Feature story

New report on the State of the World Population

12 November 2008

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Cultural sensitivity is critical for the success of development strategies according to a new report produced by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Credit UNFPA

Cultural sensitivity is critical for the success of development strategies according to a new report produced by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, launched 12 November 2008, reports that culture is a central component of successful development of countries, and must be integrated into development policy and programming.

The State of World Population 2008 report affirms that development strategies that are sensitive to cultural values can reduce harmful practices against women and promote human rights, including gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Despite many declarations and affirmations in support of women’s rights, the report argues, gender inequality is widespread and deep-rooted in many cultures. Coercive power relations underlie practices such as child marriage - a leading cause of obstetric fistula and maternal death—and female genital mutilation or cutting. These and other harmful practices continue in many countries despite laws against them.

Gender inequality and HIV

The effects of gender inequality leave women and girls more at risk of exposure to HIV. Less access to education and economic opportunities results in women being more dependent on men in their relationships, and many who have no means of support must resort to bartering or selling sex to support themselves and their children. Where women can’t own property and lack legal protections, their dependence within their families is even greater. Economic and social dependence on men often limits women's power to refuse sex or to negotiate the use of condoms.

The report, which coincides with this year’s 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is based on the concept that the international human rights framework has universal validity. Human rights express values common to all cultures and protect groups as well as individuals. The report endorses culturally sensitive approaches to the promotion of human rights, in general, and women’s rights, in particular.

Culturally sensitive approaches call for familiarity with how cultures work, and how to work with them. The report suggests that partnerships - especially with community-based institutions and leaders - can create effective strategies to promote human rights and end their abuses, such as female genital mutilation or cutting, wife inheritance or rape within marriage.

“Communities have to look at their cultural values and practices and determine whether they impede or promote the realization of human rights. Then, they can build on the positive and change the negative,” said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA

Therefore, The State of World Population report cautions that cultural sensitivity and engagement do not mean acceptance of harmful traditional practices, or a free pass for human rights abuses. Values and practices that infringe human rights can be found in all cultures. Understanding cultural realities can reveal the most effective ways to challenge these harmful cultural practices and strengthen beneficial ones.

The report concludes that analysing people’s choices in their local conditions and cultural contexts is a precondition for better development policies.