International Women's Issues

A Primer on International Women’s Issues: Acronyms, Indicators, and a lot about the UN

Instead of focusing on a country and a topic this week, I thought it would be useful to go over some of the basics when learning about international women’s rights. I sometimes assume that everyone’s familiar with, oh, CEDAW and the MDGs and all sorts of indexes, when really, I shouldn’t think my average reader has the same level of familiarity. So if you have fond memories of your Model UN days, and the letters OP-CRC-CAC don’t make you bat an eyelash, this post may seem a bit elementary to you. If not, read on!

I also intend for this post to serve as a reference for future articles, instead of repeatedly explaining the same concepts in different posts. And if you happen to have a paper to write about international women’s rights and/or woman-centric development, this might just be a treasure trove for you.

So, let’s get started!

First, because they are the Grand Poobahs of Acronyms, we have the United Nations, and both their sub-organizations and conventions. The primary women’s organization within the UN is, usefully, UN Women, or the “United Nations Entity for the Empowerment of Women and Gender Equality,” which is a bit of a mouthful, hence UN Women. And UN Women is new! Operational as of January of 2011, UN Women is a unification of four different previous women’s-centric groups at the UN, the most notable of which was UNIFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women. So UNIFEM is gone, long live UN Women. UN Women aims to support women’s issues at every level, from financial support to programming, advocacy, and monitoring, both within the UN and with UN member states. There is also the Commission on the Status of Women, which sets UN policy on gender issues, and writes conventions.

And while I do find lumping together women’s and children’s issues to be problematic (women are not children!) I really ought to mention UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. UNICEF is huge – active in more than 190 countries, with an operating budget of over $3 billion – and they have a massive impact on the lives of both women and children. Girls’ rights (which, after all, are women’s rights too!) have become a key priority for UNICEF in recent years, and a lot of UNICEF’s projects push for gender equality. UNICEF does significant programming relating to maternal health as well. Their website is also a great source of child-related statistics by country, which is quite useful.

The overarching UN Convention regarding women is CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The complete text is available here, if you’re interested. CEDAW is a binding agreement; that is, once a nation signs it, they are legally obligated to follow it, and with the passage of an Optional Protocol, women and groups of women are now able to lodge complaints with the UN against their countries, if said countries are in violation of CEDAW. (There is little in the way of actual punishment for not following it, but still.) Nations that have signed and ratified CEDAW must create an action plan (and committee) dedicated to fighting discrimination against women. This encompasses everything from equal rights under the law to equal access to education, voting, healthcare and property ownership. There are 187 nations that are party to CEDAW. Notably, the United States hasn’t ratified CEDAW, partially out of frustration that signatory countries don’t actually follow it, partially out of a reluctance to submit the country to the rule of the UN, and partially because for reasons I will never understand, the U.S. as a whole dislikes the UN.

In addition to CEDAW, there is the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which specify against gender discrimination. There are several additional clauses within the CRC that focus on rights most frequently denied to girls, though this is not explicitly said in the document itself.

In addition to the business above, for the past twelve years, there’s been a new powerful motivator for women’s rights, based out of the UN: the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are eight goals dedicated to improving the status of humanity by 2015, backed up by measurable changes in statistics. They are:

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  1. Eliminate extreme poverty and hunger (measured via reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty (<$1/day) and extreme hunger by half, and achieving full employment for all, especially women and youth)
  2. Achieve universal primary education (“universal” meaning, well, everyone – measured by enrollment numbers)
  3. Gender equality (defined as eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education)
  4. Reduce child mortality (reducing, by 2/3, the under-5 mortality rate)
  5. Improve maternal health (reducing by 3/4 the maternal mortality rate, and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care)
  6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases (stopping the spread of, and reducing the transmission rate of HIV/AIDS, universal access to HIV/AIDS healthcare, and reducing the spread of malaria and other diseases)
  7. Ensuring environmental sustainability (integrating sustainable development policies into national development plans, reducing the loss of biodiversity, and halving the proportion of the global population without access to safe drinking water and sanitation)
  8. Increasing global partnership (okay, there are 8 sub-goals for this one, all revolving around increased international cooperation and supporting least developed countries)


While MDG 3 and 5 are specifically gender-centric, all eight of these goals, if achieved, would drastically improve the lives of women and girls worldwide. All of the quantifiable goals have due-dates of 2015 at the latest. And let’s be honest, there’s no way most of these goals are going to be achieved. But the fact that there is a huge, unified, global effort to reach these goals is really inspiring, and there’s been considerable gains towards all of these aims in the past decade.

