23 February 2012


1 Rationale

1.1 Attending to the well-being of women and girls is essential to social and economic development worldwide, as reflected in the inclusion of promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women as Goal 3 and the improvement of maternal health as Goal 5 among the eight goals of the United Nations Millennium Development Project (2007). Specific targets in Goal 3 include the elimination of gender inequities at all levels of education, equal participation of women in non-agricultural wage-based employment, and their equal representation in national parliaments. Investing in maternal health prevents needless deaths and disability among both women and young children. Because women bear the world’s children and do the majority of child- and family-care related work in all societies, self-determination in child-bearing and access to the full range of reproductive health care services are essential, but international aid for these services is currently declining or restricted in use. In addition, in many parts of the world gender ratios in the numbers of children under 5 who are underweight; among those enrolled in primary and secondary education and in population literacy; in HIV prevalence, condom use, and correct HIV knowledge; and in unemployment among young people (15-24) must also be addressed (United Nations, 2007). Women and girls are also affected differently by wars and other armed conflicts and their consequences, such as war rape and forced migration (Jansen, 2006; Farwell, 2004; UNFPA, 2006), and historically and presently they have played a key role in peace-making efforts globally (Sullivan, 1993; Ross-Sheriff & Swigonski, 2006). Globalization itself is having a profound impact on women and girls worldwide (Dinerman, 2003; Ross-Sheriff, 2007), often to the benefit of the global North and to the detriment of those in the global South.

1.2 Social workers must commit themselves to enhancing the well being of women and girls as an essential aspect of the profession’s ethical and practice commitment to human rights. This special commitment to women of all ages is necessary because in all national and cultural contexts women and girls do not have equal access to the tangible and intangible benefits of being members of human society.

1.3 Social workers are involved in the broadest range of professional activities that are critical to the well being of women and girls. Specific efforts include the delivery of health and mental health care services and public health programs; prevention and early intervention efforts addressing both interpersonal and community-based violence; education, employment, and training programs; programs assisting migrants, refugees, those seeking asylum, and victims of human trafficking; and activities to increase the participation of people traditionally excluded from political, economic, and community decision making. Thus, it is essential that the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) state clearly its position on issues of relevance to women internationally.

2 Issues

2.1 The commitment of the social work profession to social justice requires attention to women’s rights as intrinsic to advancing human rights. Intersectionality—how gender combines with other key social characteristics and statuses related to oppression, such as race, ethnicity, national origin, culture, religion, caste or class, age, gender identity and sexual expression, and (dis)ability—is also essential to understanding the situations of women and girls and to working professionally with them (Crenshaw, 1994; Hill Collins, 1999; Samuels & Ross-Sheriff, 2008). The mainstreaming of gender issues in economic and social development must be accompanied by attention to all of the other intersecting social factors that make women differentially vulnerable in their own national, social and cultural contexts.

2.2 Attention must be given to equity in life chances for women and girls over the life course, addressing gender disparities in births and childhood health and survival; access to education at all levels; access to and control over earnings and economic assets; access to the full range of health and behavioral health care services, including reproductive health care; and access to resources and care in old age or in impaired health. The continuing worldwide prevalence of various forms of gender-based violence against women and girls remains a major obstacle to the fulfillment of these goals (UNFPA, 2000).

2.3 In addition to the issues included in the UN Millennium Project goals (2007), many issues affecting women and girls worldwide were articulated in the Platform for Action adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 (see next section). Issues emerging since then include gender inequities in the “digital divide,” or access to current information and communication technologies (Womenwatch, 2005); heightened vulnerabilities to disasters and environmental degradation (Womenwatch, 2004); special burdens in providing scarce water to their families and communities (Womenwatch, 2005); vulnerabilities in risk, disease burden, and caregiving burden related to the global epidemic of HIV/AIDs; and risks related to human trafficking and other forms of migration, voluntary and involuntary (UNFPA, 2000, 2006). Recent armed conflicts have also brought recognition of rape as a weapon of war, with long-lasting health and social consequences for the women and girls affected as well as for their offspring.

2.4 One issue that has been difficult for the social work profession to confront has been continuing gender inequities within itself. Social work and social workers are parts of the societies and cultures in which they find themselves. Hence, as in other professions and occupations, gender ideologies can find expression in inequality in opportunities, compensation and advancement for women within the profession, which has been well-documented at least in the United States (McPhail, 2004).

3 Background

3.1 Women’s rights are inherently human rights, and social work’s historical and international commitment to human rights is a core value of the profession. Historically, women and girls have not enjoyed equal access to basic human rights, protections, resources, and services. As a response to this discrimination, there have been major international efforts directed at eradicating these inequalities, in which both social workers and members of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) have participated. These efforts have included

1. the 1975 United Nations Conference on Women, held in Mexico City. The conference launched the United Nations Decade on Women.

2. the 1980 United Nations Conference on Women, held in Copenhagen. The conference was held at the midpoint of the Decade on Women to assess progress.

3. the 1985 United Nations Conference on Women, held in Nairobi at the end of the UN Decade on Women. “The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000” was created and distributed to help guide nations, organizations, professions, and individuals in taking action.

