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GUATEMALA: Indigenous Women Last in Line for MDGs

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GUATEMALA CITY, May 7 2007 (IPS) - Guatemala is making slow, uneven progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with maternal mortality and illiteracy remaining the most persistent problems, mid-way to the 2015 deadline.

“One of the hardest goals for us to fulfil is to reduce maternal mortality (by two-thirds),” the under-secretary of the planning and programming secretariat of the Guatemalan president’s office (SEGEPLAN), María Castro, said at a forum organised by Fundación Solar and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guatemala City.

In Guatemala, the maternal mortality rate fell from 248 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1989 to 121 per 100,000 in 2005. However, the target of 62 maternal deaths per 100,000 in 2015 is “still a long way off,” Castro said.

That is because most maternal deaths occur among indigenous women in rural areas -the segment of the population with the least access to benefits like health care.

Castro said that maternal deaths, which in most cases are caused by haemorrhaging during childbirth, “are the principal indicator of exclusion” in Guatemala, where 21.5 percent of the population of 12.7 million are living in extreme poverty.

The forum on Guatemalan Society’s Role and Challenges Towards the Millennium Development Goals, held on Apr. 27 at Landívar University, brought to a close a week in which different social sectors participated in a range of workshops reviewing advances and challenges related to fulfilling the MDGs.

In 2000, the U.N. member countries jointly committed themselves to halving world hunger and extreme poverty, improving maternal and child health, eradicating illiteracy, and combating HIV/AIDS and other serious diseases, taking 1990 levels as the reference point.

They also promised to ensure gender equality in education, at work and in politics, promote sustainable development while protecting the environment, and establish a world partnership for development.

Another difficult goal for Guatemala, the second of the eight MDGs, is achieving universal primary education and improving literacy among 15 to 24-year-olds. Literacy was estimated to be 82 percent among this age group in 2002, according to the second progress report on fulfilment of the MDGs in Guatemala, published by SEGEPLAN in 2006.

Again, rural indigenous women and girls are the furthest behind: six out of 10 indigenous women over 15 cannot read or write. Although indices of primary school enrolment are encouraging, the drop-out rate is high, and “a great deal of effort is needed to ensure that all children complete their primary education,” the report says.

The first MDG is to halve extreme poverty and hunger in the world. It is consistent with the working agenda outlined by the peace agreement signed by the government and leftwing rebels in 1996, which put an end to 36 years of armed conflict.

Poverty will be hard to overcome unless a frontal attack is waged on it by the forces of the government, civil society, and each and every individual, said resident representative of the UNDP in Guatemala, Beat Rohr, speaking at the forum.

Guatemala has an erratic track record on poverty. In 1989, 20 percent of the population was living in extreme poverty (on incomes of less than a dollar a day). In 2000, the proportion fell to 16 percent, but in 2004 it rose again to 21.5 percent, according to official statistics.

The goal is for the proportion of people living in extreme poverty to fall below 10 percent by 2015.

Over the past decade, economic growth has been slow, with gross domestic product (GDP) expanding at an average of 2.4 percent a year, official records show. This has been attributed to a precipitous decline in direct investment, continued high levels of social inequality, the country’s overwhelming dependence on agriculture, and low social security coverage, among other factors.

Rohr deplored tragic situations such as the fact that 48 percent of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition. He pointed out that undernutrition affects not only the body but also the development of the brain. An enormous effort was required, he urged.

“Unless we courageously confront this problem (of chronic malnutrition), which hits indigenous people hardest, our future will be bleak,” Castro said.

She aknowledged the need for the government to implement more effective social policies and improve income distribution.

The UNDP’s Human Development Index (2006) ranks Guatemala 118th out of 177 countries. Officially, 40 percent of the population is indigenous, although non-governmental organisations like Refugees International put the proportion closer to 65 percent.

Castro admitted that in the field of environmental sustainability, the seventh MDG, although the government has done some reforestation and has expanded protected natural areas, it has not been able to discourage the widespread use of firewood as an energy source.

As for the sixth MDG, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, Castro pointed out that Guatemala has successfully increased the use of condoms, which is the main method for preventing sexual transmission of HIV, but 73,000 adults aged 15 to 49 are known to be HIV-positive.

According to the second progress report, the proportion of women infected with HIV/AIDS is rising, so that there is now almost parity between the number of men and women living with HIV.

The head of the Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI), Flor de María Bolaños, called on civil society to get involved in striving for the goals by demanding more from government leaders and politicians, and emphasised that the peace accord was “a perfect fit” with the MDGs.

“This country is multicultural and multiethnic,” said Simeón Taquirá, a priest of the Mayan Council of Elders.

Mayan, Xinca and Garífuna medicine should be preserved, recovered and legalised, he urged, and their ancestral cultivation techniques and worldview should be taught at universities. He also advocated sustainable agricultural projects.

“Our peoples have been marginalised,” Taquirá stated, while criticising such paternalistic approaches as “giving people chickens, but not teaching them how to turn a profit and create sustainable projects.”

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