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The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued the following statement to mark International Women’s Day

6 March 2009

“Deeply rooted discrimination against women in all spheres of society – political, economic, social and cultural – weakens society as a whole.

The negative effects of discrimination and flawed social structures are inevitably magnified – often dramatically – by conflict, and natural or man-made disasters. The current global economic crisis, for example, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on millions of women who already formed the majority of the poor and the disenfranchised before the crisis developed.

In many societies – indeed probably in all societies – women’s economic and social rights risk being further curtailed as the crisis deepens. Reports are already indicating that as job opportunities in general decrease, access to employment for men is better safeguarded than it is for women. To an even greater extent than usual, women are being forced to accept more marginal and ill-paid employment and forego basic rights and services, including education and health, in order to secure food and shelter.

Unless gender-sensitive policies are adopted, I fear we may well witness a serious setback in areas where progress has taken decades to achieve. To give just one example, over the past decade certain forms of micro-credit schemes that provided small loans to the poorest women in various countries have proved successful. Unfortunately it is likely that these small unsecured loans will be under as much threat as other forms of credit, if not more so. This could have a devastating impact on women who do not have any other source of financing to enable them to establish a sustainable livelihood.

The vast majority of government ministers and financial advisors who are today drawing up plans to grapple with a financial crisis that is, to a greater or lesser degree, affecting every country on the planet – are still men. The success of their complex plans to prevent the crisis worsening, and subsequently to stimulate a recovery, will depend to a significant extent on the degree to which their policies take full account of the short-term and long-term economic rights, needs and abilities of the female half of the population. For that to happen, clearly, women must be able to exercise their right to participate in the decision-making processes.

Numerous studies have shown that, in times of hardship, women and girls are exposed to a greater risk of violence as a result of the frustrations and despair affecting families and communities. Clear links have – to give just a few examples – been traced between homelessness and violence, inadequate housing and violence, and unemployment and violence. So, in addition to gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory economic measures, policies will need to accommodate women’s demands for justice and for remedial action.

If anything, the financial crisis should be seen as an urgent reason to speed up the advancement of women’s rights, and not as a reason to postpone fundamental legislative and policy improvements and implementation until financially calmer times. The drive towards equal rights and equal opportunities is not a luxury, it is an economic must and the cornerstone of universal human rights. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s poorest, most conflict-ridden nations are also the ones where women’s rights are least respected.

And, it should go without saying, for all – or any – of the above to materialize, full cooperation between men and women will be vital.

Most of the stunning succession of financial failures over the past year can be laid at the door of male-dominated financial institutions and ministries. They will need the help of qualified women in policy-making and managerial positions, as well as at all levels and all corners of the general workforce, if we are to get out of a predicament that is affecting all societies, all races, women and men, in ways we never imagined possible only one year ago.”

For use of the information media; not an official record