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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

UNFPA Battles "Norm" of Gender Inequality

By Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 13 November, (IPS): Despite a slew of U.N. conventions and international agreements against discrimination of women, gender inequality is widespread and remains deeply rooted in many cultures, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

"We know that cultural traditions and beliefs are often stronger than laws," UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid told reporters Wednesday.

But she warned that cultural sensitivities do not mean acceptance of harmful traditional practices or a free pass for human rights abuses. "Far from it," Obaid said.

These practices include child marriages, female genital mutilation, gender violence, honor killings and widespread gender inequality -- most of which are regarded as cultural norms in some societies.

Launching the UNFPA's annual "State of the World Population 2008", Obaid said culture is created by people, and people can change culture.

"Culture is the way we think, act and believe. And values and practices that infringe human rights can be found in all cultures," she pointed out.

The UNFPA has been engaged in a long-standing battle against two harmful practices prevalent mostly in the developing world: child marriages and female genital mutilation.

"In many countries, these practices are illegal -- they are against the law -- and yet, they persist. They persist, because they are deeply rooted within the culture," she added.

Tamara Kreinin, executive director of the U.N. Foundation's Women and Population Programme, admits there are many complexities to addressing harmful cultural practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, and opposition to women's right to family planning information and services.

Still, "We believe that UNFPA's and other agencies' partnerships with local women's rights and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are absolutely critical to ensuring the end to what amount to systematic human rights violations perpetuated through these practices," she told IPS.

The UNFPA report says that cultural power operates through coercion. "Coercion may be visible, hidden in the structures of government and the law, or ingrained in people's own perceptions of themselves."

The study points out that advances in gender equality have never come without cultural struggle.

Women in Latin America, for example, have succeeded in making gender violence visible, and in securing legislation against it. But unfortunately, enforcement remains a problem.

"It is risky to generalize about cultures, and it is particularly dangerous to judge one culture by the norms and values of another," the report warns.

Even in the same culture, the report argues, not everyone agrees on norms and values -- in fact, change comes about when people resist cultural pressures.

The movement towards gender equality is a good example of how this works, the report notes.

Although women and girls are three-fifths of the world's one billion poorest people -- and women are two-thirds of the 960 million adults who cannot read, and girls are 70 percent of the 130 million children who are out of school -- gender inequality is a fact of life in most societies.

Cultural norms and traditions may perpetuate gender-based violence, and both women and men can learn to turn a blind eye, the report adds.

The study says it is important to make alliances with opinion-makers and leaders, as well as people and organizations working in the field.

"Sometimes, the cultural gatekeepers themselves are advocates for women's rights," it notes.

Kreinin of the U.N. Foundation said that UNFPA and other U.N. agencies have a mandate from global human rights agreements and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to identify strategies to ensure that culture is not used as a proxy for violations of women's rights.

"There are local NGOs in every part of the world who are poised to take the lead locally in crafting and implementing such strategies to end these harmful practices," she added.

They are critical partners with U.N. agencies and other stakeholders, particularly in advocating to their governments to fulfill their international obligations to promote, protect and ensure women's rights through appropriate and fully-implemented laws, policies and programmes.

"There is a synergy that comes from UNFPA working in close collaboration with these local NGOs to address these challenging issues the effectiveness of both is strengthened," Kreinin told IPS.

"My organization, the U.N. Foundation, sometimes plays a brokering role to be sure those partnerships flourish and we also work to strengthen local NGOs capacity to use international agreements and U.N. partnerships to enhance their impact."

She said the most critical output of strong partnerships between the United Nations and local NGOs to tackle these challenging issues is that the lives and well-being of more women and girls are preserved and sooner rather than later.

- Asian Tribune -

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