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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2004: Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment
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Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment
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Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment

Global Survey Results
Legal Progress
The ICPD and the MDGs
Challenges: Filling the Half-empty Glass

The 1990s was an outstanding decade for bringing issues of reproductive health and rights, violence against women, and male responsibility for gender power relations to the centre of global and national debates on human rights and human development. The UN conferences of the 1990s, particularly the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the ICPD (Cairo, 1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), were central to a major paradigm shift in population policy.

In Cairo, the world’s governments reached a consensus that affirmed their commitment to promote and protect the full enjoyment of human rights by all women throughout their life cycle. They also agreed to take action to accord more power to women and to equalize their relationships with men, in laws, economic systems and within the household.


Countries should act to empower women and should take steps to eliminate inequalities between men and women . . . by: . . . eliminating all practices that discriminate against women; assisting women to establish and realize their rights, including those that relate to reproductive and sexual health; . . . eliminating violence against women; . . . eliminating discriminatory practices by employers against women such as those based on proof of contraceptive use or pregnancy status; . . . [and] making it possible through laws, regulations and other appropriate measures, for women to combine the roles of child-bearing, breastfeeding, and child rearing with participation in the workforce.

—from the ICPD Programme of Action, para. 4.4.

The ICPD Programme of Action included, for the first time in a major international population policy document, a full and detailed chapter (Chapter IV) on women’s empowerment and gender equality. In part, it stated that: “. . . improving the status of women also enhances their decision-making capacity at all levels in all spheres of life, especially in the area of sexuality and reproduction”.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment were at the heart of the ICPD vision. The Programme of Action’s sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights goals are strongly linked to, and mutually reinforcing of, its goals for women’s empowerment and gender equality. The ICPD made a major new commitment in its objective “. . . to promote gender equality in all spheres of life, including family and community life, and to encourage and enable men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour and their social and family roles” (para. 4.25).

The ICPD also called on countries to “take full measures” to eliminate exploitation, abuse, harassment and violence against women, adolescents and children (para. 4.9). And it called for men to take shared responsibility for parenting, valuing children of both sexes equally, educating them and preventing violence against them. It also urged actions to ensure that men actively participate with women in responsible behaviour in sexual and reproductive matters (para. 4.27).

In various countries, the paradigm shift of the ICPD also helped catalyse important changes in the approach of the UN system at the country level. For instance, in India, the ICPD approach has strong synergy with the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), which prioritizes gender equality and decentralization as crosscutting themes for all UN system assistance to India. The framework’s main objectives in promoting gender equality are to enhance women’s decision-making capability, to promote equal opportunity and to support policy change.

In India, the collaborative actions identified to promote gender equality are:

  • Development of a gender policy analysis framework;
  • Support for a comprehensive gender-disaggregated database;
  • Support to promote gender equality;
  • Assistance in developing gender-sensitive state plans;
  • Promotion of inter-agency action research on gender.

In 2003, the Office of India’s Registrar-General and Census Commissioner, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and UNFPA drew attention to the problem of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, and the resulting decline in the number of girls relative to boys, publishing a booklet entitled, Missing: Mapping the Adverse Child Sex Ratio in India.

In its 1999 review of ICPD implementation, the UN General Assembly called for redoubled action to redress gender inequalities, including the elimination of harmful practices, attitudes and discrimination against women and girls. Zero tolerance among the public was urged for son preference, unequal care for or valuing of girl children, and all forms of violence directed against women—including female genital cutting, rape, incest, sexual violence and trafficking. Governments were encouraged to adopt legal changes, as well as encourage changes in the social, cultural and economic spheres.(1)


Significant progress has been made in implementing these goals in the ten years since ICPD, but this progress has been uneven and still faces many challenges. UNFPA’s 2003 global survey of national progress presents a mixed picture.(2) A number of countries have introduced laws and policies, but less has been done to translate these into programmes, implementation and monitoring.

Nonetheless, important steps have been taken.

For instance, in Mexico, the Women’s Health Programme under the Secretary of Health has been training health sector employees to promote gender equity in their specific areas. Indonesia is implementing the President’s Instructions on Gender Mainstreaming in National Development through regional and provincial development management teams that include government staff, local NGOs and researchers. Iran has established special centres for women police to provide services to women victims of violence, and prevention and counselling services including telephone hotlines.

In India, despite the continuing gender disparity in education, gender gaps in literacy appear to be diminishing in some of the states that traditionally have had the most serious problems, according to the 2001 Population Census. Innovative attempts are being made, as in the state of Haryana, to increase girls’ school attendance by providing escorts to reduce families’ concern about threats to their security. In Mexico, the National Population Council has initiated a major attempt to expand the scope of data collection on a broad range of issues related to sexual and reproductive behaviour.

NGOs, too, have undertaken a range of programmes to make real the ICPD’s promise of gender equity and equality. In Calabar, Nigeria, for example, the Girls’ Power Initiative mobilizes and empowers girls to take charge of their lives by opposing violence and demanding their rights. A corresponding programme for boys trains them to become more gendersensitive and supportive young men.

ADDRESSING INEQUALITY IN HEALTH PROGRAMMES. Many programmes to reduce unintended pregnancy work in settings where women have little autonomy and tend not to be assertive in their relationships with husbands or health care providers.

Interventions such as the Better Life Options programme for young women in India,(3) the Programme for Adolescent Mothers in Jamaica(4) and the Training of Trainers in Health and Empowerment in Mexico(5) aim to strengthen women’s practical skills in longterm thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, and to persuade them that they are capable of making important decisions about their lives and health.

Some successful programmes educate women about reproductive and human rights; others offer training in literacy, employment skills, legal rights, parenting, child health, and social mobilization.

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