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Women's enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights

“We must at long last achieve a “critical mass” of women's leaders, for without more gender- balanced and participatory governance, without more sharing of power and resources, neither sustainable development nor lasting peace can be achieved”.

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

“Fighting for women's rights is a positive struggle which recognizes the quality of women's contribution to every aspect of the community. I therefore invite all to renew their energies in undertaking practical and creative initiatives to achieve full respect of the human rights of women”.

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The 1993 Vienna Conference emphasized the need for governments and the United Nations to make the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex, a priority of their policies.

Women are entitled to the enjoyment of all human rights, including those relating to sustainable human development. However, women's gender roles have an impact on their ability to access rights, resources and opportunities, and to be treated on an equal basis with men. Not only is the enjoyment of rights - including the right to access resources on an equal basis - an end in itself, it is an essential ingredient in achieving the empowerment of women, social justice and overall social and economic development.

Women's equal access to resources and opportunities and equal treatment in economic and social life are, in turn, necessary for the full realization of their human rights. Lack of equal access to resources and opportunity is a denial of rights, which results in the perpetuation of poverty for many women.

In many countries throughout the world, women are denied their rights to equal access to resources and opportunities. This is reflected in the overall unequal economic and social situation of women as compared to men. Access to economic resources is essential for people's well-being. Therefore, ensuring women's full enjoyment of their human rights is a crucial strategy for the empowerment of women and for overcoming the economic, political and social disadvantages they continue to face.

Countries' achievements in human development (that is, whether people are educated, enjoy a decent standard of living and lead long and healthy lives) change noticeably when inequality in achievement between women and men is taken into account. The majority of the world's 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women, a situation caused by a number of factors. Their unequal access to land, property, credit and other economic resources, is one aspect. Another is their treatment under social welfare systems and their status and power in the family. Research has shown that, although gender inequality is strongly associated with human poverty, it is not necessarily associated with income poverty. Even when a country is very poor in terms of income poverty, it can still achieve a relative level of gender equality according to basic indicators for human development. Progress in gender equality can be achieved at different income levels and stages of development. And it can be found across a range of cultures and political ideologies.


Statistical profiles provide a means of documenting differences and identifying factors that account for unequal outcomes for women in the enjoyment of human rights. The persistence of unequal outcomes suggests that women's as well as men's experiences require explicit attention in terms of the protection and promotion of human rights. While great progress has been made in recent years in the collection of data disaggregated by sex, such data are not yet consistently used as a basis for legal and policy measures in promoting the enjoyment of human rights.

Access to, and control of, productive resources, particularly land, are key factors in addressing women's poverty. In rural areas, lack of access to, and control of, productive resources have particular consequences for women. Although women's right to own land is often legally established, gender asymmetry in access to and control over land is one of the main obstacles to the full participation of women in rural development. Because of continuing exclusion of women from, and discrimination against women in, acquiring land, security of tenure and inheritance rights to land and property, women also face particular constraints in securing and maintaining their right to housing. The continued discrimination women face in all matters relating to land and property has been identified as the single most critical factor in the perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.

Education is also a prerequisite for effective economic participation. Education and training for women and girls yields high social and economic returns, and is a precondition for the empowerment of women. While enrolment ratios for boys and girls at the primary level are approaching equality everywhere, differences persist at the regional level and for different age groups and levels of schooling, especially at higher levels. Two thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women, with illiteracy highest among older women who never had the opportunity to go to school.

Although women's participation in various aspects of economic and community life has increased, it remains lower than that of men. The female economic activity rate is now nearly 70 per cent of the male rate in developing countries, ranging from 86 per cent in East Asia to 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. A large part of women's work is in low-paid or unpaid occupations. In agriculture, family enterprises and the informal sector, women have little possibility for savings, credit or investment, and limited security. Women's work is poorly measured in official statistics in spite of its tremendous importance for the well-being of families.

Women work in different jobs and occupations than men, almost always with lower status and pay. In the industrialized countries, unemployment is higher among women than men, and women account for 75 per cent of unpaid family workers. In many parts of the world, women who are poor remain unable to exercise their right to loans and credit, even though this right is established under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is considered to be a powerful tool in overcoming poverty and economic dependence.

Analysis of the content and nature of human rights, as well as of measures to ensure their enjoyment, should be informed by gender-based considerations. There are many processes at the domestic and international levels through which the content of human rights is clarified and their implementation occurs. The systematic integration of gender factors into these processes, into measures for implementation and into domestic and international monitoring, remains to be achieved.

In the enjoyment of rights, women face constraints and vulnerabilities which differ from those that affect men and which are of significant relevance to the enjoyment of these rights. At the same time, these variables mean that women may be affected by violations of rights in ways that are different from men. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and social marginalization. Women suffer systemic and systematic discrimination, which results in deep patterns of inequality and disadvantage. The overall level of development and of resources available to countries, women's literacy levels and women's access to information and to legal remedies also have an impact on women's enjoyment of their rights. The gender-based division of labour, with women being primarily responsible for reproductive work and work related to the family, and men for productive work, also contributes to the perpetuation of gender-based inequalities.

Many women experience multiple barriers in gaining access to rights such as employment, housing, land, food and social security. These barriers include the disproportionate burden of reproductive and care-giving work performed by women; the sexual division of labour and segregated employment practices; discriminatory traditional and cultural laws and practices; unequal representation by women in political and other decision-making structures at all levels; and the widespread violence perpetrated against women. Women's social position, marital status, class, or membership in particularly vulnerable groups, such as refugee or migrant women, rural or urban poor women, are often linked to de facto, and sometimes also to de jure, discrimination.

When laws, customs, traditional roles, family responsibilities or attitudes and stereotypes provide women with fewer opportunities or place them at a disadvantage as they seek to access opportunities, remedial measures are needed to eliminate such disadvantages, and to prevent them from recurring. When policies are designed in the context of respect for, and promotion and protection of, human rights, then unequal outcomes for women in the economic and social spheres oblige governments to design items in a way that reduces inequalities.

Women's full enjoyment of their human rights, including those relating to economic development and resources, is essential to any strategy aimed at poverty eradication and sustainable development. International human rights instruments, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action provide a solid basis for promoting women's enjoyment of their human rights, including those related to economic development and resources, and the alleviation of women's poverty. The Platform for Action recognizes the impact of gender on the enjoyment of human rights, including access to rights, opportunities and resources, and with regard to treatment in many areas. Together with international human rights instruments, the Platform for Action emphasizes that such gender-based inequalities and disadvantage need to be addressed explicitly in all actions of governments and of other actors entrusted with their implementation.

Myriam Tebourbi