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Something Amiss in the United Nations' Gender Health Agenda

by Carey Roberts    --show me more like this

In 1998, Gro Harlem Brundtland was named as the first female director-general of the World Health Organization. Many hailed her appointment as a long-overdue opportunity to introduce a new ethic of female compassion at the highest levels of the United Nations.

Indeed, Dr. Brundtland was a well-known advocate for women's rights and health needs. In 2003 she presented this analysis to the 59th U.N. Commission on Human Rights:

"Millions of women accept poor health status as their lot in life and bring up their daughters to do the same. Why? Because they have been ascribed an inferior status and are victims of a persistent devaluing of women's contribution to society." [www.who.int/dg/speeches/2003/commissionhumanrights/en/].

Around the same time, other women came into positions of authority and power within the United Nations. Now, a feminist perspective permeates many of the U.N. services.

This article examines the sex-specific health programs at the World Health Organization and other key agencies of the United Nations.

Overall Health Status of Men and Women

On practically every indicator, the health of men lags in comparison to women.

In almost every country around the world, men have a shorter life expectancy than women. The disparity ranges from 4.0 years in Israel, to 5.4 years in the United States, to a disturbing 12.6 years in the Russian Federation [www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus04.pdf ]. These variations cannot be accounted for by biological differences.

More males than females die from all three major categories of death, according to the World Health Organization [www.who.int/whr/2001/main/en/annex/index.htm]:

Communicable Diseases Males: 9,252,000; Females: 8,495,000

Non-communicable Diseases Males: 16,998,000; Females: 15,856,000

Injuries Males: 3,415,000; Females: 1,647,000

Suicide is of particular concern. The WHO reports that globally, the suicide rate is 24 per 100,000 for men, compared to only 3.5 per 100,000 for females. The WHO report concludes, "The rate of suicide is almost universally higher among men compared to women by an aggregate ratio of 3.5 to 1" [www.who.int.whr/2001/main/en/chapter2/002g.htm].

The lifespan gender gap is expected to worsen in the future. According to the WHO Global Burden of Disease study, women's life expectancy in industrialized countries is expected to increase to about 90 years by 2020. As for men, "far smaller gains in male life expectancy were projected than in females."

Against this background of widespread health disparities affecting men, the World Health Organization has established a wide range of sex-specific programs. These initiatives include a WHO Department of Women's Health [www.who.int/frh-whd/index.html] and a Global Commission on Women's Health.

Similar WHO programs do not exist for men.

The justification for this omission may be found in the 24th General Recommendation of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which counsels that:

"special attention should be given to the health needs and rights of women belonging to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups" [www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/].

Apparently, dying 5-12 years earlier than women does not qualify men as being vulnerable or disadvantaged.

War-Related Health Problems

In 2000, 233,000 men died of war-related injuries, compared to only 77,000 women, according to the WHO World Report on Violence and Health [www5.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/main.cfm?p=0000000682 - Table A.5]. This represents a 3:1 sex disparity.

A recent example occurred in Afghanistan. Over a 10-year period, the Taliban terrorized ethnic villagers. As documented in numerous reports from Amnesty International, the most egregious violations of human rights were directed against civilian men, who were often maimed, tortured, and killed [http:// web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/COUNTRIES/AFGHANISTAN? OpenView&expandall].

The Taliban also mistreated Afghani women, who were prohibited from obtaining employment and attending school.

On April 7, 2000, the U.N. Security Council registered its concerns about the perilous situation in Afghanistan. Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, euphemistically alluded to the "separation of men from their families". In this case, "separation" really meant "never heard from again."

Secretary-general Annan then issued this ringing denunciation of the mistreatment of women:

"The Security Council condemns the continuing grave violations of the human rights of women and girls, including all forms of discrimination against them, in all areas of Afghanistan, particularly in areas under the control of the Taliban. It remains deeply concerned about continued restrictions on their access to health care, to education and to employment outside the home, and about restrictions on their freedom of movement and freedom from intimidation, harassment and violence. The Council notes the recent reports of modest progress regarding the access of women and girls to certain services, but considers that such incremental improvements, while welcome, still fall far short of the minimum expectations of the international community, and calls upon all parties, particularly the Taliban, to take measures to end all violations of human rights of women and girls" (www.un.int/usa/spst0012.htm).

Apparently, the mobility restrictions that the Taliban had imposed on women were more disturbing to Mr. Annan than the mass executions of men.

Following this same logic, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on October 31, 2001. The Resolution makes this extraordinary claim, "civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict."

The resolution clearly contradicts the information presented above from the WHO World Report on Violence and Health.

When war strikes, civilian populations are often left homeless. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees once made the following plea on its website: "The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees...One million women and children...homeless, hungry, helpless" (http://unhcr.org/).

The UN High Commissioner had nothing to say about men who were homeless, hungry, and helpless.

Other Types of Violence

Overall, violence accounts for 14% of deaths among males, and only 7% of deaths among females (www5.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/main.cfm?p=0000000592). But the WHO Report on Violence and Health slants the issue in a way that downplays the effects of violence on men.

For example, the discussion on Child Soldiers makes no mention of the fact that most children forced into military combat are male [www5.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/main.cfm?p=0000000682 - Box 8.3].

A similar bias appears in the Report's treatment of domestic violence. Despite the fact that over 100 studies that show that women are as likely to initiate partner aggression as men [www.csulb.edu/~mfiebert/assault.htm], the chapter on domestic violence portrays the problem as a male-on-female phenomenon.

Even though violence is a problem that disproportionately affects men, the WHO disingenuously presents the information in such a way as to imply that women are in fact at greater risk.

Gender Agenda Gone Awry

Thanks to the determined efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the United Nations ratified the acclaimed Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This Declaration is the international covenant that defines and affirms essential human rights.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses the right to life: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." And Article 2 of that Human Rights treatise specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

But the preferential provision of health services to groups at lesser risk is a clear-cut case of discrimination.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The health programs of the World Health Organization and other agencies are violating the U.N.'s most cherished founding principles. Under the guise of promoting gender equality in health, sexism now carries sway at the UN.

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