In a session prior to the 2014 UN’s Commission on the Status of Women hearings, young women and a few men gathered for breakfast in the impressive delegates lounge of the United Nations for a lively discussion of ”Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls Health.” The World YWCA was represented by having one director from the Zambia YWCA speaking on the panel and one World YWCA Vice President from Mexico in the audience, as well as four of its UN representatives. Seven high school students and their director from the New York City YWCA’s Independence High School program also attended as guests.
As a first speaker from the UN Family Planning Association put it, the audience was there because youth represents 1.8 billion or ¼ of the world’s population, and 90% of them live in poverty in low-income countries. While adolescent girls – 600 million in developing countries – are a valuable resource for the future, they are also the most vulnerable group to suffer violence during war and peace, and their rights to safety, health, and education are being badly neglected. Her figures were startling: “Every 2 seconds a girl under 18 is married; every 4 seconds a girl gets pregnant, and every 10 seconds, a girl has an unsafe abortion.” She added that other concerns involve the 2 million adolescent girls who have HIV/AIDs due to sexual activity, the 10+ million girls and boys under age 19 who smoke, and the ¼ of all girls not enrolled in education.
Other speakers then added their own ideas of problems and solutions for this same worldwide population of girls in the 193 member countries of the United Nations. “Adolescent girls really are the foundation of a healthy society,” said a representative of the World Bank. But the UN Ambassador from Brazil stressed that a major problem for youth is poverty: where poverty exists, inequality for girls exists and they are put to work, forced to give up education, or are married off. He told of Brazil’s solution of state money with stipends given to poor mothers who accept school attendance requirements, and special attention given to minority racial or indigenous groups. “It can’t be left to the market economy,” he stressed; government must get involved. Our YWCA member Chongo Mwila from Zambia added that help and instructions must be translated and monitored for poor families; just passing legal provisions is not enough.
Gender Equality Panel: L to R: YW Chongo Mwila; UNWomen VP Mme. Puri; Rep. from
Indonesia; Moderator; Reps from World Bank and UNFPA, and Ambassador from Brazil.
Some other cautions were voiced both by speakers and the audience during a lively question period. Andrea Nunez, World YWCA Vice President from Mexico, cautioned
that local male officials are often not trained or responsive to women’s complaints or issues, that penal laws such as those for having an abortion in some countries are cruel and unjust, and that governments need strong education on women’s rights . A man representing Indonesia, which helped sponsor the conference, suggested that women and young women need to fight for a larger role in governance and politics if they are to make real headway on the major problems of violence and empowerment. Another Indonesian woman said that the issue of how fundamentalism treats women and influences some governments must be addressed and also the plight of migrant women who move to escape violence or inequity but then often have no protection.
As we could see, all of the groups and speakers in this session on Gender Equality were actively interested not only in adolescents but in major ongoing world problems that the UN made into MDGs or Millennium Development Goals and passed in 2000 at the start of the 21st Century. The goals are listed below, but Mme. Puri noted that while several areas have seen improvement such as the state of maternal health, the treatment of malaria and HIV/AIDS, and efforts at early education, many of the others involve adolescent girls, and they should be highlighted as victims and made part of any solutions. Girls are most often the victims of hunger and poverty; they need primary and secondary education if they are to work and raise families; they need equity and empowerment and all the health benefits of women; and since they will be 50% of the population, they need to be part of helping to develop and sustain the earth.
MDG Goals for 2015:
– To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
– To achieve universal primary education
– To promote gender equality and empowering of women
– To reduce child mortality rates
– To improve maternal health
– To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
– To ensure environmental sustainability
– To develop a global partnership for development
As the UN approaches the year 2015, the leaders of key groups like those at this meeting are working towards a new version of UN post-15 MDGs and also suggesting major new campaigns. Mme. Puri and others mentioned that a primary one will surely be one to stop Violence Against Women and have all UN countries pass CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women which has been passed by 187 countries since 1987. Sadly the United States is in the small company of states like Iran and Sudan that have not passed it. So the work for Gender Equality for both women and girls continues to be a major effort of such meetings at the UN with the World YWCA playing a role wherever it can. All of the YW representatives such as Rima Salah and Doris Salah, Elizabeth Nash, Jill Sen and myself are glad to be a part of such efforts. We were also cheered that a whole group of YWCA after school students could join us for this program – to learn the issues, some of the remedies, and critical goals so that young women may truly hope for an equal share and role in the world’s future.
Connie Tate, February 2014