Promoting the Rights of Women

UNFPA leads the international community’s efforts to promote the rights of women. For more than 30 years, UNFPA has been in the forefront of bringing issues such as better access to education and the prevention of violence against women, promoting societal change and legal and policy reforms.


Fact: Around the world, as many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way.1 Additionally,violence against women encompasses a wide range of human rights violations.

  • In some countries, up to 60 percent of women suffer from domestic violence. In about onefourth of these cases, sexual violence also occurs.2
  • Between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are trafficked each year for forced labor, the majority for commercial sexual exploitation. Approximately 80 percent are women and girls.3
  • Nearly 50 percent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15-years-old or younger. High numbers of young women report that their first sexual experience was coerced.4
  • It is estimated that 130 million girls and women have undergone female genital cutting (FGC). Approximately 2 million girls are subjected to this practice each year worldwide.5

Laws and Policies
Violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality. UNFPA works with governments to solidify laws and policies that support women’s equality and to prevent gender-based violence. Ongoing efforts provide a framework for public policies. In 2005, UNFPA brought together more than 200 African women governmental leaders and ministers from 40 nations who called for ratification of the rights of women in their countries.

Medical Practices
UNFPA helps train medical professionals to better meet the needs of women who have experienced violence. Pilot projects have been established in Cape Verde, Ecuador, Guatemala, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mozambique, Nepal, Romania, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Harmful Practices: Cultural and Societal Traditions
UNFPA works with local organizations to transform attitudes that perpetuate violence against women, including harmful practices such as female genital cutting. In Uganda, a cooperative effort between UNFPA, the Elders Association and clan leaders led to a 30- percent reduction of FGC in some areas.

Women in Disaster and Conflict Situations In post-conflict and disaster situations, women have particular needs that often relate to their personal safety. During conflicts, the rape of women has increasingly become a weapon of war. In disaster situations, women and girls may be forced to offer sex in exchange for food, shelter or protection. Women who are separated from their families are more vulnerable to attack or kidnap for the sex trafficking trade.

UNFPA works to prevent such abuse, which often increases during periods of crisis. As part of relief efforts in the regions affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, UNFPA worked to include the particular needs of women into the coordinated relief efforts.


Fact: An estimated 82 million girls currently living in low-income countries will be married before their 18th birthday.

  • More than a quarter of women in sub-Saharan Africa and South Central Asia aged 15-19 are married. In some countries more than half of the girls in this age group are married.
  • In 16 sub-Saharan countries, the husbands of girls 15-19 are, on average, at least 10 years older.
  • Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
  • Two-thirds of newly HIV-infected youth aged 15-19 in sub-Saharan Africa are female.

In some cultures girls marry at young ages –- in early adolescence or younger -- due either to economic circumstances or long-held traditions. Married girls usually do not attend school. They are typically expected to begin having children as soon as they are able. Moreover, early marriage increases girls' risk of HIV/AIDS infection because older husbands are more likely to already be infected with the virus.

The completion of primary school helps to reduce maternal mortality and the spread of HIV/AIDS. UNFPA works to improve social and economic opportunities for adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and India by finding feasible alternatives to child marriage such as continuing education or employment.


Fact: Literacy rates for women are significantly lower than men’s in most low-income countries.

  • Worldwide 600 million women are illiterate versus 320 million men.
  • Of 65 low-income countries, half have achieved gender parity in primary education, about 20 percent in secondary education, and about 8 percent in higher education.
  • Since 1994, only 14 countries have launched initiatives to promote women’s education and only 23 countries have passed laws to promote equal education between boys and girls.

Education helps women go beyond the limitations that societal and traditional roles often dictate for them. When women are educated and empowered enough to able to participate in politics and economics, their contributions spur economic development and improve standards of living for all.

UNFPA advocates widely for universal education and has been instrumental in advancing legislation in many countries—including Mauritania, Nepal and Panama—to reduce gender disparities in schooling. UNFPA supports a variety of educational programs, from literacy projects to curricula development, with a focus on women’s health including family planning and HIV prevention.

1-4 UNFPA State of World Population Report, 2005
5 UNFPA, http://www.unfpa.org/gender/practices.htm
6,7 UNFPA, State of World Population Report, 2005
8 United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report, 2005
9 UNFPA State of World Population Report, 2005
10-13 UNFPA, State of World Population Report, 2003