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DEVELOPMENT: Huge Gender Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 18 2008 (IPS) - When over 150 world leaders attend a summit meeting next week to discuss the status of the U.N.’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), one of the primary issues on the agenda will be goal number 3: promoting gender equality and gender empowerment.

“One of the many reasons for convening the summit is to push the world to keep its promises to women,” says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

But, in reality, there has been a wide gap between promises and delivery, as women continue to be outnumbered by men, four to one, in legislatures around the world where policy-makers dominate.

In a study titled “Who Answers to Women”, which tracks the progress made by women in 2008/2009, the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) says that while women must be included in all oversight processes, gender equality must become standard against which public performance is assessed.

“Building accountability for gender equality is not a luxury,” UNIFEM’s Executive Director Ines Alberdi told reporters Thursday.

She said the UNIFEM study shows that “if we had stronger accountability on commitments that have been made to women, we could be a lot closer to achieving the MDGs.”

To overcome the accountability crisis, Alberdi said, two key elements have to be in place: first, women must be represented in much larger numbers in decision-making positions – in politics, in business and in public service.

And second, there is a need for a systemic change that puts women’s needs at the core of public mandates. This includes the performance of public officials being assessed against their record on addressing gender equality concerns.

“Without putting in place strong measures to track progress on gender equality, we run the risk that commitments, such as MDGs, will remain words on paper,” she warned.

The statistics in the UNIFEM study speak for themselves: over 60 percent of all unpaid family workers globally are women; women earn 17 percent less than men; and in sub-Saharan Africa, three women are infected with HIV for every two men.

Additionally, violence affects between 10 and 60 percent of women and girls (ending violence against women is a missing MDG target); and perpetrators are charged in less than one in 10 estimated cases of sexual and gender-based violence.

Women are outnumbered two to one in political parties worldwide; and there is only one woman for every nine men in senior management positions.

“Discrimination on this scale, after decades of national and international commitments, is symptomatic of an accountability crisis,” says the study.

Still, UNIFEM is also quick to point out some of the progress made over the years: nine out of 10 girls worldwide are enrolled in primary education and half of the 22 countries that have reached 30 percent representation of women in parliament come from developing regions.

A London newspaper said Thursday that Rwanda is set to become the world’s first country where women parliamentarians will outnumber men. In early poll results, at least 44 out of a total of 80 seats in the country’s legislature have been taken by women.

In Costa Rica, UNIFEM says, women hold 43.9 percent of leadership positions in political parties and in Honduras and Croatia, more than 40 percent of judges on the Supreme Courts are female.

Meanwhile, gender-focused aid has nearly tripled (in absolute terms), from 2.5 billion dollars in 2002 to 7.2 billion dollars in 2006.

New Zealand and Canada have the highest proportion of aid – about 11 percent – earmarked for gender equality as its principal objective.

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in September 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015. But their implementation has remained erratic.

Asked about the upcoming summit meeting, scheduled for Sep. 25, Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, told IPS: “I hope that the need for gender equality will be highlighted at the UN meeting on the MDGs because it is a cross-cutting theme central to all the MDGs.”

She said the failure to talk about gender equality would reflect a failure of political will to move the agenda of gender equality forward, and an obstacle to realisation of the MDGs.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, said progress on gender equality in the MDGs has, so far, been “disappointingly slow”.

Gender equality is a key component of several of the MDGs, and there has been strong recognition by many governments and the United Nations that it is key to development, she said.

“Yet the commitment of resources and political will necessary to make this a reality are still lacking at all levels,” Bunch told IPS.

She pointed out that few developing countries have made this a priority in allocation of their development money and few donors have been willing to earmark money for this purpose.

“A few donors like the Dutch and the Danish have recently increased their MDG 3 resources significantly and there is now also greater money being committed to addressing maternal mortality – there are promising signs,” she noted.

But until more donors meet their overall commitment to Goal 8, ensuring that development is funded at the level necessary, it will be hard to imagine that gender equality will become the priority nationally that it should be, Bunch added.

Neuwirth said that gender equality is understood as a cross-cutting theme throughout the MDG goals, with MDG 3 specifically addressing the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The Millennium Declaration, adopted by world leaders in 1990, sets forth certain fundamental values that are taken to be “essential”.

These include equality and more specifically that “equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.”

She said laws that discriminate explicitly against women remain in force around the world, putting the formal endorsement of the state on sex based discrimination.

“It is time to close the gap between rhetoric and reality. The MDG process was supposed to facilitate implementation of commitments made”.

In a world where women are still treated as second-class citizens without equality under the law, which is only the first step towards real equality, “we have to say the process is not working effectively and the commitments are not backed by the political will necessary to make them meaningful,” Neuwirth declared.

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