PCDForum Article #11,  Release Date March 6, 1995

by Noeleen Heyzer

Director, UNIFEM

As we move toward the 21st century, humanity faces a historic challenge to find
new pathways of development that will provide equitable and sustainable
livelihoods for all in the midst of degrading environments, massive population
movements, and collapsing social and political structures. In response to this
challenge women throughout the world are joining in an effort to craft a
development agenda for the 21st century that will carry forward the collective
concerns and hopes of women toward the creation of a transformed world that will
offer equality, peace and well-being for all.

This is not an agenda just for women. It is an inclusive vision of a better
future for everyone. To affirm its support for this effort, UNIFEM, the United
Nations Development Fund for Women, has adopted "Transforming development
for equality, peace and a healthy planet" as its new theme.

The massive shifts taking place in human societies are not just analytical
abstractions. They result in everyday challenges of survival for millions indeed
billions of people who find themselves struggling just to stay alive. These
struggles are reaching crisis proportions on a global scale. The prevailing
response has been to lapse into a state of constant crisis management, with
little proactive rethinking about root causes that might lead to longer-term
system change. We have become more adept at fighting fires than at preventing

The well-being of all people, both men and women, however, depends on
eliminating the root causes of the crisis. Since women often bear a
disproportionate share of the burdens the crisis imposes, they may more fully
recognize its depth and the urgency of the challenge it presents. Living with
the reality and continuing to bear a special responsibility as the caretakers of
the family and community interest, it is essential that women provide leadership
in bringing about the needed changes.

We see, for example, a global trend toward the "feminization of poverty."
The number of rural women living in poverty has nearly doubled in only the last
20 years. The global impoverishment of women is in part a consequence of the
restructuring of the world economic system being advanced by trade deregulation,
rapid technological change, the creation of global production networks, the
socialist transition to the market economy, and the emergence of global
financial markets. While these processes of global economic restructuring have
brought new opportunities to some, they have brought new hardships to the many
and greatly increased overall inequality.

The consequences of this restructuring are gender-differentiated due to long
standing constraints on women’s ownership of productive assets, access to
educational and employment opportunities, and physical and social mobility.
Environmental degradation also exacts higher costs from women than from men. In
a world that is still largely rural, women continue to be the main subsistence
farmers of Africa, Asia and South America. At an everyday level, these women
farmers are facing the challenge of maintaining sustainable livelihoods for
themselves, their families and their communities as their resource base of fuel,
water and productive soils becomes increasingly depleted.

Research on environmental health shows that women’s bodies more readily absorb
toxins than men’s bodies do. Consequently, the increase in toxic contamination
of the environment has disproportionate health consequences for women and for
the children they bear.

The massive population displacements that are creating growing numbers of
environmental, developmental, and war refugees also have a disproportionate
impact on women. Even when displaced as refugees, women continue to be the
care-givers of those even more vulnerable than themselves, such as the children,
the old and the sick. As a consequence, women refugees are often less mobile and
less able to grasp economic opportunities in their new locations than are men.

Women labour migrants tend to fill gender-segregated jobs that are underpaid,
undervalued and under-protected such as domestic work in the employer’s home or
nonunionized factory work. Even more problematic is the sexual trafficking of
girls and women by organized prostitution rings. This often involves the forced
migration of girls sold off by poor parents and women who may be tricked into
situations where their very lives may be in danger from violence and sexually
transmitted diseases like AIDS.

The violence that accompanies the collapse of failing political structures
underscores an old truth that in war there is no victory for women, no matter
which side wins. The collective rape of women in conflict situations as a
political act is an especially egregious demonstration of this point. The
challenge of securing peace and social integration is therefore a matter of
especially crucial concern for women.

There is an urgent need for women to articulate their own agenda for change
which will not only address their specific needs and concerns, but as well
transform the processes that have generated such problematic consequences for
both women and men and for their children. As we draw towards the close of this
century, such a women’s development agenda is emerging. It builds from the work
of those who are seeking a development path that would address more generally
the basic need of the poor for secure livelihoods. It is important that women
bring their distinctive perspectives and realities to bear in this search to
assure that one development mistake is not simply replaced by another.

The women’s development agenda embraces gender equity as the central principle
of a new development process in which the burdens and benefits of development
will be shared equally among women and men. It calls for gender-equitable access
to resources, while taking into account the everyday processes of how people
produce, consume, survive and reproduce in gender-differentiated ways. The
women’s development agenda emphasizes both women’s livelihood needs and the key
role that women play in maintaining the ecological sustainability and
renewability of finite natural resources. It seeks to address the root causes of
physical displacement, namely, environmental degradation, land loss, war, and
poverty. It sees peace as a vital foundation of healthy communities.

Good governance is also a principle of vital importance in the women’s
development agenda. Policies coming out of a system of good governance would be
responsive to the livelihood needs and realities of women and communities,
instead of appropriating development resources to serve powerful private
interests at the expense of the economically and politically weak. Good
governance would recognize that since women commonly assume a special
responsibility for the family and community interest, they must have a central
role in both setting and implementing policies aimed at creating more just and
sustainable societies.

The women’s development agenda is UNIFEM’s charter for action a mandate for
UNIFEM as a vehicle of change through its unique position at the nexus between
the United Nations and the social movements through which women are expressing
their hopes and aspirations for a better world. UNIFEM aims to work towards a
global framework of cooperation that will bring together often isolated efforts
that currently exist toward the rethinking of development. We will also work to
advance a holistic view of the interrelated issues of sustainable development,
human rights, population, society, women, and habitat that respectively
constitute the topics of debate at global conferences in Rio, Vienna, Cairo,
Copenhagen, Beijing, and Istanbul on where we, as a human race, should go from

UNIFEM seeks to communicate a message of hope and cooperation that we may all
work together for a better world for everyone, including generations yet to

Noeleen Heyzer is director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women
(UNIFEM) and a contributing editor of The People-Centered Development Forum
(PCDForum). This article was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on
her December 1994 presentation to the Third Committee of the General Assembly of
Nations of the United Nations. Additional information is available from UNIFEM,
304 E. 45th St., 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A. Phone (212) 906-6435; Fax
(212) 906-6705.

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