March 8th is the International Women’s Day. Originally a political celebration of working women in the Soviet Union, today Women’s Day is spent in various fashions all over the world, organisations often do it by highlighting empowerment issues, and at home men buy flowers for their female partners. Here at the UNPO we understand and value the role of women in both our own societies and those of our Members. It is important to remember that although gender issues vary in different areas, whether we are talking about the pay gap in the European Union or the possibilities of girls to attend school in rural African communities, gender equality is one of the first stepping stones into a healthy society.
When it comes to the development sector, improving the status of women and girls has long since been realised as a key factor in reducing poverty and improving human rights. It is easy to see why; for instance, girls who attend school are more likely to get a job and therefore gain an income, which usually means they marry later and have less children. All of this can contribute tremendously towards a higher quality of life. Women who have had access to education are better informed about health issues, tend to participate more in politics and thusly make women more heard in their society. Furthermore, because of this independence they have been able to gain, in their later life mothers will likely rely much less on their children for economic security. Most importantly, they will send their own daughters to school, as well.
Batwa women and children
Empowerment has become one of the main development goals of most institutions in the field, such as the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and Oxfam. But although the formula appears straightforward enough, in reality women’s rights are a highly complex international issue. The partial detachment of women from the family unit marks a departure from traditionalism, something which not all societies can easily adapt to. It is in particular the reproductive rights of women that are most emotive, often due to religious practises and beliefs. There are many valid questions to be asked; who has the right to spread their culture and value system in the world? How can development and women’s empowerment best be applied in any given society? However, this is a discussion that has to involve the women of the community.
The past year has offered many reminders as to how women can make a difference, and indeed why they should. The courageous Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani student expected to win the Nobel peace prize, campaigns for girls’ right to education in her Taliban-controlled community despite of being a victim of an assassination attempt and living under constant danger. Even in such a prominent, democratic country as the United States some major politicians seek to restrict women’s reproductive rights and belittle the criminalisation of rape. Although it is unquestionable that a lot has been achieved in the last hundred years, UN statistics still show that violence against women is extremely common worldwide, a large majority of the world’s poor are women, and likewise most refugees in the world are women and children.
Silvia Nerreter (UNPO) at the December 2012 Batwa event
The UNPO works to campaign for the rights and improved political representation of its Members, who form a heterogenous mix of minority groups from all over the world. We are very aware that women in minority communities often suffer from double discrimination. This means that on top of having less power in their societies compared to men, the women also face oppression by the state and other groups due to their ethnicity or religion, for example. The UNPO only supports non-violent approaches to tensions and conflicts in order to improve human rights situations and promote tolerance between and within communities. One of the ways to do this is to offer education on gender issues. For instance, in a recent event concerning the discrimination of the Batwa in several African countries, among many other topics the social and political inclusion of Batwa women was presented and discussed.
Helping women will enable them to help themselves, their children, and by that extend the communities they live in. On this Women’s Day, why not spare a thought for those out there working for our human rights today.