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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

The Evolving Role of the United Nations on the Status of Women Around the World

By Elia Garcia McComie, Washington D.C. League of Women Voters, Liaison for International Conferences and U.S. Alternate Delegate to Inter-American Commission of Women

It's hard to believe that a little over a year ago we were looking forward to the beginning of the NGO Forum in Huairou and the Beijing Women's Conference. For the women from over 180 countries, these events proved to be both a magnificent adventure and an important milestone of the United Nation's impact on the status of women. The world's women are indebted to this sometimes maligned organization for providing a forum where governments can work in partnership with NGOs to improve the quality of women's lives.

This important relationship between the U.N. and women didn't just happen. In 1945, at the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, the few women delegates who participated, one of whom was Eleanor Roosevelt, insisted and worked diligently for a commission to focus on the needs of women. A sub-commission for this purpose was established under the newly formed Human Rights Commission. Soon after, at the second session of the Economic and Social Council, the work of the women delegates and others who supported them, paid off, and the sub-commission became a full commission, the Commission on the Status of Women and it has been a powerful force ever since.

From February 1947 and through 1967, the Commission concentrated its efforts on obtaining the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. This effort led to the adoption by the U.N. in 1979 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW. By the end of 1996, most countries had ratified the Convention, but the U.S. is still not among them.

The Commission's work didn't end there. It expanded its long-term role in the advancement of women to also assisting governments to implement their national programs. From 1966-1986 several important U.N. resolutions and events were enacted, all aimed at advancing the status of women:

  1. International Women's Year (1975)
  2. Implementation of the World Plan of Action
  3. The Voluntary Fund for the Decade for Women (UNIFEM's precursor)
  4. The establishment of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)
  5. The Program of Action for the Second Half of the U.N. Decade for Women, and
  6. The Implementation of the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women

The Commission has smoothed the way for four successful world conferences on women through its role as the Preparatory Commission for the World Conferences on Women. These conferences have brought about many positive changes in the lives of women worldwide. A new international spirit of women truly began with the first U.N. Women's Conference held in 1975 in Mexico City, followed by the 1980 conference in Copenhagen and five years later in Nairobi and, finally, in 1995 in Huairou and Beijing.

During all these years, the world's women have shared a commitment to promote equality, development, and peace, the three themes established by the first conference in Mexico City. As we reflect on the progress that women have made around the world, we must remember with gratitude the women who, years ago, had the foresight and persistence to insist that we needed our own commission in the U.N. to look after our own concerns.

Excerpted from WOMANSWORD, Vol. 1, Issue 12, December, 1996.




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