Future Generations: Empowering Women and Girls

June 23, 2011
Empowering and investing in women and girls is essential in the global drive to eliminate poverty, achieve social justice and stabilize the world's population. At UNA's Annual Meeting, held in Arlington, VA, panel discussions covered such topics as peace and security, nonprofit fundraising, HIV/AIDS, and energy. "Future Generations: Empowering Women and Girls," was on the agenda, too.

The speakers were Suzanne Ehlers, President and CEO at Population Action International; Joanne Sandler, Senior Advisor for Policy and Programmes at UN Women; and Denise Dunning, Program Director of the Adolescent Girl Advocacy and Leadership Initiative (AGALI) at the Public Health Institute. Sarah Roma, Deputy Director of Women and Population at the UN Foundation, moderated. Refreshingly, the audience at the discussion attracted both sexes, reflecting that improving the fates of women and girls is a collaborative job.

The discussion started with the issue of reproductive health and family planning. There are currently 215 million women who want, but do not have, access to voluntary family planning services and information to allow them to be able to choose the timing, spacing, and number of children they have.

Roma and other panelists highlighted that this was a critical moment to be active on the issue of reproductive health and family planning — because despite the solid work of advocates and leadership of many U.S. government officials, the U.S. Congress is trying not only to reduce funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides family planning services in developing countries, but also to cut the U.S. reproductive health budget.

Empowering girls and women is also an endeavor that makes smart economic sense, Roma said, because girls and women reinvest 90 percent of their earnings back into their family and their community, compared with 30-40 percent for men, so empowering women and girls means everyone benefits.

Yet, resistance to empowering women and girls continues in developed and developing countries: no place is innocent, as the panelists know all too well.
Dunning of the Oakland, CA-based Public Health Institute, for example, is focused on trying to strengthen the capacity of advocates who work in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Malawi, and Liberia by training local leaders to advocate for policies and budgets that are supportive of adolescent girls. (The UN Foundation provides financial support to the program.)

Ehlers of Population Action International, a bipartisan group in Washington, concentrates on sexual and reproductive health for women, particularly through advocacy with other nongovernmental organizations and coalitions. One of Ehlers's current tasks is helping policy makers in Congress understand how their decisions affect girls on the ground in remote countries. The recent budget attacks against UNFPA have made her job more challenging, she said.

Population Action International is a grantee of the UN Foundation's initiative on Strengthening U.S. Leadership on International Reproductive Health and Family Planning, a collaborative initiative to strengthen the United States' leadership role on reproductive health and family planning in order to reach the target of universal access to reproductive health, as set forth by the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

Specifically, the initiative seeks to expand the capacity of the advocacy community to engage and educate policymakers and the public to support international reproductive health and family planning (IRH/FP) as a central pillar of U.S. development assistance; to view IRH/FP as a critical component of any basic health package and necessary tool to achieve improvements in maternal, family, and adolescent/youth health; and to support comprehensive policies and services that effectively integrate IRH/FP into existing global health and development policies.

Sandler of UN Women, the UN's newest agency, emphasized that the organization brings together the normative side and operational component of the UN to effect change for women. The agency can make a difference at the UN because it officially "sits at the table" with other agencies, Sandler said, allowing women to have a voice and incorporating the "gender dimension" in everything that the UN does on the ground and in policy decisions.

"We have a clear mandate on coordination of leadership," she said, adding that every UN body must address women's rights and take responsibility in creating strategies that take into account women's roles.

Will the agency get the resources and presence on the ground it needs to do its work? Sandler conceded that expectations are huge and time will tell how productive UN Women will be for its constituents.

The discussion swung back to the world's most marginalized population — adolescent girls — and the fact that this group is often victimized by its very own governments, Dunning said. Only a small minority of girls in Guatemala finish elementary school, for example. In Africa, 75 percent of youth who are HIV positive are adolescent girls. What are the governments doing to protect half of their populations? Too often, they are not giving the help that is needed.

Luckily, women and girls are receiving more attention than ever, with studies and researching plumbing new depths on how to improve conditions. UN women sees increasing engagement from US policy makers, Sandler said. And she highlighted four resolutions that the UN has passed in order to protect women, particularly in conflict zones.

The discussion also focused on what people can do and are already doing to work on these important issues. Many audience members shared work that they are already doing to advocate and educate others on women and girls. Roma and the other panelists also shared ideas about how audience members might get further engaged. For instance, they suggested contacting Members of Congress for increased investments and better policies for women and girls globally and raising awareness and educating others about these issues. Roma and Dunning also highlighted opportunities to be involved in the UN Foundation's Girl Up campaign, which empowers girls in the U.S. to raise awareness and funds to help the hardestto reach adolescent girls around the world (www.girlup.org).

What's the next step? As one woman in the audience said, "The next Secretary-General should be a woman."

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