The United Nations is stepping up pressure on governments to overturn laws and end policies that deny women access to legal systems, control of their bodies and protection from violence, said former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, head of a UN agency promoting women’s rights.
“In every place, we are working to identify laws that discriminate against women” and overturn them, Bachelet, the under-secretary-general in charge of the agency known as UN Women, said in an interview with Bloomberg News in New York.
UN Women, established a year ago by the General Assembly. released its first report today. Bachelet said the findings will stimulate debate on women’s legal issues, showcase innovative programs that advance gender equity, and provide benchmarks to measure future progress.
The 165-page report said that 30 of the 186 countries that ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women have enacted legal “reservations” limiting marital or familial rights.
“For many millions of women, justice remains out of reach,” Bachelet said. “The rule of law rules out women.”
The report found that 127 nations don’t explicitly criminalize rape within marriage, 61 severely restrict abortion rights, and 50 have a lower legal age of marriage for women than for men. Only 11 percent of sexual assaults are reported, and “only a fraction of cases end in a conviction or just outcome,” the report said.
The UN’s efforts are tailored to individual nations, Bachelet said. In Tunisia and Egypt, the goal is to ensure that women are participants in the transition to democracy. UN Women is training judges in Liberia to handle rape cases, developing laws in Kyrgyzstan to enable equal access to inheritances, and advising Albania’s leaders on how to increase participation of women in government.
“You cannot come in from outside and impose a recipe,” Bachelet said. “We are demand-driven. To make changes that are sustainable, we need to involve the governments.”
Financial support is an issue, Assistant Secretary-General John Hendra, a top aide to Bachelet, said in an interview.
“Our pockets are not deep,” he said. “Our role is to stimulate focus on these issues. We are telling governments they need to put more resources into these areas and walk the talk. Women can’t afford justice.”
Hendra said UN Women has only $225 million of a budgeted $300 million for programs to advance women’s legal rights in 2011. He also noted that of $4.2 billion allocated for justice issues by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2009, only 5 percent of that money targeted legal barriers to gender equity.
The report also showcases advances from 1911, when only two nations allowed women to vote. Today, 173 countries guarantee paid maternity leave and 115 mandate equal property rights, and parliaments in 28 are composed of at least 30 percent women, according to the UN.
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