Last week, Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, opened the 56th UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the largest gathering of the gender community, with the following call to action:
“We need to remove discriminatory practices and laws. Women need equal rights and access to land, inheritance, and property. As one rural woman said, “When the land is in my husband’s name, I’m only a worker. When it is in my name, I have some position in society.”
Right from the start, it was clear that discriminatory laws, social norms and practices – what we refer to as discriminatory social institutions – were squarely on the agenda.
In line with this year’s CSW theme, the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges, the OECD Development Centre – together with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and the Government of Kenya – organised a side event on Empowering women through the transformation of discriminatory social institutions. We presented the findings from our research paper “Do discriminatory social institutions matter for food security?” We found that countries where women have equal rights to access land produced around three times more annual cereal yields in 2009, compared to countries where women have no or few rights to access land. Three fantastic panellists addressed the question of “what works” to change discriminatory social institutions, providing innovative examples including using a legal empowerment model in Rwanda to secure women’s land rights, popular education in Zambia to shift discriminatory attitudes and constitutional reform in Kenya. During the discussion, participants raised issues such as divorce rights and inheritance issues, especially when it comes to land; land rights in matrilineal communities; informing the CEDAW Committee on access to justice; and one participant from Uganda highlighted the usefulness of the Social Institutions and Gender Index framework to be used at country level as a powerful advocacy tool.
Across the various sessions of CSW, we repeatedly heard the concepts “social norms”, “discrimination” or “harmful practices”, reinforcing the powerful, albeit invisible, role of social institutions in undermining gender equality. I attended a session on “Rural girls and urban migration: the role of communications for development in bridging the divide”, where one of the panellists referred to a survey in Addis Ababa that found out that 1 in 4 girls in Ethiopia came to the city to escape child marriage or abuse at home. In another similar session on “Harnessing C4D Innovations: Transforming the lives of marginalised girls through ICTs”, UNICEF introduced “U report”, a free sms-based system allowing young Ugandans to speak out about issues affecting them and work together with community leaders to enable positive change: again, one of the recurring issues mentioned by young girls was child marriage. The need for better data to capture discriminatory social institutions such as violence against women and women’s access to resources was raised at a joint session on data and evidence organised by UN Women and UN Statistics Division, which we also attended.
Yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon reiterated the urgent need to address discrimination against women in his International Women’s Day remarks, using research from the OECD Development Centre:
“Discriminatory laws and practices affect not just women but entire communities and nations. Countries where women lack land ownership rights or access to credit have significantly more malnourished children.”
Not only is it encouraging to see global leaders finally recognise the need to change discriminatory social institutions to empower women, but it is also evident from our side event that there are many inspiring programmes and initiatives that are delivering change on the ground. We hope that this momentum on discriminatory social institutions gained at CSW will continue and translate into real actions by international organisations, donors, governments and civil society – our experience at CSW tells us that lasting change is possible. We have the evidence. There are solutions. It’s time to make it happen!
Estelle and Somali from the Gender Team at the OECD Development Centre