U.N. Update: Barriers to Women’s Access to Justice and Health Care Persist

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BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

A Pakistani girl walks to her house in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital Islamabad on July 6, 2011.

As it does each year in advance of the G8 meeting, the United Nations released an update on Tuesday on its progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a series of initiatives set forth in 2000 to improve conditions for the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged inhabitants, while fostering environmental sustainability, development and global partnerships.

The new report [PDF], released by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, notes that more and more girls are entering secondary school around the world than ever before. But at the same time, improvements in maternal health care, family planning services and equal access to the judicial system have stalled, creating profound roadblocks to female empowerment and gender parity in most of the U.N.’s 192 participating countries.

With only four years to go before 2015 benchmark deadlines, there is a substantial amount left to do — especially regarding issues related to women and girls. From the report:

While there have been considerable gains since 2000 on many of the MDG targets, progress has been slowest on the gender equality dimensions of these targets — from improving maternal health and access to decent work to eradicating hunger. Often invisible or unacknowledged — but still pervasive — discrimination against women is at the heart of this slow pace of change.

Gender justice entails ending the inequalities between women and men that are produced and reproduced in the family, the community, the market and the state. It also requires that mainstream institutions — from justice to economic policymaking — are accountable for tackling the injustice and discrimination that keep too many women poor and excluded.

The report underscores the profound ties between women’s rights and the overall well-being of a nation; reducing poverty without improving educational and employment opportunities for women is nearly impossible. The report offers recommendations for helping to improve the standing of women in all areas, including government and land ownership, but highlights the improvement of women’s access to public services — education, health care and the justice system — as being particularly urgent.

Of all public services, education has been the biggest success story for the U.N. Of 40 sample countries, 17 have now achieved gender parity in secondary-school enrollment. And in 2008, there were 95 girls for every 100 boys in primary schools, up from 76 girls to 100 boys in 1991.

The benefits of a secondary-school education extend across generations; education improves maternal and child mortality and reduces the likelihood that a woman’s children will face the same poverty that she has faced. It also boosts a nation’s economy: educated women have fewer children overall and are more likely to participate in the work force, earning wages that are 10% to 20% higher than women who are less educated.

But the report finds that many girls, particularly those who live in impoverished rural communities, stay out of the classroom because they can’t afford it. Another major barrier to girls’ education is violence against them on the way to or from school, or in school. A 1999 South African study found that a teacher was responsible for a third of all rapes among girls under the age of 15.

The U.N. report recommends increasing the number of female teachers in school settings to mitigate the mistreatment of girls. It also urges the removal of fees that bar the poorest girls from attending school.

The report also finds that the rate of maternal deaths has decreased globally by less than 2% per year since 1990, falling short of the 5.5% annual reduction goal. That’s partly because too few women have access to appropriate health care during childbirth. In Nepal and Bangladesh, for example, only 5% of rural women have medical professionals attending birth.

Access to family planning services and other maternal health care also remains poor. According to the United Nations Population Fund:

Some 215 million women who want to delay or cease childbearing — roughly one in six women of reproductive age — are in need of effective contraceptive methods. Substantial proportions of women in every country — more than 50 percent in some — say their last birth was unwanted or mistimed.

There is some evidence that one in three maternal deaths could be avoided if women who wanted contraception had access to it. And 300 million women suffer long-term health problems related to complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Women who have the ability to control their own fertility are not only less likely to face injury or death, they are more able to work outside the home and have access to education.

Infectious disease, particularly HIV, is another health concern that disproportionately affects women. Most people currently living with HIV are women; they account for 53% of global HIV-positive population and 58% of people with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Rates of women living with the AIDS virus have increased throughout South Asia, Latin America and North Africa since 2002. And even in the United States, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Finally, violence against women was a key area of concern in the U.N. report. It is difficult to come by conclusive data, but the report estimates that up to 76% of women worldwide will be targeted for physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. One in four women are assaulted by an intimate partner during pregnancy, a figure that shores up the notion that husbands and partners perpetrate most episodes of violence.

Despite the prevalence of rape and assault of women, only a fraction of reported rapes end in conviction. (And only a fraction of rapes are reported in the first place: the U.S. Justice Department found that only 40% of rapes are reported to the police in the United States, for example.) Some countries in Latin America have developed “women’s police stations,” which are dedicated to handling cases involving violence against women. These stations, now in 13 countries, have improved reporting and conviction rates.

Although women’s police stations could work on a larger scale, the U.N.’s goal is to have general police operations do a better job of handling domestic violence cases. The U.N. has recommended that more resources be allocated to public awareness of domestic and sexual violence as part of an overall effort to educate people that violence against women is a punishable crime.

It may not be possible to reach all the MDG goals within the next four years, but U.N. Women hopes that a more targeted, concerted effort on improving conditions of the women could go a long way to improving world’s well-being.

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