The United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to promote and develop constructive relations between the United Nations and civil society organizations.

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UN-Civil Society Engagement

7 June 2011

Women, Poverty, Crises, and Human Rights

On 3 June, in conjunction with the 17th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Women’s UN Report Network (WUNRN) organized a panel discussion on “Women-Poverty-Crises-Human Rights” in Geneva. Co-sponsored by NGLS, the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), the NGO Committee on the Status of Women in Geneva, and the Worldwide Organization for Women (WOW), the event aimed to explain the linkages between women, poverty and economics from a human rights perspective.

Today, considerably more than half of the world’s poor are women. This situation is maintained by systematic discriminatory practices and inequality, whether in access to education, health care, employment, land, financial resources, clean drinking water and sanitation, or to decision-making processes. The various crises (food, fuel, climate, economic, financial) that in recent years have reversed many development gains in both developed and developing countries have had a disproportionate impact on women.

In her contribution to the meeting, presented by Lois Herman (WUNRN), the UN Independent Expert on the Question of Human Rights and Extreme Poverty Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, gave a human rights and gender perspective in relation to the successive food, fuel and financial and economic crises. She highlighted in her contribution that without a doubt, those who have suffered most because of these crises are women. “Because of ingrained discrimination and structural disadvantage, women have restricted access to services and social protection which help to cushion the shocks of such crises and are thus exposed to increased risk. As a result, they have suffered a disproportionately large share of the damage done by the global economic crisis, and have fallen further into disadvantage and exclusion,” she explained.

She added that UNIFEM studies have shown that previous and current stimulus packages in several countries have tended to favour men over women, despite the fact that women have been more severely affected by the crises. She cautioned that “If a gender approach is not actively considered, there is a serious risk that the recovery from the crises will also exclude women.”

Shahra Razavi, Research Coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), underlined that although the crisis reinforced the argument that open economies need institutionalized systems of social protection, it now seems that the world is moving in the opposite direction. “It is legitimate to ask if the world is not re-entering a new phase of fiscal retrenchment given the austerity measures being taken in many developed countries, especially in Europe,” she said.

According to Ms. Razavi, the groups that will suffer the greatest reduction in their standard of living due to cuts in public services as a result of these austerity measures are lone parents and single pensioners, the majority of whom are women. Moreover, the cuts will lead to hundreds of thousands of women losing their jobs as 53% of the jobs in the public sector services (care services) that have not been protected from the cuts are held by women. Also, cuts in welfare spending will disproportionately fall on the finances of women.

She explained that donors often see cash transfers as the life line that is going to hold families together and ensure that children are sent to school and fed properly. Although cash transfer programmes, if well-designed and properly implemented, can provide women and other recipients with a regular and reliable source of additional income to assist them in caring for their families, they often go hand in hand with restricting conditionalities. Therefore cash transfers alone are not sufficient. A comprehensive social policy programme must be in place, she underlined, noting that such a programme requires effective tax systems that can raise the necessary revenues, as well as economic strategies that create productive employment opportunities offering decent wages and safe working conditions.

She concluded by noting that “Much bolder initiatives are needed to move away from existing policy mind-sets and to start re-thinking policies from the point of view of human needs and human rights – including women’s rights – as opposed to the narrow interests of a small élite of financiers who have amassed huge wealth over the past thirty years.”

Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director of CWGL, and James Heintz, had prepared a statement for this meeting, which was presented by one of the co-sponsoring organizations. In the statement, they explained why it is important to make institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank accountable to human rights. In short, UN Member States are required to contribute to international cooperation in the full realization of human rights. Although the IMF is not a party to the fundamental international agreements on human rights, it has a direct and immediate impact on the policy decisions that governments undertake and their ability to respect human rights. However, in the past as well as today, the IMF has not taken these human rights implications into account; and has in effect forced governments to violate their economic and social rights obligations in order to get access to badly needed resources. This could mean cutbacks in education or health or austerity measures that cause unnecessary job losses to reassure foreign investors. The statement underlines that the future macro-economic policies of the IMF should be aligned with three human rights obligations, including on progressive realization and non-retrogression, on non-discrimination and equality, and on the principle of maximum available resources. The conventional approach suggests that the IMF’s core macroeconomic policies dictate what governments can or cannot do to meet their human rights obligations. The approach articulated at this meeting suggested that “human rights obligations represent the constraints under which macroeconomic policies must operate, not the other way around.”

Ruchi Tripathi, Head of Right to Food at ActionAid International, highlighted the importance of investing in women smallholders. She noted that women smallholders comprise an average of 43% of the agricultural labour force of developing countries. However, they hardly receive any attention in agricultural programmes, policies and budget allocations as they are not recognized as “productive farmers.” Moreover, women face many constraints in terms of access to markets, key assets, land, and a disproportionate care burden. Using recent figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, she underlined that closing this gender gap in agriculture could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12%-17%. She therefore called for an integrated approach that would recognize women as farmers and food producers, as well as their reproductive and productive roles.

Beatrice Fihn, Reaching Critical Will, explained the distorted relation between global military expenditures and women living in poverty. Using figures from a new report released by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, she noted that global military expenditures were estimated at US$1,630 billion in 2010, the highest number ever. This figure is alarming, as military investments represent investments in war and conflict. Besides, military expenditures often go at the cost of spending for development and poverty reduction and negatively impact States obligations to protect human rights and to protect the most vulnerable, including women in poverty. For example, Ms. Fihn noted that it would only take between US$35 to US$76 billion per year until 2015 for the international community to be able to live up to the Millennium Development Goals. She also addressed the direct relationship between military expenditures and maternal mortality rates. However, military expenditures are often left off the debate in human rights and poverty.

Photo credits:
© UN Photo/Martine Perret: Women Collects Rice in Timor-Leste, 15 July 2010

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