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UNFPA's work in the region is designed to help countries foster an enabling environment for human rights, especially reproductive rights and gender equality. Empowering vulnerable groups, women, young people, and key populations in the region to exercise their right to quality reproductive health services and education is among the top priorities. As a key social determinant of health, gender equality and the empowerment of women are central to achieving universal access to reproductive health.

Major human rights issues in the region include the persistence of violence against women and girls; violations of the rights of key populations affected by HIV infection; widespread lack of rights to sexual and reproductive health for young people; and multiple forms of discrimination affecting marginalized populations such as Roma, and those affected by humanitarian emergencies. These violations often translate into greater vulnerability to the risks associated with poor sexual and reproductive health. Due to persistent stigma and discrimination, the human rights of key populations affected by HIV infection - such as people living with HIV, people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men and transgender people - are also widely ignored.

The achievement of gender equality remains a major challenge in the region, despite the general existence of strong legal protections and some positive indicators. Varying forms of gender discrimination mean women in the region are disproportionately affected by poverty. Poverty levels are particularly high among rural women, minorities such as Roma, and female-headed households.

The persistence of gender-based violence, above all intimate partner violence, is a critical issue in the region. Despite some advances, inadequate and discriminatory responses to sexual violence still exist in many countries - an issue of special concern in humanitarian situations. Forced and early marriages are also widespread in many countries in the region.

Gender disparities in the region, however, are complex and do not always favor men; demographic data suggests that the life expectancy of men is significantly lower than that of women. In general, the region lacks a supporting and enabling environment to meaningfully involve men in promoting gender equality and promoting positive male role models towards gender equality.

UNFPA works to build national capacities to implement laws and policies that advance gender equality and reproductive rights with a specific emphasis on greater integration with sexual and reproductive health and eliminating gender-based violence. The implementation of gender equality laws and policies is hampered by pervasive gender stereotypes that discriminate against women. Building on successes and existing policy base, there is a need to focus interventions on transforming gender relations more deeply, at the levels of the individual and community. Together with partners, UNFPA is committed to gender-transformative programming which works to change gender stereotypes and inequitable gender relations that hinder womens' rights by engaging men and boys.

The EECA MenEngage Platform was created as a space to generate, disseminate and exchange knowledge and information on engaging men and boys in gender equality. By fostering a collective voice in the region on the need to challenge harmful gender norms, the MenEngage Platform provides its members with opportunities for technical assistance, participation in knowledge-generating activities and joint advocacy on specific issues.
Efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in the region too often focus on law enforcement only. It is necessary to increasingly address this important issue as a public health concern and more systematically engage health systems in prevention and response. Countries in the region are at different stages in this effort and a common and evidence-based approach to integrate gender-based violence in health systems, especially sexual and reproductive health services, is lacking.
Together with partners, based on global evidence and best practices, UNFPA promotes practices, guidelines and protocols for more effective integration for the health sector in addressing gender-based violence. UNFPA advocates for Governments to address the gap in data regarding violence against women and aims to gather high-level political commitment against gender-based violence. Continuing strong support for gender-disaggregated data collection and the use of such data in policy making is also a priority for UNFPA's work in the region.
In 2020, UNFPA launched our Expanding Choices project, which aims to shift social norms and expand choices for women through gender-responsive family policies in the Western Balkans and Moldova.
Learn more about our work on human rights and gender equality: