PCDForum Article #11,  Release Date March 6, 1995

by Noeleen Heyzer

Director, UNIFEM

As we move toward the 21st century, humanity faces a historic challenge to find new pathways of development that will provide equitable and sustainable livelihoods for all in the midst of degrading environments, massive population movements, and collapsing social and political structures. In response to this challenge women throughout the world are joining in an effort to craft a development agenda for the 21st century that will carry forward the collective concerns and hopes of women toward the creation of a transformed world that will offer equality, peace and well-being for all.

This is not an agenda just for women. It is an inclusive vision of a better future for everyone. To affirm its support for this effort, UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, has adopted "Transforming development for equality, peace and a healthy planet" as its new theme.

The massive shifts taking place in human societies are not just analytical abstractions. They result in everyday challenges of survival for millions indeed billions of people who find themselves struggling just to stay alive. These struggles are reaching crisis proportions on a global scale. The prevailing response has been to lapse into a state of constant crisis management, with little proactive rethinking about root causes that might lead to longer-term system change. We have become more adept at fighting fires than at preventing them.

The well-being of all people, both men and women, however, depends on eliminating the root causes of the crisis. Since women often bear a disproportionate share of the burdens the crisis imposes, they may more fully recognize its depth and the urgency of the challenge it presents. Living with the reality and continuing to bear a special responsibility as the caretakers of the family and community interest, it is essential that women provide leadership in bringing about the needed changes.

We see, for example, a global trend toward the "feminization of poverty." The number of rural women living in poverty has nearly doubled in only the last 20 years. The global impoverishment of women is in part a consequence of the restructuring of the world economic system being advanced by trade deregulation, rapid technological change, the creation of global production networks, the socialist transition to the market economy, and the emergence of global financial markets. While these processes of global economic restructuring have brought new opportunities to some, they have brought new hardships to the many and greatly increased overall inequality.

The consequences of this restructuring are gender-differentiated due to long standing constraints on women's ownership of productive assets, access to educational and employment opportunities, and physical and social mobility. Environmental degradation also exacts higher costs from women than from men. In a world that is still largely rural, women continue to be the main subsistence farmers of Africa, Asia and South America. At an everyday level, these women farmers are facing the challenge of maintaining sustainable livelihoods for themselves, their families and their communities as their resource base of fuel, water and productive soils becomes increasingly depleted.

Research on environmental health shows that women's bodies more readily absorb toxins than men's bodies do. Consequently, the increase in toxic contamination of the environment has disproportionate health consequences for women and for the children they bear.

The massive population displacements that are creating growing numbers of environmental, developmental, and war refugees also have a disproportionate impact on women. Even when displaced as refugees, women continue to be the care-givers of those even more vulnerable than themselves, such as the children, the old and the sick. As a consequence, women refugees are often less mobile and less able to grasp economic opportunities in their new locations than are men.

Women labour migrants tend to fill gender-segregated jobs that are underpaid, undervalued and under-protected such as domestic work in the employer's home or nonunionized factory work. Even more problematic is the sexual trafficking of girls and women by organized prostitution rings. This often involves the forced migration of girls sold off by poor parents and women who may be tricked into situations where their very lives may be in danger from violence and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.

The violence that accompanies the collapse of failing political structures underscores an old truth that in war there is no victory for women, no matter which side wins. The collective rape of women in conflict situations as a political act is an especially egregious demonstration of this point. The challenge of securing peace and social integration is therefore a matter of especially crucial concern for women.

There is an urgent need for women to articulate their own agenda for change which will not only address their specific needs and concerns, but as well transform the processes that have generated such problematic consequences for both women and men and for their children. As we draw towards the close of this century, such a women's development agenda is emerging. It builds from the work of those who are seeking a development path that would address more generally the basic need of the poor for secure livelihoods. It is important that women bring their distinctive perspectives and realities to bear in this search to assure that one development mistake is not simply replaced by another.

The women's development agenda embraces gender equity as the central principle of a new development process in which the burdens and benefits of development will be shared equally among women and men. It calls for gender-equitable access to resources, while taking into account the everyday processes of how people produce, consume, survive and reproduce in gender-differentiated ways. The women's development agenda emphasizes both women's livelihood needs and the key role that women play in maintaining the ecological sustainability and renewability of finite natural resources. It seeks to address the root causes of physical displacement, namely, environmental degradation, land loss, war, and poverty. It sees peace as a vital foundation of healthy communities.

Good governance is also a principle of vital importance in the women's development agenda. Policies coming out of a system of good governance would be responsive to the livelihood needs and realities of women and communities, instead of appropriating development resources to serve powerful private interests at the expense of the economically and politically weak. Good governance would recognize that since women commonly assume a special responsibility for the family and community interest, they must have a central role in both setting and implementing policies aimed at creating more just and sustainable societies.

The women's development agenda is UNIFEM's charter for action a mandate for UNIFEM as a vehicle of change through its unique position at the nexus between the United Nations and the social movements through which women are expressing their hopes and aspirations for a better world. UNIFEM aims to work towards a global framework of cooperation that will bring together often isolated efforts that currently exist toward the rethinking of development. We will also work to advance a holistic view of the interrelated issues of sustainable development, human rights, population, society, women, and habitat that respectively constitute the topics of debate at global conferences in Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing, and Istanbul on where we, as a human race, should go from here.

UNIFEM seeks to communicate a message of hope and cooperation that we may all work together for a better world for everyone, including generations yet to come.

Noeleen Heyzer is director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and a contributing editor of The People-Centered Development Forum (PCDForum). This article was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on her December 1994 presentation to the Third Committee of the General Assembly of Nations of the United Nations. Additional information is available from UNIFEM, 304 E. 45th St., 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A. Phone (212) 906-6435; Fax (212) 906-6705.

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