Policy on women and gender equality in the United Nations


Both the General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva have considered the subject of the human rights of women in a number of resolutions.

Gender equality in the United Nations: UN Women

UN Women (short for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) began operations on 1 January 2011. The decision to establish it was taken by the General Assembly in July 2010, after four years of negotiations.

UN Women is a strong, effective and visible organisation created from the merger of four formerly distinct UN agencies and programmes in the field of equal opportunities and women’s issues: the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

The new Entity places equal emphasis on the normative and tangible elements which it brings together in its work on equal opportunities and gender equality. It is tasked with promoting the ubiquitously relevant topic of equal opportunities throughout the whole UN system, providing political advice to multinational bodies and member states, as well as running development programmes on the ground. UN Women has taken over all the mandates of the four previously distinct entities it combines, and its work will be founded in the whole United Nations acquis on equal opportunities. This includes the Platform for Action and Declaration adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and Security Council Resolutions on “Women and peace and security”, such as Resolutions 1325 and 1820.

With the rank of Under-Secretary-General, former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet was appointed as the first head of UN Women. Giving its head the rank of Under-Secretary-General places UN Women on an equal footing with the largest UN departments and underlines its significance in the UN hierarchy. Alongside its staff in New York, UN Women is gradually building up a large presence in the field for its operational activities. Its normative work is financed from the regular UN budget, while operational activities are funded through voluntary contributions.

The operational side of UN Women’s work falls under the aegis of an Executive Board comprising 41 elected member states, while the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the body responsible for normative elements.

At its first session in late June 2011, the new Executive Board adopted the UN Women Strategic Plan 2011-2013. It enshrines a focus on the following goals:

1. to increase women’s leadership and participation
2. to increase women’s access to economic empowerment and opportunities
3. to prevent violence against women and girls
4. to increase women’s leadership in conflict resolution and humanitarian response
5. to strengthen the responsiveness of plans and budgets to gender equality
6. to support the development of global norms on gender equality

Policy on women in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council

Both the General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva have considered the subject of the human rights of women in a number of resolutions. Violations of the rights of women are generally regarded as human rights violations if they are perpetrated by the state, if they are tolerated by the state or if the state cannot counter them effectively (because of the weakened power of the state, the buzzword being “state accountability”). “Classical” human rights violations include many manifestations of violence against women (in recent years the focus has been on combating female genital mutilation, so-called “honour crimes” and forced marriage), trafficking in women and all forms of discrimination against women. The question of whether domestic violence should also be classified as a human rights violation is a matter of controversy within the international community (though not in the Western European Group including Germany). The relevance of sexual self-determination, sexual orientation and reproductive rights for human rights issues is also a matter of debate.

The office of a Special Rapporteur has been created within the United Nations to address the theme of violence against women, which has been held since 2009 by Ms Rashida Manjoo. Since 2008, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo of Nigeria has been the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children. The mandate for her position was introduced in 2004, at the initiative of Germany and others.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW is the most important international instrument in protecting women’s human rights. The Convention has been in force since 1981. Germany ratified it in 1985. As well as a ban on discrimination in all areas of life, the Convention also requires the states parties to take a host of concrete measures – in legislation, the judiciary, administration and other areas – to ensure that women and men enjoy equal rights both in law and in reality.

A Committee of 23 independent experts examines to what extent the states parties are fulfilling the obligations of the Convention and taking the necessary measures to implement it. The Committee meets three times a year. From 1989 to 2008, Germany had an active expert representing it on the Committee, Hanna Beate Schöpp-Schilling.

Like all the states parties, the Federal Republic of Germany is obliged to submit a report to the Committee on its implementation of CEDAW. Germany’s most recent periodic report was presented on 2 February 2009 by the responsible Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. To implement the Convention, the German Government is in continuous and constructive dialogue with non-governmental organisations. The next review by the Committee is due to take place in 2015.

The Committee receives additional powers from the Optional Protocol which entered into force on 22 December 2000; this adds an inquiry procedure and a complaints procedure for women who feel their rights have been violated. Germany ratified the Optional Protocol on 15 January 2002.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

6. Bericht der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zum Übereinkommen der Vereinten Nationen zur Beseitigung jeder Form von Diskriminierung der Frau (CEDAW) PDF / 716 KB

The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) and the Platform for Action it adopted

A Platform for Action laying out the future agenda for all areas of international women’s policy was adopted as early as 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It established the following focus areas: women and poverty, education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women and the economy, women in power and decision-making, institutional mechanism for the advancement of women, human rights of women, women and the media, women and the environment, and the girl-child.

Since then, the United Nations, the European Union and other international organisations have been dedicating significant energies to these subjects, which also play an important role in Germany’s foreign policy.

Clear progress can already be discerned in some areas of women’s rights, particularly in life expectancy and access to school education. There are also more women than ever who have their own income. At the same time, women’s rights continue to be abused in all regions of the world, and calls for political and economic participation remain unanswered.

The implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action has been assessed every five years since its adoption. The most recent occasion was the 54th session of the CSW in 2010, marking the Platform’s 15thanniversary. The commemorative event held in the General Assembly included speeches from the chairs of the five regional groups. In its capacity as chair of the Western European and Others Group of States (WEOG), Germany emphasised the significance of the conference and elucidated a Western view of the current challenges facing gender equality policy.

To coincide with the 56th session of the CSW on 8 March 2012, the UN Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly launched the idea of holding a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015 (20 years after the Beijing Conference). Their proposal was met with not unmitigated enthusiasm, given that the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fully implemented. Nonetheless, an event of this kind would present an opportunity to address issues of gender equality afresh in light of current global developments, as described, for instance, in the 2012 World Development Report. We need to keep up with the way issues of gender equality and of policy on women are evolving, especially in view of the outcomes and guidelines which can be expected from the Rio+20 Summit and the end of MDG implementation in 2015.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)

The central organ in the United Nations for women’s issues and gender equality is the Commission on the Status of Women of ECOSOC (the UN Economic and Social Council), which was set up as early as 1946 on the initiative of, among others, the then First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. Its main task is to promote women’s rights and to ensure equal rights for women. By contributing to the continuing codification of women’s rights, it fulfils an important function in international law. The CSW has been meeting annually in New York since 1993. Its 45 members are elected in ECOSOC for periods of four years.

The establishment of UN Women has created new tasks for the CSW. Since January 2011, it has also functioned as the supervisory body for UN Women’s normative work.

Germany greatly values the work done by the CSW and has been a member of the Commission since 2008.

The Commission on the Status of Women has addressed a great variety of equality-based themes in recent years, including the equal participation of women in political decision-making processes, issues of the gender perspective and the special situation of women in connection with poverty eradication, the role of women in development policy and women’s access to the media and to information and communications technology (ICT).

In 2004, the CSW for the first time considered the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality. The result was a new dimension and a guide for the future of the international debate on gender equality. The 57th session of the CSW in March 2013 adopted a concluding document on tackling violence against women which was described as historic.

UN Commission on the Status of Women

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