A call for equality

Gender equality is central to realizing the Millennium agenda, which risks failure without the full participation of all members of society. Within the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, and at the heart of the United Nations itself, is the acknowledgement that the vulnerable, especially children, require special care and attention. Gender equality will not only empower women to overcome poverty, but also their children, families, communities and countries. When seen in this light, gender equality is not only morally right – it is pivotal to human progress and sustainable development.

Moreover, gender equality produces a double dividend: advancing the rights of both women and children. Healthy, educated and empowered women have healthy, educated and confident daughters and sons. The amount of influence that women have over decisions in the household has been shown to positively impact the nutrition, health care and education of their children. But the benefits of gender equality go beyond their direct impact on children. Without it, it will be impossible to create a world of equality, tolerance and shared responsibility – a world that is fit for children.

By upholding women’s rights, societies also protect girl children and female adolescents. Gender equality means that girls and boys have equal access to food, health care, education and opportunities. Evidence has shown that women whose rights are fulfilled are more likely to ensure that girls have access to adequate nutrition, health care, education and protection from harm.

Since the status of women and the well-being of children are deeply intertwined, advocates for children would be remiss if they failed to champion the cause of gender equality.

The rights of women and children are mutually reinforcing

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an internationally binding instrument that protects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women. The treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which focuses on the inalienable rights of children, followed a decade later.

The two conventions are sister treaties, inexorably linked in moving communities towards full human rights. Each delineates specific entitlements that cannot be abrogated due to age, gender, economic class or nationality. The two treaties are complementary, overlapping in their call for precise rights and responsibilities and filling in crucial gaps that may exist when either stands alone.

The treaties are not perfectly harmonious: There are areas of tension. For instance, some supporters of gender quality believe that the CRC stereotypes women as mothers, limiting their life options. Some child rights advocates think that CEDAW focuses too much on a woman’s right to self-actualization and may unintentionally subvert the importance of motherhood. Despite these differences, the two conventions hold more in common than in opposition: They set the standards for an equitable world in which the rights of every human being –female and male, old and young, are respected.

Although both treaties have gained widespread endorsement, CEDAW has had the tougher road to acceptance and ratification. Some nations that readily accept the concept that children have rights are less willing to concede that women also have rights. And while 184 countries are parties to CEDAW, many of the signatures were submitted with reservations to specific articles. In fact, CEDAW contains among the highest number of reservations of any United Nations treaty, underscoring worldwide resistance to women’s rights.

Rhetorical support for CEDAW and the CRC has been strong. In practice, however, neither convention has been fully implemented. While giving lip service to equality, governments often fail to invest often limited public resources in women and children or to challenge discriminatory customs, attitudes and beliefs.

The pernicious nature of gender inequality

Gender discrimination is pervasive. While the degrees and forms of inequality may vary, women and girls are deprived of equal access to resources, opportunities and political power in every region of the world. The oppression of girls and women can include the preference for sons over daughters, limited personal and professional choices for girls and women, the denial of basic human rights and outright gender-based violence.

Girls and women are frequently victims of physical and sexual violence inside and outside the home. Although such assaults are underreported because of the stigma of the crime, a recent multi-country study by the World Health Organization revealed that between 15 per cent and 71 per cent of women had experienced physical or sexual assault from an intimate partner. Domestic violence is the most common form of violence perpetrated against women.

During armed conflict, rape and sexual assault are often used as weapons of war. When complex emergencies force people to be displaced from their homes, women and girls are at increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse – sometimes from the very security personnel or other persons charged with their protection and safety.

As despicable as deliberate negligence or brutal violence can be, insidious gender inequality may be equally destructive. Institutional discrimination is harder to identify and rectify. Cultural traditions can perpetuate inequality and discrimination from generation to generation, as gender stereotypes remain accepted and unchallenged.

The unequal division of household labour, such as requiring girls and women to trek many kilometres to fetch water and firewood, or the uneven allocation of household resources, such as giving women and girls less food or medical care, are examples of more subtle forms of inequality. These ingrained forms of discrimination often keep individuals, families and societies trapped in poverty and undermine economic, political and social development.

If poverty is to become history, then gender inequality must first be eliminated. Bold initiatives and unflinching determination are required to end individual and institutional gender discrimination. Attitudes, customs and values that are detrimental to women and girls must be confronted. No history, legacy, religion or cultural tradition can justify inequality and disempowerment.

It is estimated that women make up the majority of the world’s poor. To break the cycle of poverty, and to provide for themselves and their families, some choose to migrate. Yet this sometimes renders them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Coco, from Romania, travelled to Western Europe to work in a restaurant, but found herself forced into prostitution. Read her story.