The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published its annual report on the State of the World Population on Wednesday. The report highlights gender inequality in areas such as health, literacy, and human rights across the world. It also analyses the link between gender issues and deep-rooted traditions in various cultures, especially in Asia.
The UN is working with various agencies in Asia to improve the situation of mothers
In many parts of Asia, traditional beliefs and customs have long been the root cause of various societal problems such as female foeticide or maternal mortality.
For example, in some ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, a woman who has recently given birth is made to lie on a bed over a hot fire for nearly a month, to protect her against ‘evil spirits’, which aggravate unhygienic conditions.
Certain sections of the Akha community in the hilly regions of China, Thailand or Myanmar have a practice of killing twins or infants born with disabilities, as they are not believed to be fully human. In India, female foetuses are often aborted because of a family's preference for a male child.
Role of culture in gender issues
The key role of culture in gender issues is emphasised in the UN's 2008 State of the World Population Report.
Thoraya Obaid, the executive director of the United Nations Populations Fund, said that development had long ignored the cultural perspective.
"Culture has positive and negative elements in it and we, as development practitioners should gain access the positives so that the community can change the negatives by itself,’’ says Obaid.
This policy of involving the community is a significant part of the UN's campaign for women’s rights in Asia.
Obaid said that leaders of religious communities could play a crucial role in addressing confusions between religious interpretations and harmful traditional practices.
In Bangladesh, the UNFPA is working with Muslim religious leaders to tackle the problem of maternal mortality in the country's rural areas.
A course has been set up for imams: ‘’They will go out and speak at the Friday Khotba about reproductive health for women, how important it is for respect and will be able to ensure that women can access reproductive health facilities,’’ she said.
Similar programmes have also been implemented in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and India, where the UN works with churches, governments and civic society to help change people's mindsets.
Change that lasts
The impact should be sustainable, said Obaid: "Any change that comes from the outside will be temporary and will not last. If we can engage community leaders -- both men and women -- and get them to understand the implications of these abuses of human rights, not only for women but also to the families, they can bring about change from within. Change that can be lasting."
In Obaid’s words, "culture is not a wall to tear down, but a window to see through, and a door to open" to make way for human rights.