Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Gender equality between aspirations and realities

Ioan Voicu
Assumption University, Bangkok, Thailand

Originally published in
Online Opinion: Australia's e-journal of social and political debate
29 June 2011
under a Creative Commons License

"Youth should be given a chance to take an active part in the decision-making of local, national and global levels."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Dialogue and Mutual Understanding
By a happy coincidence, a large international debate on gender equality considered from a multicultural perspective is taking place during the International Year of Youth (August 12, 2010 - August 11, 2011). It was proclaimed by consensus by the United Nations to be celebrated with the central theme of dialogue and mutual understanding. A world youth conference having the form of a high level meeting of the General Assembly, will be held at United Nations Headquartersin New York on 25 and 26 July 2011.

Reaching the goal of gender equality is both a crucial aspiration and a topical global issue on which the United Nations multilateral diplomacy has been called upon to use all its potentialities. It has to give tangibility to an ambitious and generous goal, at planetary level.

The gradual but inconclusive success of long diplomatic efforts on the matter is reflected in significant international legal instruments, offering an impressive corpus of legal principles and norms meant to lead to a real equality of status between men and women.

At a conceptual level, an important characteristic of the present debate on such issues is the increasing recognition of the fact that it is necessary to shift the focus from women to gender.The main reason is that the whole structure of human society, and all relations between men and women within it, has to be re-evaluated in light of the present irreversible process of globalisation.

If a profound restructuring of society and its institutions can really be accomplished, then women would have the chance to be fully empowered to take their rightful place as equal partners with men in all sectors of life. Such transformations would crystallize the firm conviction that, indeed, women's rights are genuine human rights and that gender equality is an issue of universal and vital importance.

It is true that the movement towards gender equality resulted in changes to national laws, to attitudes, to social views, including the proclamation of "equal pay for equal work." Most occupations and professions became equally available to men and women in numerous countries.

"Gender equity" is one of the objectives of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to end world poverty by 2015. The project specifically proclaims: "Every single goal is directly related to women's rights, and societies where women are not afforded equal rights as men can never achieve development in a sustainable manner." Consequently, promoting authentic gender equality is considered as a mandatory passport to the reality of greater economic and social prosperity.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (a preamble and 30 articles) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on December 18, 1979 and entered into force on September 3 1981. It has been ratified by 186 countries, thus reaching a nearly complete universality. This legal instrument is described as an international bill of rights for women. It clearly defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up a large agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

According to the Convention, discrimination against women refers to "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

This Convention is unique by the very fact that it affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations.

In conformity with Article 24 of the Convention, States Parties undertake to adopt all necessary measures at the national level in order to achieve the full realization of the rights recognized in this universal legal instrument.

New promising developments took place quite recently in the process of implementing the Convention. We will deal first with institutional aspects.

In 2010 the U.N. General Assembly established the new United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, better known as "UN Women." It is a kind of super-agency that integrated four previously existing U.N. entities: the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

UN Women's mission is "to support inter-governmental bodies…in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms; to help Member States to implement these standards [and] to hold the UN system accountable for its own commitments on gender equality."

This original institutional structure is to be placed in the general context of the follow-up to the Fourth World Conference on Women, the full implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and the outcome of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly. In accordance with the most recent resolution on this topic, many challenges and obstacles remain on the complex and difficult path to changing discriminatory attitudes and gender stereotypes, which perpetuate discrimination against women.

One example from the United Nations itself is quite perplexing. The urgent goal of 50/50 gender balance in the United Nations system, especially at senior and policy-making levels, with full respect for the principle of equitable geographical distribution, remains unmet. The representation of women in the United Nations family is almost static, with negligible improvement in some parts of the system.

The 186 States Parties are far from fully complying with their obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Beyond the Convention but in its spirit, they have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent violence against women and girls, provide protection to the victims and investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of violence against women and girls.

All states are requested to continue to support the ongoing campaign "UNITE to End Violence Against Women." Governments are strongly encouraged to continue to support the role and contribution of civil society, in particular non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and women's organizations, in this sensitive field.