Why am I focusing on the UN so much? There are a lot of valid criticisms of this massive organization – everything from theoretical debates about the immense amounts of bureaucracy, ineffectiveness, and elements of neocolonialism, to the very real problems with the behavior of peacekeeping troops, and corrupt individuals working for the UN who take advantage of the people they’re supposed to be supporting. That said, in my opinion, the UN has done more and gone further to embrace the “correct” way of doing development: partnering with local organizations, ensuring full participation of targeted populations, and making their programming be as “bottom-up” as possible. (I’ll get into some of those ideas further in a minute.) The UN, moreso than any national or private organization, has done an incredible amount of work worldwide in furthering women’s rights.

All of that is just talk, though, without the numbers to back it up. Yes, I’m going to spend a minute talking about statistics. In addition to UNICEF’s stats, I tend to go two places: the CIA Factbook, which has an incredibly comprehensive profile for every country (and some other political entities) and the World Bank. The World Bank’s statistics can be overwhelming, but you can also do fun things like make charts and graphs based off of them! (I am assuming, if you’re still with me, that that may qualify as a fun thing.)

Two especially useful indicators are the Human Development Index and the Gender Inequality Index, both of which I’ve mentioned in this column before. The Human Development Index is a composite of life expectancy, education level, and standard of living statistics, designed to make it possible to compare one country’s development level to another’s. It’s a way to rank nations, and to classify them. We also have the Gender Inequality Index, which combines reprodcutive health (maternal mortality rate and adolescent fertility), empowerment (representation in parliament and secondary-level education attainment) and labor force participation to attempt to quantify gender equality in a country. Like the HDI, this is most useful as an overall indicator, and in comparison to other countries. If you need to know, in general, how a specific nation is doing in terms of gender equality or development, these indicators are a good place to start.

Finally, to close this introduction to international development and women’s rights up, here are some key ideas that seem to keep popping up in these columns:
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  • “Programming” – doing programs. Getting some money, supplies, and hopefully experts, and going somewhere with the aim of improving or changing the place you’re headed to, whether it’s the elementary school down the street or a refugee camp in Somalia. International development, which is really what the International Women’s Issues columns are all about, is largely carried out through programming. Programming is notably different than advocacy or policy-making, in that there is work being done directly with the population you’re aiming to impact, rather than lawmakers or the general public. There is sometimes overlap between all of these activities, and some organizations do them all, but its important to look at them separately.
  • Grassroots – I use this word a lot, are we all familiar with it? Essentially, grassroots organizations are groups that are locally and independently founded, initially without international support or oversight.
  • “Bottom-up Development” – this is a theory of development championed by, among others, Robert Chambers, who advocates putting the people traditionally seen as the lowest on the socioeconomic ladder front-and-center when it comes to decision-making about programming. In other words, it’s not what donors and funders want that matters, it’s what the targeted population needs that is most important. This school of thinking places a major emphasis on grassroots organizations, believing in people’s ability to know what’s best for themselves. While this may seem obvious, it was a shocking idea 30 years ago, and pretty much revolutionized this sector. The opposite of bottom-up, clearly, is top-down, which is, you know, pretty much how the world’s functioned since the beginning of time. Bottom-up development seeks to put power in the hands of people who have never had it before.
  • Hart’s Ladder of Participation – going hand-in-hand with the above theory is the idea that in order for your programming to have an impact, you need full participation from your targeted population. Hart’s Ladder has eight levels, from manipulation, where people have no power, to shared decision-making, in which the people you’re aiming to support have an active voice and equal power with you. Clearly, being as close to the latter as possible is the best outcome.
  • Youth Bulge – the idea that when a population has a predominantly young population, and a disproportionately large number of young men, there is an increased risk of violence, of all types, from political instability to gang violence to terrorism to war, depending on other factors at play in the country. As there is currently a huge global push to reduce youth bulges, women’s reproductive health and fertility comes into play. (One day I will go on a rant about how women are only seen as potential mothers of boys in this equation.)


All right. Next week we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming, but I hope this was useful, and maybe a little interesting. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s comprehensive, so if there’s something huge I left out, let me know in the comments! Also, this would be a great time to raise any questions you may have that I neglected to cover in this post.

About UN Women 
CEDAW Gender Inequality Index
Millennium Development Goals  (and links on the right side of the page)
UNICEF Annual Report 2008

3 replies on “A Primer on International Women’s Issues: Acronyms, Indicators, and a lot about the UN”

Ooh, that’s something I should have thought to include – when you’re using statistics, get them from multiple sources whenever possible, and take into account the source of your stats! In my research, I try to use the least-biased stats available, but sometimes that’s hard if not impossible, depending on what you’re looking for.

Also, make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples – school enrollment rate, for example, is a very different thing than school attendance rate, though they seem similar.

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