4. the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. This conference, using an international assessment of the status of women in relation to the goals set forth in the Nairobi document, issued a platform statement outlining 12 areas of critical concern, including the identification of obstacles and strategies for action in all 12 areas.

3.2 All meetings of non-government organizations (NGOs) held in conjunction with and in follow-up to these meetings were guided by the theme of “Equality, Development and Peace.”

3.3 In addition, the UN has adopted (and endorsed by many nations) conventions in such key areas as The Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), The Convention on the Consent to Marriage (1962), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979). The Earth Summit on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), and the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995) also featured specific attention to both the unmet and the unique contributions of women to human development and well-being in these areas.

3.4 Following the 1985 Conference in Nairobi, IFSW expressed its commitment to women by adopting a “Strategy Document”. The “Strategy Document” urges IFSW members to advocate for their governments endorsement of CEDAW (if they have not already done so); to continue efforts to develop and disseminate social work knowledge about the status of women and girls; and to analyze local, national, and international policies and proposed policies for their effect on women. The “Strategy Document” also affirms, “In social work, there is special concern for the profession and the women social workers service”. In addition, the IFSW delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women endorsed a resolution, prepared by the Older Women’s Caucus at the 1995 NGO Forum, urging that attention be given within the Beijing platform statement to areas of key concern to older women. Worldwide, older women and widows often remain invisible, marginalized, and disproportionately poor (Womenwatch2000, 2001, 2002).

3.5 Because of the centrality of gender issues to all of its work, United Nations agencies have since adopted a policy of “mainstreaming,” meaning that an analysis of policy impacts on women and men must be integral to the policy-making process in all UN agencies. UNIFEM continues its work globally, and its website provides information on all gender-relevant initiatives of the UN. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals reflect this integration while including two main goals addressing gender equity and the empowerment of women and the need to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality and morbidity through better care and access to contraception. The U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women continues to monitor progress on both the Platform for Action and the Millennium Goals (2008).

4 Areas of critical concern for social work

4.1 The Platform for Action adopted in Beijing (1995) recognizes two contradictory global trends affecting women: (1) the growing strength of women’s organizations and the women’s movement and (2) a global trend toward national and international economic, environmental, and structural arrangements that have had a disproportionately negative effect on women. Based on this analysis the 1995 Platform for Action outlined 12 areas of “critical concern”. Because of the great relevance to social work internationally, six of these “critical concerns” are highlighted.

1. Poverty – Among the world’s 1 billion people living in poverty, women remain in the majority (INSTRAW, 2005). Women’s poverty results from structural factors related to national debt burdens, inadequate government spending on programs targeted to women, and paid employment that is often limited to the lowest-paying and most unstable jobs that provide the least (if anything) in employment-related benefits (UNIFEM, 2005). The disproportionate burdens women and girls generally assume for unpaid subsistence and family care activities also serve to limit their access to education and training and to participation in paid employment. Informal employment, which is common for women, is directly related to the risk that a household will be poor. Food insecurity also has a great impact on women and girls. Women in poverty urgently need greater economic opportunity and adequate mechanisms of economic and social support – resources that do not require them to depend on a husband’s assets and that enable them to care adequately for those family members who may depend on them.

2. The Economy – Although women do the majority of the world’s work, women do not share equally in income, earnings, and wealth. Discrimination against women in earnings, employment, access to credit and capital accumulation mechanisms, and employment-related public and private social benefit systems (UNIFEM, 2005) also affects the economic well-being of their children and other household members. In employment, discrimination against women can be overt, for example, when women earn less than men performing the same work, and the disadvantages of this accumulate over the life course (UNDP, 2006). However, discrimination more often takes more subtle forms, for example, when a labour market restricts a woman’s job opportunities because of gender bias in a “traditionally” male domain or creates a “glass ceiling” that makes it difficult for women to advance in their careers. Elimination of discrimination against women in employment and in access to capital and technology, with attention to developing economic opportunities for women in private enterprise, in agriculture, and all sectors of formal employment, must be prioritized to enable women, their families, and their communities to reach their full potential.

3. Education and Training – In addition to being a human right, education and training are essential tools for achieving economic well being. Although gender disparities in adult literacy rates have improved in some parts of the world, they remain a problem in others (2005). Worldwide, fewer, girls than boys are enrolled in or complete primary school (2007), the number of girls attending school is by far the lowest among the world’s poor (2005), and, worldwide, the ratio of girls to boys attending school declines at each higher level of education (2005). In a world economy increasingly driven by service industries and technology-related economic activities and in which the distribution of many forms of social welfare benefits are tied to wage employment, especially in non-agricultural sectors, gender disparities in educational opportunity and achievement relate directly to the life-long economic well-being of women and their families.

