Africa: International Women's Day - 'The Power of Women's Voices'

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International Women's Day 2004 this year is a crucial period for women. This year marks the beginning of worldwide preparations to commemorate, in 2005, the 10th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing. The largest conference in the history of the United Nations, this conference mobilized the global women's movement into strategic alliances and collective power. The result was the commitment of all nations to the advancement of women as outlined in the Platform for Action: Development, Equality and Peace. In other words, in 1995, women's voices were heard.

Today, a decade later, these voices must be heard again. Everywhere, women are confronting the challenges of our global world, from deepening poverty and economic uncertainty, the rising toll of HIV/AIDS on their lives and those of their children, to the violence they experience in everyday life. At the same time, in many regions, the gains that women have made over the last two decades are being lost. On International Women's Day this year, we must declare our determination to meet these challenges, and move forward.

UNIFEM came into being because women worldwide demanded a voice at the United Nations As we prepare for Beijing +10, the voices of women in all parts of the world must continue to be sought out, to be heard and to be heeded. This has been the guiding principle behind all UNIFEM programmes since its inception.

Too often I have listened to women describe how their experiences are not part of the policy discussion. Whether talking about the unequal impact of globalization, the ravages of war and armed conflict, or the reality of living with HIV/AIDS, they feel marginalized and excluded from decision-making and resources that affects their lives. And yet, it is well known that the most effective policy approaches come from listening to those who have experienced such problems first hand, who can provide needed perspectives, improve understanding and offer creative solutions so that resources may be used creatively.

In recent years, there has been a growth in women's networks across the world, proof that women are coming together to be heard - on the frontlines in their communities, in government and national institutions, in international fora and through the media, their voices are not only those of victims, but of survivors, leaders, advocates, and change agents.

This year, on International Women's Day, women are coming together at the CSW to make themselves heard on HIV/AIDS, which is increasingly affecting women and girls. Ten years ago, women worldwide made up 38 per cent of people infected with the disease. Today they make up 50 per cent. In some regions this ratio has tilted further towards women: in the Caribbean it is 52 per cent, in Africa, 58 percent. Ten years ago, women were at the periphery of the epidemic. Today, they are at its epicentre. For young women the situation is particularly alarming. Young women in the developing world outnumber young men among newly infected 15-24 year olds by two to one. The social impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls is greater - they are the ones who assume the burden of care when family members are affected by the disease, putting severe constraints on their access to education, employment, food cultivation, and often treatment. Violence against women, both a cause and a consequence of the epidemic, adds another major risk factor for transmission. Rape, sexual violence and women's inability to refuse unwanted sex or to demand safe sex are serious factors in the spread of the epidemic.

Women living with HIV/AIDS are not suffering in silence however. Extraordinary work is being done by HIV-positive women's networks supported by UNIFEM in India, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe as well as the International Community of Women living with HIV/AIDS, a global network run by and for HIV positive women. These women are demanding that they be listened to and their needs taken seriously. Building on their own experiences, they are demanding visibility and understanding of the issues related to the epidemic, identifying innovative solutions and shaping a future in which they can live without stigma and violence, where they have easy access to drugs and treatment, where they can continue to contribute to their national economies, and where they, and their children, can live healthy and meaningful lives.

We know the power of women's voices. This year we especially applaud the power of women in Africa, who succeeded in the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of African Women. Women now make up 50 per cent of the Commissioners of the African Union (AU), based on the AU policy decision on equal participation of women in decision-making positions. Most recently in Rwanda, women succeeded in winning 49 per cent of seats in Parliament, ranking the country among the highest in the world in terms of women's shares of seats in Parliament. In addition, 50 per cent of Rwanda's High Court judges are now women. Elsewhere, too, women are finding ways to be heard. In Afghanistan, at the recent Constitutional Loya Jirga, Afghan women succeeded in including a provision in the new constitution that safeguards and holds equal the rights of men and women.

Women have also made their voices heard on the issue of violence against women. As a result of constant advocacy by women's rights groups over the last 20 years, more and more countries have some type of legislation concerning violence against women. At least 45 nations have specific laws against domestic violence, 21 more are drafting new laws, and many others have amended criminal laws to include domestic violence.

To make a real difference, we have to transform words into action and results. This requires governments and the international community at large to stand by their commitments and to allocate resources to translate them into action. On International Women's Day 2004, I call on the world community to pay close attention to what women are telling us about the situation they live in - their needs, hopes and visions of a better future. It is our responsibility to amplify their voices and to use them to guide our work and policies. Only then can we hope to achieve a world in which both men and women are able to lead the best lives they can.

Statement By Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director, UNIFEM

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