.

The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) noted that with 33 million women joining the labour market between 1990 and 2004, women now represented 40 per cent of the economically active population in urban areas of Latin America.

For its part, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) unveiled a pilot Who's Who of leading female environmentalists, including British primatologist Jane Goodall, Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Julia Carabias-Lillo of Mexico, Princess Basma Bint Ali of Jordan, Mei Ng of China, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya.

“International Women's Day has become a very special day in our calendar and we are marking it with the launch of this project, aimed at raising awareness and the profile of these very special women,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.

Other agency heads and officials, too, marked the occasion. “We will not achieve our collective goals for development, peace and security and human rights if we do not take concrete action to enhance women's participation in decision-making in Governments, parliaments, international organizations, academic life and the private sector,” General Assembly President Jan Eliasson said.

In a press statement read out by its president for March, Ambassador César Mayoral of Argentina, the Security Council expressed its commitment to further address obstacles limiting the empowerment and participation of women in all levels of decision making and strongly condemned the continued acts of gender based violence armed conflicts, stressing the need to end impunity for such acts.

UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman underlined the widespread violence and discrimination to which women are still subjected. “A society cannot possibly marginalize half its population and expect positive outcomes,” she said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted that there are still countries where women are denied the right to vote and the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Thoraya Obaid called for greater action to involve women in decision-making.

And UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Dervis warned that, despite recent successes such as the election of Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa's first woman President and Angela Merkel as Germany's first woman Chancellor, “progress towards the goal of gender equality and women's empowerment still trails conspicuously behind.”

Echoing this view, the Director of the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) called for building on progress achieved by the recent election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Ellen Jonson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Angela Merkel in Germany. “Now we need mini-Bachelets, mini-Johnson-Sirleafs or mini-Merkels in the communities, in the municipalities and in the city councils,” said Carmen Moreno in Santo Domingo, where INSTRAW is based.


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