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UN Report: Not Enough Progress Made on Women's Rights

The United Nations Population Fund has said culturally sensitive approaches could help alleviate undue suffering among women around the globe. But is culture itself, in many parts of the world, the real problem?

Woman with child leaning against a tree

The UN has once again drawn attention to the situation of women

"A scandal" -- that was German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul's response to the UN's findings that women around the world still suffer disproportionally from poverty, lack of education, health problems and oppression.

The report, which was published on Wednesday, November 12, points out that three-fifths of the world's poorest people are women. Women also account for the two-thirds of the world's illiterate and 70 percent of all children without access to education.

The report also points out that sexual violence has become a part of almost all armed conflicts, and half-a-million women die, and 10-15 million more are permanently disabled, from preventable complications associated with childbirth and pregnancy.

But the UN Population Fund's findings are hardly a surprise. The question is: what can be done to alleviate the plight of many of the world's women?

Sensitivity training?

Somalia girl lays with her legs bound so that the gential wound can heal

Female genital mutilation is a practice still common in some parts of the world

The report recommended adapting programs aimed at helping women to local cultures.

"Culturally sensitive programming is key to building this common ground," the report concluded. "It provides a practical and strategic response to the observation that cultural beliefs and perceptions are at the root of gender inequalities in many societies."

The report cites examples of women being disadvantaged and oppressed in a number of countries in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

But that raises this issue of whether local cultures, especially in societies were religion plays a relatively major role, may not themselves contribute to gender inequality.

"Referring to culture, values and religion should not be allowed to serve [the ultimate function of] oppressing people," Wieczorek-Zeul told the AP news agency.

United Nations Population Fund Director Bettina Maas also said that the report was in no way intended to condone cultural practices like female genital mutilation.But it is questionable whether well-meaning words from organizations like the UN can do anything to alleviate the suffering excoriated -- and rightly so -- by Wednesday's report.

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