On Friday, June 19, the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC29) held the Annual Full-Day Discussion on Women's Human Rights. Annually, this exciting day of exchange brings many distinguished experts together to share ideas on women’s human rights. This year the day concluded with an active panel discussion on women’s participation in power and decision-making.
Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, delivered the opening statement. The moderator of the panel discussion was Emna Aouij, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice. Panelists were: Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre; Shirin Akhter, Parliamentarian and trade union activist from Bangladesh; Lucrèce Falolou, Project Officer of World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin; Michèle Ollier, Partner at Index Ventures in France; and Lilian Soto, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Pansieri acknowledged the steady progress women have made towards increasing their participation in power and decision making but noted that progress was coming at a snail’s pace. At present, women’s participation in political and public life is increasing yet remains a distant cry from the 50 per cent parity that should be their objective. Women represented a mere 20 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians and 17 per cent of the Heads of State. Pertaining to the economic sphere, Ms. Pansieri reminded us that women continued to be paid less for work of equal value and in top leadership bodies they were severely underrepresented. Interestingly, she noted that studies reveal that post-conflict agreements negotiated without women break down faster than those negotiations that include women – that all-male groups take riskier, more aggressive decisions that may lead to higher levels of interstate conflict.
The Deputy High Commissioner said that in order to ensure women’s equal enjoyment of the rights to economic and political participation, laws mandating the equality of women and their equal access to resources and opportunities were essential. In addition, States must abolish laws which discriminated against women and limit their opportunities, and political systems need to fully represent women as well as men. Lastly, there is a need for States to promote young women’s voices and equip them with the skills to become leaders.
Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC), said that the ITC cares about women economic empowerment because it makes economic sense. She highlighted the need to ensure that women were better harnessed for economic growth. Other priorities are to make sure that women’s rights are considered in the empowerment chain, to ensure that trade education was available to girls, to encourage women-owned enterprises, and to encourage supplier diversity in companies.
Shirin Akhter, Parliamentarian and trade union activist, Bangladesh, said that 20 years after the Beijing Conference, women in Bangladesh are empowered: the Head of State, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, and several Government ministers in Bangladesh are women. Still, the key question is how to achieve equality and equal opportunity, and how to change discriminatory attitudes in practice and in the law. It is important to change the mind-set of the men and take up initiatives at the grassroots levels.
Lucrèce Falolou, Project Officer of World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin, elaborated on the role of leadership among women. She noted the importance of women to have the courage to break out of social attitudes and barriers and give themselves means to achieve positions of responsibility, as well as to understand legislation and to educate themselves because without education women could not gain their voice. Ms. Falolou stressed that women had to dare to be different and to leave their comfort zone.
Michele Ollier, Partner of Index Ventures from France, recognized the business world is dominated by men without often representing women’s interests. In addition, stereotypes prevail, and attitudes tend to be masculine and aggressive and therefore seen as not fitted to women. She reassured that women could do it, they had all the qualities and qualifications that men had they just need to use them.
Lilian Soto, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay, said that in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, major stereotypes included those which painted women as sensitive and thus unfit for political life, that women in politics did not look feminine, and that “good” women were heterosexual women with families and children.
In the discussion following, speakers noted that the progress made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration is too slow. States thus had to step up their efforts to enforce the principle of parity in participation of women and men in politics and business. It was highlighted that States had to ensure that women participated in relevant legislation change discussions, and in changing attitudes and social norms. The process of change also required the involvement of men. The point was made that the post-2015 development agenda had to include gender equality and empowerment of women and girls as a stand-alone goal in the new Sustainable Development Goals, and to establish and embed a strong mechanism to collect and disseminate gender-based data. Furthermore, successful women, especially those in high-level positions in the United Nations, were called to showcase their experience and motivate other women.
We then heard from States on the issue, what their country had done to address the issue, and some suggested next steps. A few interesting highlights are statements from:
United States said that enhancing women’s participation and power structures across economic, political and social spheres was critical to advancing human rights. It asked the panellists to elaborate on how States could use existing, new and developing technology to promote women’s participation and leadership within diverse decision-making spaces. To which Arancha González replied that technology was hugely important, for example in education and e-training for women, or in financing through crowdfunding. The post-2015 development agenda must establish and embed a strong mechanism to collect and disseminate data which were hugely important.
European Union said that empowerment and participation of women in peace processes were critical to maintaining international peace and security and asked how political leadership of women could be promoted. Mexico noted the importance of the inclusion of women in powers structures and asked about effective mechanisms that supported the participation of women at the highest levels in political and public spheres.
Ecuador, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that gender perspective must be a cross-cutting issue in the post-2015 development agenda and all must work together against violence and discrimination against women. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation said that although progress had been made since the adoption of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a number of challenges remained, including discriminatory social, economic, and political norms, harmful gender-based stereotypes and unequal allocation of resources and opportunities.
Croatia said that the elimination of structural reasons for gender inequality in politics and business remained the country’s key task. It asked the panelists on further priority actions to tackle critical remaining gaps and challenges in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration. Lucrèce Falolou responded to the importance of increasing training and management capabilities of women, and to engage in outreach education through the media. The media needed to be better informed of new communication technologies, and their productive capacities had to be enhanced.
Syria said it was one of the first countries to have given women the right to vote, and one of the first to include them in political life. Bearing in mind the principle of prevention, women played a very important role in providing assistance. Togo said that investing in women was investing in better living conditions of the whole population because women were agents of development. The Government was trying to institute various measures to foster female leadership. Spain said that challenges remained in relation to women’s agenda in peace and security activities where women continued to be excluded from peace negotiations and conflict resolution initiatives.
Ireland said it had enacted legislation in 2012 which linked State funding for political parties with the 30 per cent quota for women in a quest to correct the imbalance in the political participation of women, and reminded that political participation was more about a seat in the Parliament. Bolivia said the latest elections in the country had shown an increase in women’s political participation, and said empowering women was a condition for achieving full equality. Rwanda said that ensuring the empowerment of women and supporting women in leadership roles was a priority, and that ensuring gender equality was not about numbers, but was a rights issue that concerned every member of society. Women in Rwanda made up over 60 per cent of the members of Parliament.
The conclusion of Annual Full-Day Discussion on Women’s Human Rights clearly indicated that gender stereotypes and hierarchical power structures continued to have a negative impact on female participation in politics and business. The panel highlighted that education of women had wide consequences for the entire community, and women had to build confidence and self-esteem. Panelists also stressed the importance of promoting gender equality and the role of non-governmental organizations in the empowerment of women which is where we come in my FAWCO colleagues.
Until the next blog – Stacy Dry Lara.