MADRID (IDN) – They give life almost in every way – they deliver generation after generation; they plant seeds and grow crops, feed their families and sell food in rural markets; they bring water and heat and sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people be them new-borns, adults or elderly.
They save biodiversity – the key source of the future of every living thing. In brief, they develop and maintain the life cycle.
Yet, they are the victims of a nearly invisible, unheard of, silent crime as millions of them die every year from easily and inexpensively preventable causes.
Africa tops the list of countries with the world's highest maternal mortality rates.
Their death figures are spine-chilling: over 500,000 women and girls die in pregnancy or childbirth every single year, and 10 to 15 million suffer annually long-lasting disabilities and other diseases, let alone unsafe abortions everywhere. For example, in Mexico alone, up to 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually*.
As if this were not enough, millions of women worldwide continue to experience injustice, violence and inequality in their homes, the workplace and public life, according to a new United Nations report released on July 6, 2011 that calls on governments to take urgent action to ensure real equality between the sexes.
"Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice" is the first major report by UN Women, the agency launched earlier this year to spearhead the world body's efforts towards gender equality and women's empowerment.
The flagship report "aims to inspire bold action by governments and civil society to meet their commitments and also accelerate the achievement of women's rights worldwide," Michelle Bachelet, former Chilean president and current Executive Director of UN Women, told a news conference on July 6 at UN Headquarters.
LAWS ON PAPER DO NOT SUFFICE
She said the focus on women's access to justice stems from the recognition that laws and justice systems that work well are the foundation of gender equality.
Although the rule of law is a cherished principle and the cornerstone of democratic governance worldwide, "in too many countries still the rule of law rules women out," she added.
The report states that the past century has seen a "transformation" in women's legal rights, with countries in every region expanding the scope of women's legal entitlements. "Nevertheless for most of the world's women, the laws that exist on paper do not translate to equality and justice," it adds.
It also points out that while 139 countries and territories now guarantee gender equality in their constitutions, women continue to experience injustice, violence and inequality in their home and working lives.
"With half the world's population at stake, the findings of this report are a powerful call to action," said Bachelet. "The foundations for justice for women have been laid: in 1911, just two countries in the world allowed women to vote – now that right is virtually universal.
"But full equality demands that women become men's true equals in the eyes of the law – in their home and working lives, and in the public sphere," she stated.
UN Women calls on governments to take a number of steps to end the injustices that keep women poorer and less powerful than men in every country in the world.
These include repealing laws that discriminate against women; employing more female police, judges, legislators and activists on the "frontline of justice delivery;" and investing in "one-stop shops" where women can access justice, legal and health services in one place.
Among the appalling findings of the report is that while domestic violence is now outlawed in 125 countries, 603 million women worldwide live in countries where it is not considered a crime.
Also, women are still paid up to 30 per cent less than men in some countries and some 600 million women are employed in vulnerable jobs that lack the protection of labour laws.
The report also finds inadequate enforcement of existing laws across the board. Many women, says UN Women, shrink away from reporting crimes due to social stigma and weak justice systems.
The prohibitive costs and practical difficulties of seeking justice, from travel to a distant court to paying for expensive legal advice, leads to high drop-out rates in cases where women seek redress, especially on gender-based violence, the UN agency notes.
"By changing laws and giving women practical support to see justice done, we can change society and ensure women and men enjoy real equality in the future," concludes the report.
PREVENTION IS KEY
Earlier on June 10, 2011 Bachelet reiterated that economic empowerment of women, political participation, ending gender-based violence and raising women's involvement in post-conflict peace-building are the priorities of the body.
Bachelet told a news conference in Geneva that her office would also work with other UN agencies and partners on topics ranging from education for women and girls to sexual and reproductive health.
Asked how she intended to address the problem of sexual violence against women, she said prevention was most effective way of dealing with the scourge.
Prevention methods included raising awareness and educating both girls and boys to eradicate gender stereotypes in society.
On gender-based violence in conflict situations where UN peacekeeping forces are deployed, Bachelet said UN Women will use best practices developed by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) to train soldiers prior to their deployment to increase their tactical readiness to respond to reports of sexual violence.
It was also important to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and to develop rapid response teams that could provide legal assistance to women in places that did not have the legal capacity to handle such cases, Bachelet said.
Having more women in peacekeeping roles also had several benefits, including the fact that women felt more comfortable talking to other women about sexual violence, she said.
Bachelet said UN Women had been actively involved in promoting the participation of women – while respecting local ownership of the process – in the democratic transitions under way in Middle East and North Africa.
She said she had visited Egypt twice and will next visit Tunisia where a number of women's organisations have requested assistance from the agency.
She noted that some aspects of gender inequality were the result of poverty, stressing that poverty alleviation was another way eradicating such manifestations of injustice as human trafficking, early marriage and child labour.
Baher Kamal is an Egyptian-born, secular, pro-peace journalist. This report is a slightly modified version of an article that first appeared on http://human-wrongs-watch.net, a blog run by the writer. He can be contacted at [email protected].