At the same time, governments and the United Nations family are expected to enhance accountability for the implementation of commitments to gender equality and the empowerment of women at the international, regional and national levels. For example, by improved monitoring and reporting on progress in relation to policies, strategies, resource allocations and programmes and by achieving gender balance.

Government, worker and employer delegates at the 100th annual Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) have adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers (2011). This legal instrument is a historic set of international standards aimed at improving the working conditions of tens of millions of domestic workers worldwide. Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General, stated: "History is being made," in Geneva.

The preamble of the Convention refers to the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities; greater scope for caring for ageing populations; children and persons with a disability; and substantial income transfers within and between countries.

The same preamble also recalls that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls. Many are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights.

The ILO Convention contains 27 articles, which set out that domestic workers around the world who care for families and households must have the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers. For example, reasonable hours of work; weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours; a limit on in-kind payment; clear information on terms and conditions of employment; as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

It is estimated that the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million. In developing countries, they make up at least 4 to 12 per cent of wage employment. Another significant aspect to be emphasized is that around 83 per cent of these workers are women or girls.

The ILO Convention defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households. While the new instrument covers all domestic workers, it provides for special measures to protect those workers who, because of their young age or nationality or live-in status, may be exposed to additional risks relative to their peers, among others.

In conformity with ILO proceedings, this new Convention will come into force after two countries have ratified it. Its implementation in good faith will be a serious test not only for individual states, but also for the world community as a whole.

Meanwhile, the concept of equality of opportunity on the public agenda will continue to inspire various initiatives to be taken by civil society. It has an important role to play in fighting inequalities between genders.

It is not enough to adopt laws that guarantee equal participation of women in the economic and social life, knowing that in practice professional segregation of women persists, and is proven by the very existence of sex-related occupation patterns leading to disturbing differences in income between men and women.

Moreover, even in cases when there is appropriate legislation that addresses gender imbalances, women themselves risk to miss out because of poor information about their rights.

Quite frequently, the NGOs are not sufficiently active in the process of social dialogue and their efforts do not lead to radical transformations. On the contrary, some NGOs are marginalised and cannot play a dynamic role in changing obsolete mentalities, which are not in harmony with the current requirements of gender equality.

The absence of an authentic democratic framework in some countries may also contribute to some misogynist attitudes and practices, which favour flagrant gender inequality. The public silence, which surrounds these realities, makes even more difficult the task of finding appropriate law-based solutions.

On the other hand, it would be utopian to expect simple or easy solutions to complex negative realities.There is a need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.Under the current era of global vulnerability the urgency of eliminating gender discrimination in all its forms and at all levels has to be generally recognised. Perhaps the prophetic words of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Prize Laureate for literature (1913) whose 150th anniversary is celebrated world-wide in 2011 might indicate the right orientation. The need to cooperate at the global level to reach gender equality might be relevant under any circumstances ... "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.''

Tagore's words might be interpreted as an advocacy for a globalisation with a human face which still remains on the waiting list of aspirations. There are no persuasive reasons to be overoptimistic. A clear-cut note of caution is necessary. Indeed, as cogently recognised in academic studies all human rights victories are partial, since the perfectly rights-protective society has yet to appear.

The United Nations, UNESCO and ILO's meetings and activities in 2011 and in the years to come as well as national realities might offer additional evidence about the validity of today's efforts to better organize international cooperation for finding appropriate solutions to the numerous, complex and challenging gender equality problems. An anticipated outcome might be a more visible and catalytic effect of such actions in positively reshaping the participation of women themselves on all continents in the decision-making processes affecting their future. This is imperatively demanded by women's true but not sufficiently recognised potential.

About the author: Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. Doctor in political sciences, (international law) of Geneva University (1968); doctor honoris causa in international law of Assumption University of Thailand (1998); alternate representative of Romania to the United Nations Security Council (1990-1991); ambassador of Romania to the Kingdom of Thailand and permanent representative to international organizations based in Bangkok (1994-1999); visiting professor in Assumption University since February 2000. For another important paper by this author, see Towards a Culture of Global Solidarity, ABAC Journal, August 2000.

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