Keynote address by Hon' ble Dr. Justice A.S. Anand, Chairperson, NHRC on the theme "Women Empowerment - the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals" at a function organized by the UN Information Centre at 3.30 PM on 7 March 2003

 

Mr. Feodor Starcevic, Director, United Nations Information Centre, distinguished panelists, ladies and gentlemen:

 

March 8th is observed the world over as the International Women's Day. It is an important occasion for us to ponder over the progress achieved towards gender equality and also the unfinished tasks in this regard. 

 

The Preamble to our Constitution refers to the promise of social justice. Right to equality has been enshrined as a Fundamental Right under Chapter III of the Constitution, which also has a provision for affirmative action in favour of women. Despite these Constitutional provisions, special laws enacted to promote gender justice, the status of women continues to be a cause of concern not only in our country but also in most countries of the world.

 

Gender inequities throughout the world are among the most pervasive, though disceptively subtle forms of inequality.  Gender equality concerns each and every member of the society and forms the very basis of a just society.  Human rights issues, which affect women in particular, play a vital role in maintaining the peace and prosperity of a just society.

 

Today as we stand at the beginning of the 21st century, we are still unable to boast of a society where there is total gender equality or gender equity.  Until recently, the question of gender equality or gender equity was merely a topic of theoretical discussion.  Things are changing but rather slowly. 

 

At the International level, prohibition against sex discrimination was first articulated in the United Nations Charter of 1945 and later reiterated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.  Since then, virtually all human rights instruments have reinforced and extended protections against discrimination.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted in 1966 guarantees equal protection of the law to both sexes.  The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also adopted in 1966 promises women equality of status.  The Fourth World Conference on Women, held at Beijing brought us further forward by reaffirming gender equality as a fundamental pre-requisite for social justice.

 

Perhaps the most important conceptual advance in the international law of women’s rights is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), effective 1981, which provides that women be given rights equal to those of men on equal terms.  The Preamble of CEDAW maintains that “the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields.”

 

In India, “WE THE PEOPLE” gave to ourselves a Constitution, which guarantees justice - social, economic and political.  In the matter of equality Article 14 confers on men and women equal rights and opportunities in the political, economic and social spheres.  Article 15 prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, etc.  Article 15(3) makes a special provision enabling the State to make affirmative discriminations in favour of women.  Similarly, Article 16 provides for equality of opportunities in matter of public appointments for all citizens.  Article 39(a) lays down that the State shall direct its policy towards securing all citizens, men and women, equally, the right to means of livelihood, while Article 39(c) ensures equal pay for equal work.  Article 42 directs the State to make provision for ensuring just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.  Above all, the Constitution imposes a fundamental duty on every citizen through Article 51A(e) to renounce the practices derogatory to the dignity of women.  The question, however, is: Have the women been able to reap the benefits provided for them under the Constitution of India?  The answer, unfortunately is not encouraging.  There is a long way to go to achieve the goals enshrined in the Constitution.

 

In tune with various provisions of the Constitution, the State has enacted many women-specific and women-related legislations to protect women against social discrimination, violence and atrocities and also to prevent social evils like child marriages, dowry, rape, practice of Sati, etc.    Notwithstanding the enactment of the laws relating to dowry, rape, violence against women, the factual position is rather distressing.  What is true at the national level is also a cause of concern at the global level.

 

Consider the following statistics:

Ø      Two-thirds of world’s adult illiterates are women, who number about half-a-billion adult women.

Ø      70% of the world’s poor are women.

Ø      Women now account for 50% of those infected by HIV worldwide.  In Africa that figure is now 58%.  

 

Even at the national level, there are several areas of deep concern

Ø      Sharp decline in juvenile sex ratio

Ø      Continuing high maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate

Ø      High gender gap in literacy at all levels

Ø      High rate of dropouts of girl students

Ø      Increasing incidence of crime against women

 

The year 2001 was observed as Women Empowerment Year.  The National Policy for the Empowerment of Women was evolved in 2001. It recognizes that the underlying causes of gender inequality are related to social and economic structure, which is based on informal and formal norms, and practices.  Consequently, the access of women particularly those belonging to weaker sections including Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other backward Classes and minorities, majority of whom are in the rural areas and in the informal, unorganized sector – to education, health and productive resources, among others, is inadequate.  Therefore, they remain largely marginalized, poor and socially excluded.  The Policy underlines the need for mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development process.  The economic empowerment of women through poverty eradication, provision of micro-credit, strategies to save them from the negative impact of globalization etc. were stressed.  Besides economic empowerment, social empowerment of women through education, health, nutrition, drinking water and sanitation, housing and shelter, environment, science and technology and focus on women in difficult circumstances were highlighted.   There is a need for targeted efforts to ensure that rights of women in difficult circumstances who include women in extreme poverty, destitute women, women in conflict situations, women affected by natural calamities, women in less developed regions, the disabled, widows, elderly women, single women in difficult circumstances, women heading households, those displaced from employment, migrants, women who are victims of marital violence, deserted women and prostitutes etc.   

 

With a view to convert the equality of women from de jure to de facto, educating the female would play an important role.  So long as there is disparity between the male and female in education level, the difference between the position of men and women would continue to exist.  It is unfortunately true that a woman has, even in her own home given a rather subordinate role to play.

 

For the emancipation for women in every field, economic independence is of paramount importance.  Along with economic independence, equal emphasis must also to be laid on the total development women—creating awareness among them about their rights and responsibilities—the recognition of their vital role and the work they do at home.  If necessary, a social system must evolve.  The society must respond and change its attitude. 

