United Nations, Feb 18, 2010 (IPS) - The statistics relating to the world's socially and economically-distressed women are staggering.

By Thalif Deen

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 8,000 women were raped by warring factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year while over three million young girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide.

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that out of nearly 1,000 sexual abuse and over 1,500 domestic violence cases reported in Sierra Leone last year, there wasn't a single conviction.

"By the end of her lifespan, nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer some form of sexual or gender-based violence," says UNDP's deputy country director Samuel Harbor.

At the same time, nearly 250,000 child soldiers have been recruited in various conflicts worldwide, with girls at particular risk of becoming sex slaves, says the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complains that 30 years after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), "Women and girls are still suffering from the scourge."

"Violence against women and girls is found in all countries," he says, pointing an accusing finger at all 192 U.N. member states.

All of these issues - and more - will come up before the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the U.N.'s primary policy-making body on gender-related issues, at its two-week-long meeting in New York.

The meeting, scheduled to take place Mar. 1-12, is billed as one of the largest single gatherings of human rights activists, relating specifically to rights of women.

A primary focus of the meeting will be the successes and failures of the Platform for Action adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

The wide-ranging plan provided a global policy framework for women's human rights, gender equality and empowerment of women.

It covered 12 critical areas of concern, including poverty; education and training; health; violence against women; armed conflict; the economy; power and decision-making; institutional mechanism; human rights; media; the environment; and the girl child.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted at a U.N. summit in 2000, reiterated gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to fight poverty, hunger and disease, and also to stimulate sustainable development.

Marianne Mollmann, advocacy director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS that unfortunately "there is no strong U.N. body charged with the implementation" of the Beijing Platform for Action.

She said that member states have been "dragging their feet" over a proposal to set up a new gender entity, although there have been rumours that an announcement will be made about the creation of such a body during the CSW sessions.

Mollmann said HRW has been focusing primarily on the need for a new U.N. gender architecture. "It's a structural issue," she said.

Without such a structure, she argued, there is a lack of accountability on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action.

Meanwhile, a high-level round table meeting, with participation by government ministers and senior U.N. officials, will be held during the CSW sessions.

A paper that will be up for discussion at this meeting points out there have been marked increases in hunger in all of the world's major regions, and more than one billion people are now estimated to be undernourished.

"Women are more likely to be undernourished than men as they tend to have disproportionate access to food, especially when it is scarce," it said.

Despite shrinking estimates of the number of girls out of school, girls continue to account for the majority of children out of school, and women remain a majority of those who are classified as illiterates.

The paper also says that access to labour markets and to decent work remains particularly limited for women, with a large share of women in vulnerable employment.
And every year, an estimated 210 million women suffer from life-threatening complications of pregnancy, often leading to serious disability, and a further half a million women die in pregnancy or at or shortly after child birth - and nearly all of them in developing countries.

The paper also says that multiple global crises, including the economic and financial crisis, the food and energy crises and the challenge of climate change, have had an adverse impact on the achievement of internationally-agreed development goals, including the MDGs.

"It is, therefore, an opportune time to rethink and modify policy approaches, strategies and actions to ensure a more equitable, gender-sensitive and sustainable pattern of growth and development."

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