Address Power Relations to Achieve Development Goals, say Leading Gender Experts

Advances in policies and legislations at the macro-level do not necessarily bring about progress for women. Their implementation are frequently obstructed by entrenched structures, values and power relations at the meso- and micro-level, shaping local policies, communities and cultural beliefs and women’s daily lives. This is the level where empowerment must occur if progress for women is to be achieved.

That was one of the key messages heard at a forum entitled, “Where’s the Power in Women’s Empowerment?” organized today by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The forum was part of a regular seminar series organized by Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP’s Executive Secretary, with the aim of providing a platform for the debate and discussion of issues relevant to the Asia-Pacific region.

The forum heard from a panel made up of a group of experts from the Research Programme Consortium on Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts, which carries out cutting-edge research across several countries to deepen understanding of women’s empowerment and how the stumbling blocks to achieving their empowerment may be overcome.

The group of experts consisted of: Ms. Yakin Ertürk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women; Ms. Vivienne Wee, the Director of the Research Programme Consortium on Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts; Ms. Bina Agarwal, a Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University; and Ms. Farida Shaheed, the Deputy Director of the Research Programme Consortium on Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts.

Development goals in Asia and the Pacific will be endangered if unequal power relations are not challenged and transformed, said Ms. Heyzer during the panel discussion.

The experts cautioned that laws supportive of women, improvements to women’s access to resources, and political participation do not, by themselves, change relations of power. Culture and religion continue to be used by a privileged few to legitimize gendered power structures. The experts called for making women “part of the group” that defines culture and values. However, they emphasized that women who occupy decision-making positions must also be advocates for women’s rights in order to effect change.

While progressive interpretations of culture and religion are crucial to women’s empowerment, the experts further addressed the material conditions required and underscored that ownership of immovable property – particularly housing and land – is also key to achieving empowerment. Ms. Agarwal noted that the face of the farmer is increasingly female, and described the benefits of group farming for women – such as improvements in children’s health and education. Collective farming initiatives can be facilitated by non-governmental organizations and self-help groups, Ms. Agarwal added.
Also examined was empowerment through freedom from violence, which was described as a “tool to keep women in their place” by Ms. Ertürk and impairs women’s abilities, influences their daily decisions, and has long flourished in the protected private sphere. “Silence and secrecy are a shelter for power and its abuses,” said Ms. Ertürk.

That the issue of violence against women is now on the global agenda is a sign that the silence has been broken and led to several transformative impacts: inclusion of violence against women in conventional human rights discourse, especially in terms of the private sphere; the doctrine of state responsibility; and transformation of the criminal justice system.

However, there is a tendency to delink violence against women from its root causes, the forum heard. Rather than focus on women as victims and in need of protection, the experts called for removing the disempowering forces that constrain women and enforcing the due diligence obligation of States and the United Nations system.

The forum further examined what analysis and strategies are necessary to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals related to gender, beyond the current focus on indicators, such as education, health or political participation, which may not fully capture the extent of women’s empowerment.