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Preparatory Meeting Reviews Subjects of Violence Against Women, Women in Power and Decision-making

Published:19 January 2000

Geneva

A European meeting on gender issues concluded a panel discussion this afternoon on women and violence -- with speakers calling for more effective action to prevent rape and other wartime atrocities and recommending that women be involved in peace negotiations and reconstruction programmes -- and then held a panel debate on "women in power and decision-making" during which a number of participants decried insufficient representation of women in national Parliaments and high Government positions.

The Regional Preparatory Meeting on the 2000 Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action will continue through Friday. The gathering, organized by the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission, is intended to provide European input for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century" to be held in June in New York. The General Assembly will focus on progress made in the wake of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing five years ago.

Panellists on the topic of violence against women in situations of war or conflict -- all of whom made introductory statements at the end of the morning meeting -- were Laura Balbo, Minister of Equal Opportunities of Italy; Marijana Grandits, former Member of Parliament and a political scientist and consultant, of Austria; and Jadranka Milicevic, Member of the Managing Board of Zene Zenama and Women in Black, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Panellists for the discussion on women in power and decision-making were Françoise Gaspard, former Parliamentarian and now representative of France to the Commission on the Status of Women; Joanna Regulska, a Professor at Rutgers University in the United States; Galina Sillaste, President of the International Association "Women and Development", of the Russian Federation; and Katia Ivanisevic, Speaker of the Chamber of Counties of Croatia.

In her introductory remarks, Ms. Ivanisevic said that a first step towards progress in many countries would be to achieve sufficient women's representation in Parliaments; her own country did not have enough, especially as compared to the near gender parity found in the Parliaments of some Scandinavian countries.

Ms. Gaspard said women were seeking nothing less than parity -- equal participation in public decision-making and in fora where the destiny of the world was being debated.

Ms. Sillaste said that the farther up the pyramid of power one went in the Russian Federation, the fewer women there were. Currently there was not a single woman adviser to the Russian President and not a single woman on the Russian Defense or Security Councils. There was only one woman deputy prime minister.

Ms. Regulska told the meeting that women's participation in political and public life had to be recognized as a fundamental condition for true democracy, and that progress made over the last five years to that end, despite vigorous efforts based on the Beijing Platform for Action, had been very limited.

Participating in the afternoon meeting were representatives of Norway; Human Rights Watch USA; Italy; Georgia; Union of Women's Organizations of Macedonia; Belgium; Albanian Family Planning Association; Azerbaijan; Women's Studies and Creativity, Subotica, of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; Romania, Azerbaijan Women and Development Centre; Netherlands; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; Tajikistan; Denmark; Kazakhstan; Caucus on Decision-Making of Women in Power; Sweden; Women's Environment and Development Organization; Israel; TALDI, on behalf of the NGO Caucus; Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan; Inter-Parliamentary Union; Network for Gender Issues; and Turkey.

The preparatory session will resume at 10 a.m. Friday, 21 January, for conclusion of the debate on women in power and decision-making. A panel discussion on the subject of "institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women" will follow.

Discussion: violence against women during war and conflict situations

Numerous speakers observed that women and children were now major targets of wars and other armed conflicts and that they made up the majority of victims. They also said impunity for such wartime sexual offenses must be abolished -- that such violence would never end as long as perpetrators did not expect to be held accountable for their actions. It was suggested that statutes for the International Criminal Court could form a good basis for prosecuting those who committed violent acts against women during war, and nations were urged to adopt statutes making wartime rape an international crime.

Humanitarian-response measures and peacekeeping forces could sometimes cause further problems for women already traumatized by war, several participants in the debate said; it was important for peacekeepers to be trained in gender issues and for them to avoid violations of women's rights. The problems posed for women and children by anti-personnel landmines and acts of hostage-taking were mentioned. A representative of the Netherlands said the international community did not sufficiently include women's viewpoints in responses to conflict situations and that women instead were too often considered to be and portrayed as victims; women should participate in peace negotiations and should participate in peace-building and reconstruction efforts following conflicts, this official said. Similarly, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom said nations carrying out peace negotiations and conflict-resolution programmes should consult with women's NGOs in the countries and regions affected.

Responding to the debate, panellist LAURA BALBO, Minister for Equal Opportunities of Italy, said, among other things, that it had been pointed out during the discussion and bore repeating that there were connections between conflicts, arms merchants, and the international drug trade, and that all these matters had to be tackled in addressing the causes and consequences of war. She also agreed that it was important, as mentioned, that women be considered as agents of change and included among decision-makers in response to conflict situations -- that they shouldn't be characterized solely as victims.

Panellist MARIJANA GRANDITS, former Member of Parliament and a political scientist, and consultant, of Austria, told the meeting that the United Nations should create an agency for internally displaced persons, as no international body currently focused on the precise and pressing needs of this vast group of people, many of whom were women and children fleeing conflicts; and that national Governments should provide resources to NGOs working in the field of women's issues and conflict response.

And panellist JADRANKA MILICEVIC, Member of the Managing Board of Zene Zenama and Women in Black, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing the NGO Caucus, said, among other things, that all international and national efforts seeking resolution to the recent Balkans conflicts had excluded women and failed to take gender issues sufficiently into account, and that future conflict-resolution programmes around the world should not make the same mistake.

