Overview on Gender Parity

WFUNA Newsletter: March 2009.

In a speech to his fellow Ghanaians in the early 1900s, the visionary educator, Dr. J.E. Kwegyir Aggrey, declared, “The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family.”

According to the World Bank, the good news today is that girls have crowded into school in record numbers over recent decades. This is very valuable progress, since the education of girls and women is one of the most crucial elements of lasting and sustainable economic and social development. Although there is hope and obvious improvement at a global level, certain regions are still falling behind.

The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008 concludes that two out of three countries have achieved gender parity at the primary education level in developing regions, with Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia maintaining the largest gender gap in primary education enrolment. Since the empowerment of women is a key to reach several, if not all, of the MDGs, the Report urges countries not to neglect this issue.

Education of women is in direct correlation with their career and earning potential. Statistics show that income earning opportunities increased for women from 1990 to 2006, although the proportion of women in vulnerable, part-time, seasonal and short-term informal jobs is still high especially in developing countries. To improve the quality of women’s occupation, secondary and tertiary education is crucial.

In times of economic hardship and social uncertainties, the issue of gender equality needs more attention and commitment than ever before. A 7 February article in The New York Times argues that banks and other financial institutions are in desperate need of more female employees in order to reach a reasonably balanced management and decision making structure. The article mentions an interesting consensus at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, in Switzerland, where participants concluded that we would not be in the current financial turmoil if Lehman Brothers had actually been “Lehman Brothers and Sisters”. At the heart of the witty joke lies the fact that diverse groups perform better in problem solving scenarios then those dominated by one gender.

The fifty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March addressed these issues and urged representatives from all sectors to promote equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men including care giving in terms of HIV/AIDS, to issue gender sensitive labor and social policies, to value and measure unpaid work, and to eliminate gender stereotypes. The Commission discussed the impact of the global economic downturn on the status of women. The crisis is likely to set back the progress that has been made in gender equality. To prevent the rate of unemployment from growing faster for women than men, responses to the crisis should include revised policies that protect and support women and halt any further increase in inequality.

Some UN reform initiatives include efforts to better promote gender issues. The establishment of a UN entity on gender equality with a mandate that combines normative, analytical, and monitoring functions with policy advisory and targeted programming functions is under consideration. Under this plan, several agencies dealing with gender issues would be consolidated – the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, the Division for the Advancement of Women, UNIFEM, and perhaps the International Research and Training Institute for Women. It would be headed by an Under Secretary-General and funded ambitiously. This new form of increased and more coordinated presence of gender issues in the UN system could promote faster progress in areas such as gender equality, gender justice and women’s empowerment.

Some see this new gender architecture for the UN as an improvement. The new entity would assume more authority and funding than current small, under-resourced organizations do. Furthermore, a centralized and powerful strategy under the leadership of an Under Secretary-General, could promote gender issues a lot more efficiently at the highest possible level in the UN System.

The idea raises some concerns as well. Is it better to have one entity representing all the nuances of gender related issues or would the cause be better served if the existing agencies that deal with specific gender issues remain separate? If the latter strategy is applied, the reform should work on improving cooperation among these organizations.

Whether a new entity is established or the existing ones are empowered, it should be emphasized throughout the process that gender mainstreaming is relevant on all levels and across the entire UN system. An increased demand for the contribution of outside groups and organizations working on gender issues should further deepen the understanding of any new challenges, and facilitate timely and relevant reaction.

Although significant achievements have been made in these areas, both gender parity and gender architecture must remain high on the UN agenda.

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(source : UN Connections-WFUNA Newsletter, issue No. 92; by Zsuzsa Biro and Therese Stendahl)

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