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UNICEF: Children suffer when women face discrimination

WASHINGTON—Poverty, violence and discrimination assault women worldwide and undermine their children's futures, a United Nations agency concludes in a new report being issued Monday.

The global numbers are sobering and unassailable. Some potential solutions are controversial.

Women in developing countries work longer hours for lower pay, the United Nations Children's Fund found. Girls are less likely to get past elementary school. In many countries, women are shut out of household decisions.

"Where you see extreme discrimination against women, you see more problems for children," UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said in an interview.

In its data-packed State of the World's Children report, UNICEF spells out the problems nation by nation. The microscope can be painfully acute. In Nigeria, 1 million children under age 5 die annually. Half of Azerbaijan's residents lack adequate sanitation. A third of the young pregnant women in Botswana's capital are HIV-positive.

This year, the organization also identifies potential solutions. Some of them raise eyebrows, if not hackles.

Gender quotas can be a "potentially effective vehicle for bolstering women's representation" in legislatures, UNICEF notes as one example. The 160-page report favorably cites, as well, the international United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

"When you empower women," Veneman said, "you benefit children."

A native of Modesto, Calif., Veneman has her own experience as a gender trailblazer. She was the first female head of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and, between 2001 and 2005, she served as the nation's first female secretary of agriculture.

The Bush administration in which she served, though, has steadfastly argued against quotas in this country. The United States is also the world's only industrialized nation not to ratify the U.N. treaty on discrimination against women.

Drafted in 1979 and since ratified by 185 nations, including Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.N. treaty is criticized by conservatives as inciting lawsuits, family planning or interference in parenting.

Quotas likewise get mixed reviews.

UNICEF notes approvingly a fourfold increase, since 1995, in the number of countries where women make up at least 30 percent of the national legislatures. These include such male bastions as Afghanistan, Burundi and the newly established Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

"The levels of representation in all three countries are examples of the successful introduction of quotas during their political transitions," states the report, which is being formally released Monday in a New York City news conference.

More women can lead to better policies, UNICEF suggests. In the Indian state of West Bengal, for instance, researchers examined village councils that had reserved at least one-third of the council seats for women.

"Investment in drinking water facilities was double that of villages without quotas," UNICEF noted, "and the roads were almost twice as likely to be in good condition."

In the United States, women accounted for 71 out of the 435 members of this year's House of Representatives. That's significantly lower than the 30 percent cited by the U.N. agency as the "critical yardstick of women's parliamentary participation."

Cabinet officers are likewise predominantly male. Women held 858 Cabinet-level positions worldwide in January 2005, the new report notes. This was 14 percent of the total. Of 21 Cabinet-rank positions in the Bush administration, ranging from secretary of state to U.S. trade representative, five are held by women, or almost 20 percent.

Explicit quotas, however, won't fly politically in the United States.

"Quota systems ... are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution," President Bush declared in 2003, when discussing affirmative action policies used by the University of Michigan.

The new report's policy proposals, and even the "Women and Children: The Double Dividend of Gender Equality" subtitle, reflect a marketing flavor. Previous reports have carried such titled themes as "Excluded and Invisible" and 2004's "Childhood Under Threat."

"We were kind of running out of topics," Veneman said. "You can't keep saying the same thing, year after year."

Still, the real heart of the report is the data, page after page of sobering statistics about women and children in every country. Comparisons with past studies can be illuminating.

In 1995, for instance, UNICEF found that 54,000 Iraqi children under age 5 died. At the time, dictator Saddam Hussein was in charge.

Last year, though, with Saddam gone and the United States occupying the country, 122,000 Iraqi children under age 5 died.

The report is available online at


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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