Statements of panellists: women in power and decision-making

KATIA IVANISEVIC, Speaker of the Chamber of Counties of Croatia, said a first step towards progress in many countries was to achieve sufficient women's representation in Parliaments; her own country did not have enough, especially as compared to the near gender parity found in the Parliaments of some Scandinavian countries. Electoral processes and ways for enabling more women to enter Parliaments needed to be explored, and current women Parliamentarians needed to be supported and encouraged so that they could remain in their positions.

Women Presidents of national Parliaments had held a meeting in Norway last year; there were only 40 such women Presidents in the world; the meeting had determined that the numbers of women in elected positions had to be increased in order to change attitudes and improve women's social, political and economic situations. Political parties also would pay more attention to women's issues if more candidates and office-holders were women; and once in office, women could be expected to bolster legislation helpful to women. Such benefits as maternity leave and child care should be provided to members of Parliament.

FRANCOISE GASPARD, former Parliamentarian and now representative of France to the Commission on the Status of Women, said women were seeking nothing less than parity -- equal participation in public decision-making and in fora where the destiny of the world was being debated. There was still a lot of resistance to the participation of women in decision-making; the progress that had been made in Governments had occurred because they had been compelled to change by international pressure and by grass-roots organizations. Lack of participation of women in various democratic Governments raised the question of whether they were in fact democracies. It continued to be true that women were underrepresented in many national Parliaments.

Inequalities in salaries and wages between men and women reflected the fact that men negotiated contracts and made business decisions, and that men made decisions on economic policy and labour standards. The concept of parity was a leap in perspective; quotas for women had been set in the past but it had become clear that quotas -- 20 per cent or 40 per cent of elected representatives, for example -- did not really work. Once quotas were reached, they never seemed to be exceeded. Parity was more of a challenge; it was a goal truly worth achieving.

GALINA SILLASTE, President of the International Association "Women and Development", of the Russian Federation, told the meeting that a famous French diplomat once had said women were, and would, be politics; unfortunately, if progress really had been made to that end today's meeting would not be necessary. In fact, women faced a series of challenges towards obtaining sufficient authority in Governments and power structures. In the Russian Federation, the number of women in national political and Government bureaucratic positions had fallen in recent years at the higher levels, although at lower levels and in regional Government bodies women had achieved gains. The farther up the pyramid one went, the fewer women there were. Currently there was not a single woman adviser to the Russian President and not a single woman on the Russian Defense or Security Councils. There was one woman deputy prime minister.

By contrast, every fifth director of a local administration in Russia was a woman, and it was true that at local levels women did have a chance to make decisions that had an effect on daily life. On the other hand, it also was important for women to be able to affect national legislation, and since 1984 women had gradually declined in representation in the Russian Duma. Very few members of regional Russian Parliaments were women. The absence of women from Government and high positions in businesses meant that the decisions taken in these powerful sectors generally did not take women's interests into account.

JOANNA REGULSKA, Professor at Rutgers University in the United States, said women's participation in political and public life had to be recognized as a fundamental condition for true democratic rights, and also had to be implemented; progress made over the last five years, despite vigorous efforts, had been very limited, and in fact, despite the recommendations of the Beijing Platform for Action, progress had not been made at all in some countries. An absence of women in democratic institutions could be seen as an indication of persistent and pervasive social and cultural discrimination against women. It was not possible to have viable, sustainable democracy without effective participation by women.

While the representation of women in central and eastern European Parliaments and other political institutions had, in general, increased over the last 10 years, their numbers remained too low. Further, numbers did not tell the whole story; it was clear in many cases that even when some women did achieve elected positions they did not have sufficient power to change policies or influence legislation. It also frequently happened that women were elected to lower-level posts but could not win higher Government and elected positions. Limited recognition of women's ability and competence for elective office meant that women's issues and points of view were underrepresented in Government activities.

Discussion

A number of national delegations described the status of women in their Parliaments and Government ministries, with most citing progress in terms of numbers but adding that representation fell short of parity; some added that family and career responsibilities made it difficult for women to participate in political life, which could be time-consuming, and said special steps should be taken to enable women to pursue and hold political office. Parity in national and regional Parliaments was described as a goal by several non-governmental organizations, which also noted that the percentage of women in elected legislative bodies varied widely from country to country in Europe; countries with low percentages were appealed to review their policies and elective systems. It was added that women's NGOs often served as a starting point from which women moved on to political careers, and that such NGOs helped raise campaign funds for women candidates. Even if parity for elected positions could not be subjected to time-bound goals and targets, the Women's Environment and Development Organization said, such targets could be set for Government appointed positions.

Of ministers in the Swedish Government, there were 11 women and nine men, a Swedish spokeswoman said, to a round of applause; this achievement reflected a commitment among political parties to achieve parity, which included targets and timetables. Stricter internal routines also had been set up for Government appointments to boards and commissions to ensure greater representation of women. It was now a general policy for such appointments that two names be put forward for each position -- one of a woman, and one of a man. One lesson learned in Sweden, she said, was that without political will and time-bound goals with specific targets, progress would not be achieved however well-designed programmes and policies were.

A representative of the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan said there had been an unacceptable decline in recent years in women's representation in elected and Government positions in countries undergoing economic transition. For example, in Armenia, women's representation in political office had declined from 12 per cent to 4 per cent; in Kyrgyzstan it had not reached more than 5 per cent, and in the Russian Federation it had fallen from 11 per cent to 8 per cent in the last elections. The organization called for a recommendation that Governments establish special temporary measures to reach at least 30 per cent representation of women in the next elections.

* * *

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United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

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Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05


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