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State of the World's Children 2007: Women and children: The double dividend of gender equality

By Anuapma Rao Singh,
UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and Pacific

Cebu, Philippines, 12 December 2006

Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen

On behalf of UNICEF, I am very pleased to be here today to launch this year’s State of the World’s Children Report on Gender Equality.  It is an honor to launch it as part of this event dedicated to ending trafficking and violence against women and children.

Millions of women and children throughout the world remain powerless, voiceless and without rights. As Kofi Annan, states in his introduction to this year’s report, “eliminating gender discrimination and empowering women are among the paramount challenges facing the world today.”  

The rights of women are not new. Governments throughout the world have signed on to human rights instruments that safe guard the rights of women and girls. We have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defines all human beings as equal. We have the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979, that seeks to project human rights and the fundamental freedoms for women.  We have the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 and one of the most widely accepted human rights documents in the world. We have agreed global targets, including the Millennium Development Goals, which seek to promote gender equality and empower women.

Yet, as this year’s State of the World’s Children report outlines, we must go beyond words and declarations, to put in place concrete measures to address gender discrimination and the cycle of disadvantage it perpetuates.  And for these measures to take hold, and to sustain them, we need a sea change in attitudes and perceptions at all levels of society.

As the Report demonstrates, gender equality produces the “double dividend” of benefiting both families and children and is pivotal to the health and development of families, communities and nations.

There is no doubt that in East Asia and the Pacific significant gains have been made to promote gender equality.  Many countries in this region have achieved gender parity in education.  Many have achieved significant gains in maternal and child survival.  Many have women in positions of power and leadership.  All of which have greatly contributed to the region’s economic prosperity and development.

Yet there is still much to be done. Often behind the national statistics, persistent inequality and disparity exists that disproportionately effects women and children and deprives them of the social services, access to opportunity and employment, and rights that they are entitled.  And it also impacts negatively on the survival, development and protection of their children.

Today, I would like to highlight some of the major findings and recommendations of the report.

Equality in the household is where discrimination often begins and takes root.  As the report articulates for children, the most important actors in the world are not political leaders but parents and caregivers who make the crucial household decisions each day that affect their lives. How members of a household use their collective resources determines the levels of nutrition, healthy care, education and protection.

In East Asia and the Pacific enormous strides have been made to reduce discrimination within the family.  In many areas, women have more control of their health care needs, have more decision making power on household purchases and daily expenditures and are actively involved in their community.

Yet deep seated and entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards girls and women linger.   Violence against women in homes continues to be prevalent and often fear of intruding in the private sphere, allows abuse to continue unchecked, resulting in devastating consequences for the family.

As the recent UN Study on Violence against Children indicated, violence in the home is widespread with as many as 275 million children caught in the crossfire.  And in many circumstances, domestic violence is linked to sexual and gender based violence.  Hidden, it often stems from inequalities in the household and leads to abusive relationships. 

In this region too, the numbers of women being infected with HIV is growing.  In 2006, there were 750,000 women HIV positive. As the epidemic shifts from marginalized groups, more women of reproductive age are contracting HIV from their partners.  If we are to succeed in fighting the virus, we must confront this reality and tailor our prevention strategies to address their vulnerability. 

Equality in employment is crucial to women’s economic empowerment.  Yet, in many cases the work that they do is not given equal status or recognition.  While there has been progress in recent decades in women engaging in the global labour force, there has been less advances on improving the conditions under which they work, recognizing their unpaid work, eliminating discriminatory practices and laws related to property and inheritance rights and providing childcare support.

In East Asia and the Pacific, almost 70 per cent of females are participating in economic activity, one of the highest rates in the world.  As the report finds though, wages for women are still significantly lower than for men.  In this region, it is estimated at eighty per cent of what men are paid.

But maybe most crucial to the situation in this region, is where women work, which has a great impact on the lives of their children. Factors such as the amount of time a women spend working outside the home, the conditions, which they are employed and who controls the income they generate, are very important.

In this region, increasing numbers of women migrate – either from rural to urban areas, or across borders in search of work.  Women constitute almost half of all immigrants in Asia. As is already well understood in the Philippines, the economic impact and importance of remittances in many countries is enormous. Yet the majority of the women that migrate are often low skilled workers, and subject to rights violation and discrimination. They often find themselves vulnerable as women, as foreigners, and as unskilled labourers, leading them exposed to abuse and exploitation.  Often what starts out as labour migration can end in trafficking and abuse.

We must ensure that we focus on better safeguards to protect women in the workplace and measures to prevent the risk of trafficking.  These include better legislative and enforcement mechanisms by Governments but also amongst employers and recruiters.  We must also seek to ensure that women have the opportunity to better skills and education to improve their employment opportunities in their own communities and countries. 

Equality in politics and government is a one way to ensure that women and children’s interests are represented in decision-making.  As the report notes, children have a powerful stake in political outcomes but they have little power to shape them.  Advocates who speak out on their behalf can make a vast difference to the fulfillment of children’s rights to survival, development and protection.  And a growing body of evidence suggests women in politics have been especially effective advocates for children at the national and local levels.

We must work to inspire more women to participate in politics, from the grassroots level to national parliaments.  The Philippines, with many women prominent on the national political stage and in positions of power, is a shining example in East Asia and Pacific.  This example needs to influence others in this region. 

Evidence clearly demonstrates that by involving women in the early stages of policy formulation can lead to better programmes that meet the needs of women and children.  The report argues that quotas can encourage political participation.  Also we need to make sure that the voices of grassroots women’s organizations are involved in national processes. 

This year’s report also marks UNICEF’s 60th anniversary.  There is no doubt that in those years, significant gains for children have been achieved.  As we look to the next 60 years, we must ensure that the rights of women and children do not remain lofty goals or relevant only to a few but reach every woman and child.

Thank you.

 

 
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