4. Health – All aspects of health and health care, including mental health along with physical, social, and sexual and reproductive health, are vital to human and social well-being. Gender disparities in health and access to health care persist worldwide, and “female infanticide, inadequate food and medical care, physical abuse, genital mutilation, forced sex and early childbirth take many girls’ lives” (UNPFA, 2000). The toll of injury, disability, and death from pregnancy-related causes is one of the most neglected health problems in the world. Life choices and opportunities expand when women are liberated from the burden of frequent childbearing and from the risk of dying in childbirth. Thus access to effective and accessible methods of contraception and to the full range of reproductive health care services are essential for progress in health and social development (United Nations, 1997). However, special health risks for women persist over the life course (WHO, 2007). Acknowledgment of the negative health and mental health effects of violence against women is also of critical importance (UNFPA, 2000).

5. Violence – Many women and girls from all social, cultural, and income groups are subject to specific forms of physical, sexual, and psychological violence because of their gender. This gender-specific violence includes emotional, physical, and verbal assault; rape and mass rape; sexual harassment; sexual exploitation and slavery; forced pregnancy; forced or selective abortion; and forced sterilization. In some parts of the world natural gender ratios that favor females at birth have been so distorted that there are only about 95 girls to every 100 boys, which happens because of daughter devaluation expressed through sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and gender-biased access to resources such as nutrition and health care in early life (UNFPA, 2000, Gill & Mitra-Kahn, 2008). The female disadvantage in survival in some parts of the world persists into the 30s, aided by preventable problems in maternal mortality associated with childbirth; the sale of girls and women into industrial, sex and domestic work; and other forms of gender-based violence against women and girls. Worldwide, “one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way,” most often by a domestic partner or some other person known to her, and it is estimated that one in four women is abused during pregnancy (UNFPA, 2000). Women are also often victims of elder abuse.

6. The Girl – Discrimination against women can begin early in life. Prenatal selection, female infanticide or abandonment, childhood sexual exploitation, genital mutilation, and limited access to adequate nutrition and health care all affect the number of girls in some parts of the world who survive into adulthood (Working Group on Girls, 2006). These factors combined with limited access to education, early marriage, and early childbearing affect the health and well-being of girls and can have lasting effects throughout their lives. In many parts of the world, young women between 15 and 24 years of age have higher unemployment and lower rates of access to “decent and productive work” (Millennium Goal Report, 2007), making them more vulnerable to poverty and various forms of exploitation and victimization. Worldwide, girls predominate among new cases of HIV/AIDS in those ages 15-24.

5 Policy statement

5.1 Women’s rights are human rights. To the extent that women and girls do not enjoy equal rights, their common human needs, and those of their families, will not be fully met and their human potential will not be fully realized. Therefore, the social work profession’s core commitment to human rights must involve a commitment to protecting and preserving the basic rights of all women and girls. Women of all ages and at all stages of the life cycle deserve protection from discrimination in all forms, including the elimination of all forms of gender-specific discrimination and violence.
5.2 IFSW endorses the platform statement adopted by the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. IFSW recognizes that global progress toward peace and social development requires attention to all the areas of critical concern described in the platform statement.

5.3 IFSW stresses and affirms the core commitment of the social work profession to human rights, human welfare, peace, and the enhancement of the human potential and well-being of all people as well as from its mission of service to those from vulnerable, oppressed, and disadvantaged groups.

5.4 IFSW and its member organizations will work to advocate for development of policies, implementation of programs, and social action to improve the well-being of women of all ages. This work can be effective only if the special needs and contributions of indigenous, migrant, displaced, and poor women are emphasized.

5.5 IFSW recognizes that policies and programmes designed to eliminate poverty and to promote the economic well-being of all people will not succeed without attention to gender discrimination in economic arrangements, in the workplace, in the household, and in social and economic policies and programs themselves.

5.6 IFSW will work to improve the health status of women of all ages. Social workers are commonly involved in the delivery of women’s health care, including maternal and child health, mental and behavioral health care services, and sexual and reproductive health care, including the care and prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Improving the health and well-being of women requires attention to physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being and the provision of gender-sensitive prevention, intervention, and long-term care services.

5.7 IFSW endorses women’s self-determination in all health care decisions as a core professional value, including all decisions regarding sexual activity and reproduction. Social workers understand that women have the right to receive competent and safe reproductive and sexual health care services free from government, institutional, professional, familial, or other interpersonal limitation or coercion.

5.8 IFSW recognizes that social workers involved in schools and in adult education and training and literacy efforts must attend to gender issues as they affect the education and training of girls and women of all ages.

5.9 IFSW affirms that social work’s commitment to children and youths and their families must include attention to the risks associated with being a girl.

5.10 IFSW supports the full participation of women in all decision-making bodies and processes that affect the political, economic, social, educational, and health concerns of women and girls. This commitment includes full participation in the profession, education for the profession, social agencies, and other social services delivery systems.
5.11 IFSW supports indigenous, grass-roots, and professional organizations of all kinds that seek to empower diverse women and girls in all sectors of society.

5.12 IFSW recognizes the need to expand the social work knowledge base and improve the skills of professional social workers as they relate to the needs of women and girls, especially those from indigenous, poor, migrant, displaced groups, and any other groups also disadvantaged in their own national, social or cultural contexts.

The document was prepared by the National Association of Social Workers, United States of America.


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