 

The Heads of State and Government who gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in September 2000, at the dawn of a new millennium adopted a historic Declaration. They recognized that, in addition to their separate responsibilities to their individual societies, they have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. They recognized that they had a duty to the world's people, especially the most vulnerable. The Declaration affirmed their respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and respect for equal rights of all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

 

The Millennium Declaration asserted that no effort would be spared "to free fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected." They affirmed their commitment to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want."

 

Specific targets had been laid down under the categories of `eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, environmental sustainability and a global partnership for development.  All 189 United Nations Member States have pledged to meet the above goals by the year 2015.    

 

In fact, all the goals have a close linkage to one another and for realization of most of them, gender empowerment is the key. For instance, the first goal on the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger refers to the need for reducing by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

Even among the poor, women and children constitute the most vulnerable groups. They share a disproportionate burden of poverty. According to UNDP's Human Development Report for 1995, women account for 70% of the world's poor. This phenomenon, which is referred to as the `feminization of poverty’ calls for, targeted response from governments and others. According to a Study published by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative on `Human Rights and Poverty Eradication', "two-thirds of illiterate people are women. Life expectancy in Africa and Asia is shorter for women than men, contrary to normal expectations elsewhere. 70% of children out of school are girls; malnutrition and mortality rates are much higher among girls than boys."  In view of this, if a real dent is to be made in the fight against poverty and hunger, targeted efforts, keeping the gender dimension and gender empowerment in view, alone can bear fruits.

 

Though the enrolment of girl children has been growing at an impressive rate in recent years, yet it is said that there exists a gap of about 20 percentage points between the enrolment of girls and boys, be it in primary, secondary or higher education level. This gender gap in education is unconscionable. Studies have shown how education of a girl child has positive impact on infant mortality, maternal mortality, health and hygiene, productivity. Education is key to empowerment, which in turn is key to achieving other millennium development goals.

 

Studies have shown that country wide prevalence of moderate to severe anemia among pregnant women is around 47% and that 30% of Infant mortality in India is accounted for by maternal anemia related low birth weight. The maternal mortality rate in India at about 410 per 100,000 births is more than 50 times higher than the rates that exist in the developed countries.  This situation calls for urgent remedial steps. The National Human Rights Commission made elaborate recommendations in this regard. Gender empowerment could contribute to the bringing down of maternal mortality as laid down in the Millennium Development Goals.

 

Reproductive Rights

 

Recognizing the crucial linkages between Population Policy, development and human rights, our Commission organized a two-day colloquium at New Delhi in January, 2003 in association with the Department of Family Welfare and UNFPA.  The Declaration adopted at the end of the colloquium noted with concern that population policies framed by some State Governments reflect in certain respects a coercive approach through use of incentives and disincentives, which in some cases are violative of human rights.  This is not consistent with the spirit of the National Population Policy.  The violation of human rights affects, in particular the marginalized and vulnerable sections of society, including women.  The Declaration emphasized that in a situation where the status of women is low and son preference is prevalent, coercive measures further undermine the status of women and result in harmful practices such as female foeticide and infanticide.  The Declaration affirmed that reproductive rights cannot be seen in isolation, as they are intrinsic to women’s empowerment and empowerment of marginalized sections of society.  Therefore, giving priority to health, education and livelihood of women is essential for exercising these rights, as also for reduction in fertility rates and stabilization of population.  The Declaration acknowledged that reproductive rights set on the foundation of dignity and integrity of an individual encompass several aspects such as:

 

Ø      The right to informed decision-making, free from fear of discrimination

Ø      The right to regular accessible, affordable, good quality and reliable health care;

Ø      The right to medical assistance and counseling for the choice of birth control methods appropriate for the individual couple;

Ø      The right to sexual and reproductive security, free from gender-based violence.

   

Gender and HIV/AIDS

 

According to recent estimates, the HIV virus is increasingly affecting younger and poorer populations of which women form the largest group.  Today heterosexual transmission accounts for 80 percent of HIV infection in India.  Further, the data also indicates that 7 out of 10 women affected by HIV are from poor and urban communities.  The recent data on the spread of HIV/AIDS  is transcending the boundaries of  high-risk groups thereby enlarging the definition of risk-groups by including into its fold: a) adolescents girls (married and single) b) married women in their reproductive age c) single women d) sex workers at various sites including marital homes e) college and university students f) pregnant women g) women survivors of sexual abuse and rape.  In addition, women in need of blood transfusion and those who use drugs are also at risk.

 

The National Conference on Human Rights and HIV/AIDS organized by National Human Rights Commission in November, 2000 recognized that as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned, the present data and research points to two important aspects: first the gender dimension of the virus per se and second, the highly gendered impact of the infection.  Women’s physiological social, sexual and economic vulnerabilities intensify the risks to women’s lives.  Therefore, it is imperative to approach the issue of HIV/AIDS from the perspective of gender vulnerability and Human Rights violations. 

 

The UN Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan in his message on the occasion of International Women’s Day observed that the Millennium Development Goals represent a new way of doing development business and that they form a specific, targeted and time-bound blue print for building a better world in the twenty-first century. He further said: "In our work to reach these objectives, as the Millennium Declaration made clear, gender equality is not only a goal in its own right; it is critical to our ability to reach all the others. Study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries." He, therefore, underlined the need to focus on the needs and priorities of women, which means promoting education of girls and women and placing women at the centre of our fight against HIV/AIDS. "We must make sure that women and girls have all the skills, services and self-confidence they need to protect themselves. "  In other words, they must be empowered.

           

To quote Ballock :

 

                        “You are asking me the hour of the night;

                          My friend, it is already morning”

 

Tomorrow would be too late – let us get moving today.

           

            Ladies and gentlemen – thank you for your patience.