Magazine article UN Chronicle

Working Within

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Working Within

Article excerpt

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4

While the creation of a legal framework which guarantees equal rights for women and men was always regarded as a primary prerequisite for gender equality; it turned out to be far from sufficient, since women and girls face a multitude of constraints imposed by society, not by law. For centuries, societies have created customary rules which, mostly on the basis of sex, class, place of birth, clan or family name, determine to a great extent what role an individual can play. These roles reflect an unwritten social contract within a society on who ought to do what, who rules, who wades, who cares for children, who decides public matters; in short, who occupies a certain space and position in society or in the home.

Historically, socially constructed gender roles put women and girls at a disadvantage, denied them equal status with men, restricted their access to income, education and decision-making, and confined their sphere of influence to the home. Today's statistics document the consequences: 70 per cent of the world's poor are women, 2 out of 3 adult illiterates are female. Women are mostly excluded from politics and economic decision-making. Even in Western countries, women hold only approximately 15 per cent of parliamentary seats. Moreover, many women and girls continue to suffer from violence and systematic discrimination.

As gender roles are inextricably linked to the causes of misery for so many women, they need to leave their old roles behind if they want to empower themselves, if they are serious about achieving equal participation in decision-making, equal access to economic and social opportunities, and full enjoyment of their human rights. Women must redefine their place and status in society on the basis of equality with men. Both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), held in Beijing, acknowledged this basic insight.

Yet, realistically, this cannot be achieved without altering the roles of men at the same time. Therefore, CEDAW and the Beijing Conference call for a change in the traditional roles of women and men, a new sharing of responsibilities between them and full partnership of men in all actions towards the equality of women. Or more pointedly, they envisage a new social contract which would not arbitrarily restrict a person's freedom or opportunities in life because of sex. Equality in everyday life cannot be decreed by the State, it must be embraced by society, by the people. …

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