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‘Invisible’ Women to Gain Under UN Agency Push, Bachelet Says

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, head of a new United Nations agency focused on support for women, said lack of respect for their rights is hampering maternal health gains and efforts to curb sexual violence.

“Women are almost invisible in some places,” Bachelet said at the UN in New York. “They are second-class citizens. They are seen as people without rights. It is a shame for humanity.”

Bachelet spoke at her first news conference since being named under-secretary-general for the agency, to be known as UN Women, following the announcement yesterday of $40 billion in pledges to fund a UN plan improve the health of women and young children over the next five years.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday unveiled a $169 billion program intended to prevent the deaths of 15 million children under five years old and save 570,000 women who would die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The UN said commitments to the plan include $5 billion from Japan and $3.29 billion from the United Kingdom. The Seattle- based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Monrovia, California-based World Vision International pledged $1.5 billion each and CARE, whose headquarters is in Atlanta, said it would donate $1.8 billion, the UN said.

Corporate Pledges

Corporate pledges include $840 million from Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Co. and $200 million each from Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson and New York-based Pfizer Inc.

“This is a day we have long waited for,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in New York. She announced a U.S. joint venture with the U.K., Australia and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to make family planning available to 120 million women by 2015. She didn’t say how much money was being invested in the effort or announce any additional funds.

The U.K.-based aid group Oxfam International questioned the UN’s assertion that the $40 billion was new pledges, saying in a statement that “almost half of the cash has already been pledged elsewhere.”

Improving the lot of women would accelerate economic development in the poorest nations, help the UN alleviate poverty and hunger and foster political stability, according to advocates. The potential of half of the population in many countries remains largely untapped, they say.

Economic Argument

“We haven’t made the economic argument,” Alyse Nelson, chief executive of the Washington-based women’s group Vital Voices, said in an interview. “Change happens when those who hold power see how it is in their interests. We need to show men that giving women a piece of the pie is not taking something away them.”

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao said at the formal announcement of the UN initiative that “women’s and children’s health is crucial to the development of every country, every nation and to the entire humanity.”

“Women’s and children’s health is a must if we are to embrace a bright future,” Wen said. “Let us work together to advance this cause.”

A June report from the UN, World Bank and other development organizations said progress has been “sluggish on all fronts -- from education to political decision-making.”

While the number of women holding parliamentary positions has increased to 19 percent from 11 percent in 1995, the goal of gender parity by 2015 is out of reach. Equity in primary school education has been widely achieved, yet only 70 girls for every 100 boys are enrolled in African and Asian colleges and the share of women employed outside of agriculture is as low as 20 percent in those regions.

Inadequate Funding

Bachelet said UN work on women’s issues has suffered from “inadequate funding and fragmentation.” Her office, which has a proposed budget of $500 million for 2011, consolidates four existing agencies.

She also said economic advancement is critical to meeting all of the UN poverty and hunger reduction aims, known as the Millennium Development Goals, and to advancing democratic governance in developing countries.

“We have to improve their share of paid employment,” she said, noting that women hold as low as 20 percent of jobs outside agriculture in the world’s poorest nations. “Also, as long as they provide the only care for children and the elderly, they will not have economic opportunities.”

The mass rapes by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo two months ago, 18 miles from a UN peacekeeping unit, epitomize the lack of respect for women, Bachelet said.

“It is women seen as people without rights,” she said.

Creating UN Women is a big step toward elevating the importance of women’s issues, Nelson said.

“It sends a huge signal to countries that women are at the center of the agenda,” she said. “We are not anywhere near where we need to be and if we stay on the track we are on we will not meet the goals.”

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