The United Nations Population Fund’s – formerly the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) – sub-regional office for the GCC marked International Women’s Day on Monday at their office in Muscat, lauding the ‘massive’ contribution of women in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the sultanate.
This year’s theme – ‘Women In leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’ – focuses on the enormous contribution of women in leadership at all levels and across all sectors.
“As we tackle the enormous challenges of addressing the health and socio-economic impact of COVID-19, now more than ever it is crucial that women are in front and at the centre of local, national, regional and global recovery plans,” said Karl Kulessa, the newly appointed UNFPA representative for the sub-regional office.
In Oman and in the GCC, the UNFPA empowers women to achieve their potential and supports their engagement in public life. Through the COVID-19 crisis, women have played a pivotal role in the country and in the region in general, Kulessa said, noting that almost 44 per cent of health workers in Oman are women.
“This indicates the massive work they have been doing as front line workers to combat the pandemic,” he added.
Speaking exclusively to Muscat Daily, Kulessa explained his agenda for Oman and the region.
“The UNFPA’s principal task globally is to address reproductive health and rights. This could be access to basic reproductive health services, or safe delivery service, access to birth spacing, services designed to improve the health of young people, or simply to promote women’s rights,” he said.
“In general, we are guided by what we call the three zeros. Zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning, and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices.”
In each country where the UNFPA works, Kulessa said it looks at specific situations to determine what could be its focus.
“It could be the high maternal mortality, low contraceptive usage, or violence against women. Based on our findings, we propose to our government partner a programme, typically, for cycles of 4-5 years.”
As Oman and the other GCC countries are among the high income group nations, the UNFPA official said “it meant typical development approaches do not apply”.
“Instead, we focus on dialogue with national partners around what we think are gaps that may prevent any of the six GCC countries from meeting the commitments of the Sustainable Development Goals and those of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development which deals more extensively with our mandate.”
In Oman, the UNFPA is now looking at an assessment of young people’s health and related themes. “Once we have the results, we invite our national partners to consider them in future policies.”
While Oman and the other GCC countries have embedded equality of all citizens in their constitutions, Kulessa sees a room for dialogue in some specific areas, “for example, domestic violence or access to reproductive health services for unmarried women”.
“In the end, we only advise. The decision to fund and implement our recommendations rest with our national partners.”
In reply to a question on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, Kulessa said, “Economically, women everywhere in the world seem to work predominantly in people-specific areas, let us say retail, social work, education, and health services. The lockdowns have impacted these professions more than others.”
“In Oman, women-owned businesses focused on retail and small-scale business accordingly have been more negatively impacted,” he added.
On the impact of COVID-19 on the women engaged in the health sector, the UNFPA official said, “women as the first responders are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 infection”.
“Besides, the enormous pressures, even tragedy, this work implies a significant psychological burden.” In the Arab region, women make up as much as 80 per cent of the health workforce.
Talking about other issues facing women, he said there is an enormous challenge of balancing family and professional life.
“Women have to address this more than men. As a rule, women work more hours a day than men.”
Speaking on this year’s theme in particular, Kulessa said that the focus on bringing more women into leadership position is crucial. “Empowerment makes it easier to ‘get the ball rolling’. If more women become lawmakers, political leaders, engage in the peace process, run businesses, establish hospitals, and shape the environment, this empowerment will shape legislation, financial and economic decisions, and the way society perceives the potential of women in every aspect of society.”
“We at the UNFPA believe among the first and most fundamental steps is to recognise a women’s right. If she can choose the number of children and how many she will have, that is one big step towards her ability to determine her career path,” he added.
Photo and Text by Syed Fasiuddin
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