Ex Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Lisa Polgar and Rose Woodruff

“There are no shortcuts to realizing gender equality and the human rights of women and girls, and everyone must work to bring about transformation within their families, societies, economies, and political and public spaces,” stated UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka during the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Representatives of the Panamerican-Panafrican Association Henri Polgar and Lisa McFarren-Polgar, in partnership with Shina, Inc. (represented by Rose Woodruff), attended the landmark event in New York which marked the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women and its landmark Platform for Action.

What was remarkable about this year’s session was that not only did governments pledge to put gender equality at the core of sustainable development, but business leaders as well as members of civil society committed themselves to work to meet those goals. Through six specific strategies, governments pledged do more to strengthen implementation of laws; bolster institutions vital to women’s empowerment; transform discriminatory norms and stereotypes; close resource gaps; boost accountability; and enhance capacities and data to track progress. 

There have been many improvements on an institutional level as governments are passing more laws protecting women’s rights. But changing the laws is not enough. As the Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated, “when we change not only the laws but the customary practices, attitudes and beliefs that shape behaviors, we will have a world in which to thrive.” For example, it is not enough for a woman to be allowed to own land if she is going to be ostracized by her community for doing so.

Despite improvements in legislation, there continues to be a clash between passing new laws and cultural and traditional values that prevent the full access to economic empowerment, because it is the traditional and cultural values that often still prevail. During the UN Session, the Executive Director of the World YWCA challenged the acceptance that these cultural and traditional values are legitimate. She explained that values that suppress women’s rights are not traditional values, but rather a distortion of traditional values. There must a change in the language that we use, the phrase “honor killings” has nothing to do with honor, it is murder. There is no such thing as child marriage, because it is not marriage, it is child abuse and rape. Let’s call it what it is and change the attitudes that prevent women from accessing their full human rights.

The Panamerican-Panafrican Association, Inc. has had the privilege to serve as a Non-Governmental Organization in Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council since 1995 and as a member of civil society has been very active in bringing to public attention the role that the UN plays in mobilizing governments and NGOs to transform our families, societies, political systems and economies to improve the lives of women. The UN  has indeed led the efforts in raising the bar to advance the role of women in society and protecting the rights of women and girls.

The first women’s conference at the UN was held in 1975. We are now celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Declaration which is considered the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights – and this year, 2015 marks the countdown to 2030, when the UN has set a goal to completely end gender inequality around the world.

Among the attendees of the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) event, entitled “Unlimited Potential: Business Partners for Gender Equality,” Hillary Clinton stated, “Women and men who understand that gender equality is not just morally right, but is the smart thing to do are growing in number. What we are doing here today is smart for companies and countries. That is the wisdom behind the Women’s Empowerment Principles.” – to promote the business case for involving women at every level and the need for all stakeholders, including business, to be strategic partners for gender equality and sustainable development.”

The Economist magazine called women’s empowerment the most profound social change of our time. In the United States there are more women than men getting college and graduate degrees. There are 17 female heads of state around the world (and hopefully 18 by the end of next year). Women control 80% of US consumer spending and they predict that by 2018, women will earn more than their husbands. Women also make up half of the work force and are integral to middle management. But when you look at top management, women are not just not where they should be.

In Kenya, women are making great strides with the support of a government committed to gender equality. As the Kenyan Government Minister Mme. Anne Waigura stated at the United Nations, The Women Enterprise Fund was established in August 2007 in Kenya, to provide accessible and affordable credit to support women start or expand business for wealth and employment creation. The Fund also provides business support services. Another initiative by the Kenyan government is the UWEZO Fund which aims at supporting youth and women to leverage on the 30% government procurement preference for youth, women and Persons with Disabilities. Moreover, Kenya has 26 new members of Parliament, more than ever before, because Kenyan law requires equal gender representation.

So, the question is, what concrete steps is the UN taking to improve equal access to equality of economic opportunity. The UN Women for example, has for the third year, launched a call for proposals for the UN  Fund for Gender Equality is UN Women’s grant-making mechanism dedicated exclusively to the economic and political empowerment of women. The fund has made its third call for proposals this year (with a deadline of April 5, 2015) to apply for grants ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 for projects that will directly benefit women’s economic development. Since launching in 2009, the Fund has delivered US$56.5 million to 96 programmes in 72 countries.

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, managed by UN Women, supports innovative and pioneering programmes aimed at preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls. Since 1996, the UN Trust Fund has awarded US$95 million in grants to 368 initiatives in 135 countries.

For countries that are members of the Commonwealth, such as Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, etc., the Commonwealth Businesswomen Network was launched on March 5 of this year and will be collaborating with the UN Development Business (which handles the procurement across the many UN agencies) to assist women to be competitive in the marketplace to be able to bid on large UN projects. In addition, the UN Development Business encourages small businesses to be included as subcontractors in tenders and women procurement officers are mentoring women owned enterprises to prepare procurement bids.

The old adage states, “a woman’s place is in the home.” The new adage, is “a woman’s place is in the world.” 


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