Betraying Beijing [Archives:2005/835/Culture]

April 21 2005

By Nisha
For the Yemen Times

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, culminated with the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA). The Declaration describes and seeks to improve the situation of women around the world. It outlines and analyses twelve principal areas of concern: women and poverty; education and training; women and health; violence against women; women and armed conflict; women and the economy; women in power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women; human rights of women; women and the media; women and the environment; and girl-child. It outlines a series of measures, which governments, civil societies, and international organizations including bi-laterals and multilaterals should adopt and practice in order to eliminate causes of discrimination against women in all societies, and to progress toward equality.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is the most comprehensive guiding document ever produced by a United Nations towards ensuring women's rights. The Declaration integrates the accomplishments of preceding conferences and treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Vienna Declaration. Another significant achievement of this Declaration is that it was prepared and approved by delegates of all the governments present at the conference.

So, 10 years down the line, where do we stand in terms of implementation of the Declaration?

Governments, in order to reduce women's poverty are obliged to adopt and effectively implement a variety of measures to give women property ownership rights, access to economic resources, market, credit and technological know-how, and equality in at all stages of employment. Governments are also responsible for ensuring decent living conditions for women and support them in fulfilling family responsibilities by improving services such as housing, sanitation and water supply. Women, in the absence of inheritance and ownership rights and lack of access and control make up a significant number of poor people the world over. In Yemen, both religion and law grant women some property and inheritance rights. But in practice, these rights are hardly exercised due to socio-cultural factors. If the government of Yemen is to reduce poverty, it must address women's poverty alongside men's. According to Oxfam GB's report on PRSP process in Yemen, Voices of the Poor, women's poverty to some extent is included in the government's poverty analysis, but that's about it. It is not sufficient if analysis of poverty is not supported by an analysis of how embedded gender biases are in customary practices, macroeconomics and structural policies and no analysis is sufficient if it is not followed by programmatic and budgetary decisions.

Poverty links to opportunities to access not just resources but also human development. Education and training is the key to human development. A multidimensional analysis of poverty, which goes beyond 'income poverty', will help see how exclusion from opportunities to educate and train themselves in technical and vocational and professional fields has contributed to women's marginalization in all areas of human development. Women's education is essential not just for its intrinsic value but also because it has a dramatic impact on economic and social development. There are innumerable research from the world over to demonstrates that education and training for women bring remarkable social returns – improved family income, reduced infant and maternal mortality, improved family health, etc. However, in order to get higher social returns, governments must take measures to promote gender equality in all fields and encourage women to access primary, secondary and university, and technical training. But results will not start coming in with mere provision of access, as is evident from Yemen's experience. According to a UNICEF report 77% women in Yemen are illiterate. Yemen Family Health Survey, 2003 also indicates poor performance of the government towards meeting its obligation to BPFA. As per this survey 75.7% rural women and 40.5% urban women in 10+ age group are illiterate. Innovation in education, especially in areas of adult and continuing education and vocational training are critical to eradicate illiteracy from Yemen's face. Also, given the situation, it is important that the government takes steps to address socio-cultural barriers to women's education. It must come up with measures to ensure that girls and women receive the support that would enable them to complete their education. One often hears in the villages that most families stop girls from going to the school after they reach the age of puberty or if a school is far or if there are no women teachers. The government cannot meet its obligation unless it addresses these special obstacles that prevent women from obtaining education and training.

The Yemeni governments is obligated under BPFA to institute a wide range of measures to provide health care in gender appropriate ways so as to ensure that both women and men benefit. In matters of general health care needs, equality of access to health services must be ensured. More than often access is not just an issue of having a health unit/facility/hospital within reachable distance, it is a0lso about the ways of delivering the health services. For example, in Yemen, some basic issues which prevent women from accessing health services, even if a health centre is available, include: most health workers in the health centres are men, there are no separate arrangements to examine women and absence or lack of pregnancy and STDs related services. But pregnancy is not the only different health need. Many other health needs of women are different from men also due to their traditional roles and responsibilities, like family planning, child care, nutrition for family. It is the government's responsibility to make sure that these needs are being met through its health services. If we look at the Yemeni government's performance to meet its commitment to BPFA, the poor achievement is alarming. According to the Family Health Survey, 2003 as many as 30.8% women in urban areas and 61.7% women in rural areas do not receive prenatal care. Women who suffer from complication during pregnancy is 51.1% in urban and 52.9% in rural areas. As many as 29.5% women in urban and 43.8% women in rural areas suffered medical problem during delivery and 32.4% and 46.5% suffered postnatal complications. The worse indicator of availability and access of health care is the that 59.5% women in urban areas and 82.2% women in rural area give birth at home. Miscarriage rate, uterine, urinary and vaginal infection rates, number of women wanting contraception but not being able to access it, etc are equally high. The worse indicator of the failure is the sustenance of an extremely high maternal mortality rate. It stands at 39.7% in urban and 36.6% in rural areas. The poor performance of the government suggests it's poor commitment to obligations relating to the provision of health care under BPFA. No effort is being made by the government to deal with practices like early marriage, which is a major cause of poor health, specially reproductive and sexual health among girls and women.

Violence against women is another area where BPFA expects the states to respond through specific integrated provisions. But first of all, it requires that the states see women as human beings entitles to equal rights in all aspect, understand socio-cultural norms and beliefs that lead to acceptance of a subservient position of women and tools that are used to enforce those norms and beliefs. Violence against women in any form, perpetrated by anyone, is a violation of women's human rights. It requires a government with a humane and gender sensitive perspective and political will power to challenge systems and practices that allow violence against women to take place. It demands special provisions and dedicated implementation of those provisions. In Yemen, legislative provisions like Article 23 of the Personal Status Law No. 20/1992, which regard 'silence' as the consent of a virgin to be married to the person selected by her parents, continue to exist. Inequality continues to exist in case of custody of daughter above nine years and son above 12 years. There is no law in the country to stop early marriage, which violates both child and women's human rights. As to the extent of prevalence of violence against women, a study by Oxfam GB, Violence against Women in Yemeni Society, suggests it is widespread. Another study conducted by Dr Adel Mujahid Al-Sharjabi Al-Sharjabi's conducted in 2003 on behalf of the Women's National Committee reaffirms this finding. Discriminatory laws, gender blind legislation, ineffective implementation of existing laws pertaining to violence against women, and the heightening of women's vulnerability to accusations of moral crimes like khalwa and zina , arbitrary arrests and detention of women in illegal 'prisons' are not the only indicators of poor commitment to BPFA. Female prisoners being held in jail past the expiration of their sentences because their male relatives refuses to authorize their release as they disapprove of their moral behaviour, etc speak volumes about Yemen's failure to honour women's human rights.

Armed conflict is not an unknown terrain for Yemen. Conflicts between communities and tribes often take violent form. One does get news about casualties in general but one does not get specific information about casualties. The impact of these conflicts on women, particularly due to their status in society and their sex is almost unheard of. It is widely known that women assume the key role of ensuring family livelihood in the midst of violent pandemonium and destruction, Given the rate at which violent conflicts erupt in Yemen, one would imagine that the impact on women's livelihood, reproductive roles and social status would be quite severe. However, this cannot be articulated in any clearer terms in the absence of the government's efforts to measure and address it. BPFA stresses the need to promote the equal participation of women in conflict resolution at decision-making levels but there has been no effort on the part of the government to engage Yemeni women in conflict resolution.

To be continued next issue.