6 March 2007Convening a special meeting of the General Assembly on gender equality and the empowerment of women, the 192-member body’s president today emphasized that these goals are the responsibility of all people, and achieving them will benefit society as a whole. “I convened this debate in the United Nations with the support of Member States in order to celebrate women’s achievements, but most importantly to share views on effective actions and lessons learned in overcoming the challenges to achieve true gender equality; in particular, the obstacles we need to overcome to bridge the gap between policy and practice,” General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain told participants at the informal thematic debate.“Yet in order to achieve this we must realize that the ‘marginalization’ of work to promote gender equality and the perception that the empowerment of women remains a women’s issue are among the most urgent obstacles we face,” added Sheikha Haya.“Gender equality is crucial to the well being of all nations. It is not only the responsibility of women; it is the responsibility of us all, women as well as men.”Sheikha Haya, a legal expert whose long career included championing women’s rights, said the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women “are concerns that I hold close to my heart.”The General Assembly president was an active participant in the movement to elevate the position of women in Bahrain before the Islamic sharia courts and is an advocate of a progressive interpretation of Islamic texts as they apply to women.Addressing the Member States today, she said: “Especially since in some regions of our world, particular cultural and religious traditions continue to perpetuate inequalities. Many women continue to be marginalized, and, many women continue to be denied the full enjoyment of their basic human rights. What further disturbs me is that some women believe that they are inferior to men and in need of male protection.”Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also issued a strong call for realizing the shared goal of gender equality in his address to the Assembly, which is slated to hear from more than 80 representatives of countries over the course of the two-day debate.Increased engagement of women, while “a goal in itself,” is “also a condition for building healthier, better educated, more peaceful and more prosperous societies,” he said.Despite global compacts and international legal instruments to shrink the gap between the genders, violence against women and girls, under-representation of women in decision-making positions, undervaluing of women’s work and unbalanced educational opportunities for girls still persist, he noted.“Changing this requires all of us – women and men – to work for enduring change in values and attitudes,” Mr. Ban, who stated that he has made gender balance a key goal in selecting his senior management team, said. This entails “transforming relations between women and men, at all levels of society.”The Secretary-General stressed that actions must be taken on several fronts immediately, including boosting male participation in the household and family care; ensuring women’s access to education, healthcare, property and land; challenging stereotypes and practices detrimental to women and girls; and incorporating women’s rights into new UN schemes, such as the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council.The two-day debate, the second-ever held by the Assembly, also includes panel discussions on such topics as “women and decision-making” and “empowerment of women, including microfinance.”The debate also coincides with the 51st session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, also being convened at UN Headquarters, and Wednesday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day.The two-day debate, the second-ever held by the Assembly, also includes panel discussions.At the opening of the discussion on “Women and decision-making,” Sheikha Haya said that women are poorly represented in both the public and private sectors in more senior levels of decision-making. However, pointing to the African Union, which has reached an equal gender balance at its highest levels, she added, “We do not need to see gender equality as a long-term aspiration; rather, it can be an immediately attainable goal.”The debate also coincides with the 51st session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, also being convened at UN Headquarters, and Wednesday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day.