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Q&A: "Where Women Can't Thrive, MDGs Are in Jeopardy"

Interview with Ines Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM

ROME, Aug 28 2008 (IPS) - Ines Alberdi has worked for over 25 years on gender issues and in politics.

Ines Alberdi Credit: UNIFEM

Ines Alberdi Credit: UNIFEM

She comes to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) from her previous position as professor of sociology at Madrid University where she has taught political sociology and sociology of gender since 1993. Prior to that, she was director for research at the Centre for Sociological Research. Her main interest has been gender-based violence.

"It is crucial to see the women's rights movement in this context of creating more democratic, equitable, and just societies that benefit the population as a whole. And I devoted my professional life to this cause," she says.

Alberdi spoke to IPS Editor in Chief Miren Gutierrez about the role of UNIFEM.

IPS: UNIFEM talks about the importance of incorporating gender into national poverty reduction strategies. How is this done?

Ines Alberdi: National poverty reduction strategies are particularly important entry points to ensure that women's needs will be taken into account. It is based on these plans that governments allocate resources and donors contribute to national budgets or to specific sectors. To have a strong gender perspective incorporated at this planning stage is therefore crucial.

Gender advocates and women's machineries must therefore be closely involved in devising national development plans. UNIFEM's work has focused on opening policy spaces, for example in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. As Kyrgyzstan began formulating its new development strategy, UNIFEM worked with civil society organisations to raise the profile of gender equality measures. These encompass measures to increase women's political participation, perform gender analysis of school curricula, reflect gender differences in pension reform and end violence against women.

Kyrgyzstan has also pioneered a set of gender-responsive development indicators, harmonised to capture both national priorities and international commitments to gender equality, such as those in the Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals).

IPS: UNIFEM is working with the private sector in Rwanda, for example, in order to create opportunities for women. Why would private companies cooperate?

IA: The question would rather be: why would companies not care to create opportunities for women? Women represent an enormous potential for the private sector to tap into. Just look at the IT (information technology) sector. In Rwanda we have worked with companies to develop ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) scholarships for girls and young women in learning institutions to enable them in a later stage in their lives to compete in the labour market or run their own businesses.

UNIFEM has very successfully pursued a similar approach with global IT company CISCO systems, initially in Jordan and now also in Morocco where we helped introduce training for women in 12 out of 43 Cisco networking academies. Today, nearly half the 900 students in the E-Quality academies are women – about 60 percent find jobs within the first three months after graduation.

Globally, research has shown that companies benefit from greater corporate representation of women. In analysing the companies that make up the Fortune 500, it was found that companies with the highest representation of women in management positions delivered 35.1 percent more return on equity and 34 percent more total return to shareholders than companies with the lowest representation.

IPS: UNIFEM is training government officials and women's organisations on how to insert gender into budgets. What are the challenges?

IA: UNIFEM has worked in some 40 countries over the past eight years to build the capacity of governments and women's organisations. Gender-responsive budgeting examines how the allocation of public funds benefits women and men equally. It also analyses how women and men are taxed. This analysis must be informed by up-to-date, sex-disaggregated data. By pointing out imbalances in addressing women's needs and rights, gender responsive budgeting helps governments correct inequalities.

Initiatives are currently underway for example in Morocco, Senegal, Mozambique and Ecuador – and the results are impressive. Morocco now produces annual gender reports which accompany the national budgets and spell out how the allocation of public resources through the government's departments will address gender equality priorities.

Trends toward decentralisation have seen local governments emerge as key actors … UNIFEM is responding by providing support to local gender-responsive budget initiatives to strengthen women's representation in local bodies and support their effective participation in budget processes.

Take Cochabamba, Bolivia, for example, where many men have left to seek work abroad, creating a shortage of skills traditionally performed by men. Financed by the municipal government, women now learn how to fill that gap: they learn how to be carpenters and brick layers. And while the women are at work, their children are taken care of in a sports programme catering equally to boys and girls, also paid by the local government. Both initiatives are the result of a new focus on gender-responsive budgeting in Cochabamba.

IPS: How could the Accra Action Agenda (AAA) ensure that the improvement of aid quality contributes to gender equality?

