59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

wThe Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 is a visionary agenda for the empowerment of women. It still remains as the most comprehensive global policy framework and blueprint for action today, and is a current source of guidance and inspiration to realize gender equality and the human rights of women and girls worldwide.

After two weeks of political debate, exchange of information on good practice and lessons learned, representatives of 189 governments agreed to commitments that were unprecedented in scope. In addition, The Platform for Action covers 12 critical areas of concern which still classify as relevant challenges today: poverty; education and training; health; violence; armed conflict; economy; power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms; human rights; media; environment; and the girl child. For each critical area of concern, strategic objectives are identified, as well as a detailed catalogue of related actions to be taken by governments and other stakeholders, at national, regional and international level.

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#5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Goal-5Gender equality is the concept in which men and women deserve the same rights and opportunities. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the United Nations has regarded the importance of this human right by making it a central goal of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals. These objectives serve as a framework for eradicating poverty and encouraging global development. The gender equality goal aimed to “promote gender equality and empower women”; more specifically, it expected to “eliminate gender disparities in primary education and secondary education, preferably by 2000, and in all levels of education, no latter than 2015.” Fifteen years later, the UN has concluded in its final MDG report that even though gender gaps in access to education have narrowed, uneven progress has been made toward achieving the target at its core. As a result, many disparities remain in all levels of education: secondary and university education levels remain highly unequal and in many parts of the world women continue to face all kinds of discrimination in access to education, work, economic assets or participation in government.

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Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women

Source: UN Women

Source: UN Women

Women constitute a central focus in the socio-culture system of every nation. Many world bodies, international, non-government organizations have also established legal, administrative and institutional structure for the effective existence and survival of women and girls.

In 1995, the Beijing platform for action remains a relevant guideline for development programming. It provide for “an agenda for women’s empowerment” signed by all government that is seen as “a necessary and fundamental pre-requisite for equality, development and peace.

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Why Gender Equality Is Everyone’s Issue

The United Nations is not a finished product. And perhaps it never will be. UN Women as the youngest entity of the United Nations is a good example for the continuing renewal of the UN. It was ‘born’ in 2010, bringing together resources and mandates of four previously distinct parts of the UN system. By creating this institution, the UN General Assembly established one entity to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Considering that not one single country on this planet has yet achieved gender equality, the task of UN Women is tremendous. Worldwide, women suffer violence and discrimination, face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps and are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes. In fact, gender inequality is one of the most persistent human rights violations of our time.

UN Women takes on this challenge and is a strong champion for women and girls, basing its work on landmark agreements such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Most recently, UN Women has launched its HeForShe campaign with the prominent support of the English actress Emma Watson. In the heart of the campaign lies the idea that gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that affects all of us – women and girls, men and boys. We all benefit socially, politically and economically from gender equality in our everyday lives. When women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. Gender equality liberates not only women but also men, from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes. As Emma Watson put it in her speech that went viral: Men and boys should ‘have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.´ Gender equality is not a question about men or women nor a fight between the sexes. Gender equality is a shared vision of human progress for all.

He For She

He For She

A country example shows how far we are still from a gender equal world: The Dominican Republic, a middle-sized state in the Caribbean, exemplifies the long, rocky road ahead. One in five Dominican adolescents has been pregnant at least once, the maternity mortality rate is almost double the projected Millennium Development Goals, the rate of intimate feminicides is one of the highest in the region, and every-day sexism is part of the social reality. UN Women has established a National Programme in this country which aims to change public policies, i.e. the structural framework, in order to accelerate the progress towards gender equality. However, the underlying challenge is to change mentalities and perceptions. Men who are socially pressured to ´be a man´, own as many women as possible, be the strong part in a relationship, the provider in a family, the ‘macho’ and ‘tigre’. Women who perceive their societal role as limited to birth-givers, care-takers and accessories of men. Public policies are an important starting point for accelerating the social transformation to a more equal society in which everyone can live a life free of stereotypes and prescribed gender roles. UN Women is working towards this change – unfortunately, like many UN entities, with very limited resources. Transforming politics and minds – as long as it might take – will eventually lead to a full realisation of human rights for everyone. This is worth all the efforts.

Youths and their role in Project Inspire

As a joint initiative from the Singapore Committee for UN Women and MasterCard, Project Inspire was launched in 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. It aims to provide youths from the ages of eighteen to thirty-five the opportunity to work with non-profit organisations and compete for a US$25,000 grant to help create a better world for women and girls in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.

The grant is aimed towards the target beneficiaries of the winning proposal. In the past, other than the winner’s grant, selected teams have been chosen and granted additional grants due to the strength of their proposal. It’s not just about the best proposal winning, but about increasing awareness about the promotion of economic empowerment for women. These additional grants are funded by the judging panel or by interested members of the public. Thus is the impact of such an initiative, that it encourages the public to see through the implementation of feasible projects.

I first heard about the call for Project Inspire’s Country Ambassadors in one of the Singapore Committee for UN Women’s bulletins. The qualities needed to be a Country Ambassador are similar to some of those needed for participants of the project: drive to contribute positively to society and determination to build a long-term relationship that extends beyond the initial phase.

The bulk of my time as Singapore Country Ambassador lies in relationship management and public relations, driving awareness to youths, particularly those in local and international tertiary institutions. My aim in targeting these institutions is that these youths can form a proposal with like-minded individuals. I am pleased to note there has been great support from the management of these institutions. Many of them recognise the potential of youths, and are glad to lend their support to such an initiative that provides youths with the ability to promote economic empowerment for women.

The importance of youths is key not only to the development of Project Inspire, but also in ‘Womenomics’ and creating sustainable economic growth in developed and developing countries. This enables them to believe in their own voices, and to believe in their ability to influence key decision making steps and policy planning.

One of the Special Recognition Award winners of Project Inspire 2012 recently had the pleasure of knowing that most of their beneficiaries had created their own income from using the skills developed through their proposal (http://projinspire.com/bringing-sustainable-change-to-women-in-northern-sri-lanka/). Many of the Livelihood Initiatives for Empowerment of Women (LIFE) past beneficiaries in Northern Sri Lanka are now working full time at government managed farms. LIFE has now expanded its programme to include business management skills for future beneficiaries. The ability to transfer long-term knowledge on these women’s areas of expertise have led them to further become active producing, contributing members of their economy.

In the words of Singapore Committee for UN Women’s Project Development Coordinator Ms. Soha Yassine (http://projinspire.com/the-team/), Project Inspire “represents a sustainable solution for the world we want our children to inherit. The traditional model of non-profit NGOs has seen limited success in the past but the convergence of business and social good is a more realistic and exciting model for ending poverty, disease, and injustice in the future.”

Applications are open until 30 June 2014, after which the panel of judges will select the best proposals. Representatives from these teams will be mentored and flown to Singapore to give a formal presentation of their proposal. For more information of Project Inspire, please visit http://projinspire.com/.