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UN: General Assembly Seeks Improvements In Status Of Women

The UN General Assembly opens a special session today to measure progress in the goals set for women's equality at the Beijing conference five years ago. Clear advances have been made, say organizers, but they stress that women lag far behind men in a wide range of areas. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 5 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At the world conference on women in Beijing five years ago, governments committed themselves to improving the conditions of women in all aspects of life. But recent reports indicate that the political will to attain equality of the sexes is still lacking.

Thousands of government delegates and members of non-governmental organizations will gather in New York today to measure progress since the Beijing conference. They will take part in a week full of meetings about specific areas of concern identified in Beijing.

These areas include women's disproportionate suffering from wars, domestic violence, and poverty. Other target areas involve discrimination in education or in the workplace.

The president of the General Assembly, Theo-Ben Gurirab of Namibia, told a news conference on Friday that the upcoming review of the Beijing goals is needed to spur governments into action on women's rights.

"Women's concerns are still treated as a second priority virtually everywhere. In some cases, women's needs are ignored altogether. Women continue to face discrimination and marginalization both subtle and blatant."

Two UN reports released in advance of this week's review session show how difficult conditions remain for women worldwide.

A report released by the UN Statistics Division last week notes some advances by women. It says statistics show women are generally getting married later, having fewer children, and living longer. But it also found that two-thirds of the world's illiterates are women.

Women are enjoying an increasing share of the world's labor force, the report shows, but they continue to be confined to a relative few occupations and seldom hold positions of authority. The report says women remain significantly underrepresented in governments and political parties.

The report corroborates some of the disturbing findings in a new study of violence against women compiled by UNICEF. The UNICEF report says few governments have moved to stop violence against women, which includes spousal abuse, forced prostitution, and honor killings. It said a growing body of research shows physical violence against women, especially in homes, is common in all parts of the world.

The special adviser to the UN secretary-general on gender issues, Angela King, says that the situation of many women is still dismal.

"Women still are amongst the most illiterate, they are certainly the largest proportion of the poor and of the hungry, they suffer from dislocation, violence, poor nutrition and ill health. They still lag behind men in virtually all aspects of life."

But King said this week's meetings will also focus on successes as well as failures.

Organizers of the UN special session note the important developments in the treatment of crimes committed against women during war. The two tribunals set up by the UN Security Council to prosecute crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda explicitly list rape as a war crime.

Regarding domestic violence, the UN says many states have now adopted legislation recognizing that violence by a husband should be treated in the same way as violence by a stranger. Belarus, for example, has criminalized sexual violence against women by their husbands. And Belarus, Poland, and Russia are among the states that have tried to set up services such as shelters and telephone "hot lines" to support victims of domestic violence.

In the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, UN officials say in general the network of non-governmental organizations is becoming more active in trying to improve the status of women.

But data from UNICEF paints a bleak picture for women in the region. It says extremely low fertility rates in Eastern Europe appear linked to unstable social and economic conditions since the fall of communism in 1989. Abortion rates remain very high in Eastern Europe, and in some countries, such as Russia, there are more abortions than live births. UNICEF says also that the availability of childcare facilities has decreased, while childcare fees have increased in the region.

Statistics show women in Eastern Europe are poorly represented in national parliaments and governments, although in Western Europe their representation has increased markedly during the past decade.

A UNICEF specialist on gender and development, Sre Gururaja, told our correspondent that the problems found in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have proved resilient. She said a number of events during the next week will focus on the obstacles faced by women in transitional countries.

"Clearly there has to be more attention paid to the implications of the transition on women, and I think this is getting more and more clear in many countries."

Representatives from Eastern Europe and other regions are scheduled to hold separate meetings during the course of the week to address their niche concerns. All participants are to contribute to a final document expected to be adopted on June 9.

The goal, say UN organizers, is a renewed commitment to the declaration adopted by 189 countries in Beijing and ultimately to encourage governments to pass the laws that ensure women's equal rights.