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'Women's rights are human rights'

Nov 18, 2009

Women's political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy, says Ines Alberdi, executive director, UNIFEM in an interview with Pamela Philipose. She avers that a lot has been achieved but there is still a great deal more to do.

In a conversation with Pamela Philipose in New Delhi recently, Ines Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM and a professor of sociology at Madrid University, who was elected to the Madrid Assembly, shares her views on empowerment, rights and how fair representation of men and women, whether in the corporate world or in Parliament, can be achieved through the 40:60 formula.

Here are the excerpts:

Pamela Philipose: What are the paramount insights you have gleaned on the conditions of women across the world in a career spanning over 25 years studying gender?

Ines Alberdi.jpg

Ines Alberdi: The situation of women all over the world has improved enormously. At the same time, there are still persistent differences and discriminations. The question of equality remains important. For me the starting point of this process is the year 1975 with the UN Declaration on Women. There are two ways to look at the process. We can see the differences between the Seventies and now.

We can see the general international commitments that have been made on equality, rights of women and human rights, and the world now recognises that women's rights are human rights. But there are an enormous number of women who are denied their rights – whether it is the right of inheritance or to be free from violence.

Therefore, governments and the international community are obliged to continue in their process in their efforts to make real these commitments that they have been offering and declaring all over the world.

PP: Do you think the problem is that commitments are made but not achieved?

IA: Take the Security Council Resolution 1325 about the need to have women involved in the process of the resolution of conflict and after the conflict. This declaration is very important – next year will mark its 10th anniversary – but the situation has not really changed. I don't deny the importance of such resolutions, because a resolution is an obligation, but equally important is its implementation.

PP: Since you were once an elected deputy in the Madrid Assembly, how important do you hold the political empowerment of women for the general well-being of women in society?

IA: Women's political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. Higher numbers of women in parliament generally contribute to stronger attention to women's issues. Political accountability to women begins with increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, but it cannot stop there. Gender-sensitive governance reforms are required as that will make all elected officials more effective at promoting gender equality.

Today, there are many encouraging signs, as UNIFEM's flagship report 'Progress of the World's Women' pointed out. The proportion of women parliamentarians at the national level has increased by eight per cent in the last decade, to the current global average of 18.4%, compared to an increase of just one per cent in the two decades after 1975. Yet, women are outnumbered four-to-one in legislatures around the world and, as of mid-2009, only 17 heads of state or government were women.

On international fora they are now discussing how they can achieve fair representation of men and women, whether in the corporate world or in Parliament, through the 40:60 formula. There should be no more than 60% and no less than 40% representation of either sex. I think we can achieve an equilibrium through such a formula.

PP: The family has been a source of both oppression and support for women. How central do you consider the role of the family in society today?

IA: The family is the structure that defines us – women and men. It sets down how women and girls grow up and live their lives across the world. But because families play such a vital role, the flip side is they can also be a source of great oppression and discrimination. For example, many studies show that often far from being a safe haven, home is often a place of pain, fear and humiliation for women and girls. Up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime – the majority from someone they know.

PP: How would you rate the progress achieved on some of the issues that were considered central three decades ago – for instance, violence?

IA: There has been considerable progress in addressing violence against women and girls. Grassroots activists and international coalitions have worked hard to change the notion that violence against women is a private matter and successfully reframed violence as a human rights issue.

The last two decades have seen unprecedented progress with many countries adopting laws and policies that address such violence. According to the UN Secretary-General's 2006 Report, 89 countries had some legislation on domestic violence and a growing number of countries had instituted national action plans.

Marital rape is a prosecutable offence in at least 104 states. But of course gaps remain. In 102 countries there are no specific laws against domestic violence. Just look at the statistics: Up to 70% women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime.

So violence against women remains a real problem, cutting across national borders, social classes, even age. It is in fact a pandemic that needs to be fought.

In that respect, the UN secretary-general's recent call asking for an end to violence against women is very relevant today. It is important to have a legal definition as well as a political definition of such violence. Recently, the 1888 Security Council resolution has defined sexual violence in conflict not just in terms of justice but in terms of security.

PP: CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination) has been in existence for 30 years now. It has been termed 'The Bill of Rights' for women. Has it achieved what it set out to do?

IA: Well, more and more countries are genuinely embracing women's human rights as defined by CEDAW as their own national standards. Much work needs to be done through various methods – whether it is gender-responsive budgeting to get resources allocated appropriately, or institutional reform, or community level engagement, or ensuring service delivery. Globally, there needs to be better harmonisation between CEDAW and national legislation.

PP: What about the Beijing Platform for Action? Next year the world will be commemorating 15 years after Beijing.

IA: The world has gained a lot from the Beijing Platform for Action. We see the significance of the Beijing Platform for Action every day in our work. For example, women's participation in paid employment has increased in the period from 1995-2004 in every region except for sub-Saharan Africa. Then more than 70 countries have supported gender-responsive budgeting in order to introduce gender equality objectives into the budget cycles.

The Beijing review process gives all of us – women's advocates, activists and practitioners – a chance to take stock of the progress made and the gaps that remain. We are very hopeful that the upcoming review of Beijing +15 will be a key opportunity to highlight progress on implementation and build accountability for the commitments made to women.

PP: Personally, as a feminist, what have been your experiences?

IA: Women of my generation have been going through a very interesting process. When we began, we were fighting for basics – I remember for instance fighting in Spain for reform in the civil code and family laws. Today, change has arrived. The new generation of women has benefited from this change. But there is still a great deal more to do. We cannot rest.

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