IA: Over a billion women worldwide continue to be trapped in poverty, and where women can't thrive, national development strategies and progress towards the MDGs are in jeopardy. It is very obvious that there can be no aid effectiveness without a focus on gender equality.

To ensure this, three measures are critical: First, gender equality advocates and women's ministries must be much stronger involved in decisions on development; second, gender-responsive budgeting must be applied across all sectors; and third, accountability mechanisms – such as gender-sensitive indicators in performance assessments and the collection of sex-disaggregated data – must be put in place to track progress.

UNIFEM has worked for the past two years with the EC (European Community) and the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation to ensure that gender equality and women's empowerment are fully incorporated in national development planning, programming, budgeting and monitoring. Country-level data gathered through the EC/U.N. Partnership shows that the Paris Declaration, and the principles on which it is based, have helped to open some spaces to allow gender-equality advocates, civil society and parliamentarians to actively participate in national development planning at different levels.

For these groups to have real impact, however, government and donors must go further and ensure that they are part of the entire development planning, programming, budgeting and monitoring process.

The Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness offers a pivotal opportunity for governments and donors to come together to deepen the dialogue on how they can accelerate achievements in gender equality through enhanced cooperation. It is an opportunity that is not to be missed.

IPS: This year is especially important because it culminates with the Follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development to Review the Monterrey Consensus (MC) in Doha (Qatar). What are the main issues UNIFEM is pushing?

IA: Gender equality advocates were disappointed with the MC. As a contribution to international gender equality commitments, the Consensus was not particularly strong.

The initial signs of the review of the MC implementation allow for some optimism that the Doha outcome document will be much stronger and tackle inequalities. The key report by the UN secretary-general's on the process clearly states that macroeconomic policies should take into account tax issues, business cycles, employment and the unpaid so-called 'care economy'.

The initial Doha draft outcome document presented by the co-chairs, the Ambassadors of Egypt and Norway, has positioned gender equality as one of the four new challenges and emerging issues, together with climate change, the commodity prices crisis of food and energy and the poverty eradication challenges facing middle-income countries. It also makes specific references to the importance of gender responsive public financial management, the oft neglected area, the consideration of gender issues in micro- and macro economic policies, and the need to remove gender biases in labour and financial markets as well as in the ownership of assets and property rights.

These are important issues for UNIFEM. It is by now widely recognised that women's empowerment and gender equality are key drivers to build food security, reduce poverty, reduce maternal mortality, safeguard the environment, and enhance the effectiveness of aid. Women are equally important agents of economic development and we need policies that not only recognise this but also actively support it.

IPS: Women make up most of the migrants from countries like the Philippines. Could you quantify women's economic power?

IA: Women constitute half of the world's migrants by now and globally, recorded remittances are estimated to be as high as 240 billion dollars annually, so there you have an enormous economic contribution.

For women to realise their full potential we have to look at macroeconomic policy frameworks – or the lack thereof – that take a gender perspective into account.

Women need also to be afforded equal access to land and natural resources, which is still far too often not the case. And public investments have to take women's needs into account. Safe public transport for example, may facilitate women's access to employment. Where these services are lacking it is more difficult for women to contribute as full economic agents.

It has been estimated that over the past decade, women's work has contributed more to global growth than has China. But don't forget: women also do more than two-thirds of the world's unpaid work – the equivalent of 11 trillion dollars or almost 50 percent of world GDP, according to a global UNDP (U.N. Development Programme) study from 1995. This enormous economic contribution is beyond their paid wage employment.

IPS: In places like Mozambique, you see a high level of economic participation, while women make only 35 percent of Parliament and 13 percent of the government. In Ghana, there is a similar situation. Why is political representation low?

IA: When you look at countries who have made gains in terms of increases in women's political participation, they have generally applied some kind of temporary affirmative action measures or quotas – which is an expression of political will to act on women's empowerment. What we are learning is that both economic empowerment and political participation require breaking through glass ceilings in systems that have traditionally discriminated against women. And they are mutually reinforcing; both are essential for achieving gender equality, but neither is sufficient in and by itself.

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