"... at the root of poverty — the greatest developmental challenge — lies a complex nexus which structures how people think, believe and behave [i.e. culture], that defines relations between men and women in society and their access to resources and opportunities [i.e. gender equality], and, therefore, impacts on the enjoyment of human rights. To bring about sustainable human development without tackling these three root causes is akin to attempting to dive into the deep sea with no clue about swimming.’ — Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director
In 2002, UNFPA launched its initiative to systematically mainstream culturally-sensitive approaches into programming efforts. The culture lens is an approach that can advance the goals of programming effectively and efficiently with strong community acceptance and ownership.
It helps policy makers and development practitioners to analyze, understand and utilize positive cultural values, assets and structures in their planning and programming processes, so as to reduce resistance to the ICPD Programme of Action, strengthen programming effectiveness and create conditions for ownership and sustainability of UNFPA programmes. On the ground, this demands a greater emphasis on working with communities and local agents of change — engaging in dialogue, listening, sharing knowledge and insights, and jointly planning the way to move ahead.
UNFPA's activities touch on the most sensitive and intimate spheres of human existence, including reproductive health and rights, gender relations and population issues. Attitudes about these subjects vary widely between and among different cultures. Changing these deeply-rooted attitudes, behaviors and laws — especially those dealing with gender relations and reproductive health — can be a long process that requires a culturally-sensitive approach. The Fund respects cultural diversity. At the same time, it rejects those practices that endanger women and girls. It works closely and respectfully with communities to enlist their support in upholding the human rights of all its members.
The link between the cultural lens, human rights and gender equality provide the holistic and basic framework within which to enhance people’s rights and behaviors, regardless their nationality, religion, sex, age, race or sexual orientation. The result means that more people can enjoy their fundamental human rights and a better life.
This approach is essential in a country like Egypt that has a strong and rich religious and cultural background, disparities in the law between women and men and deeply rooted harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation. Behaviors like sexual harassment or the scarce access to economic, educational and health systems for women have their roots in the strong cultural tradition that perpetuates gender-unequal community and individual behaviors in Egypt.
However, what was not known before and what UNFPA promotes is that the consequences affect the whole society. Depriving women of equal rights, community and individual inclusion and equal opportunities have a negative impact on the family, on the society and on the economy of the whole nation.