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Gender Equality Goals Miss the Mark, Women’s Groups Say

Hannah Rubenstein

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 24 2010 (IPS) - A month ahead of the 2010 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) review summit at the United Nations, some women’s groups are voicing concern that member states’ commitment to women’s issues is insufficient and slowing progress towards gender parity worldwide.

In June, a “draft outcome” document was released and has been circulating amongst U.N. groups in anticipation of September’s summit. The document re-affirms the commitment of U.N .member states to achieving the eight MDG goals by the year 2015, as outlined in 2000’s Millennium Declaration.

The 23-page draft details the progress made and challenges that remain in reaching the goals by the proposed deadline. Although there are some areas in which progress has been significant, other areas are falling far short of projected goals. Several women’s advocacy groups are blaming this disparity on the U.N.’s inadequate commitment to women’s rights.

For example, whereas efforts towards MDG 1 (cutting 1990 poverty rates in half by 2015) have seen considerable success, other goals, such as MDG 5 (improving maternal health) are nowhere near the projected success rate. In fact, between 1990 and 2005, maternal deaths were reduced by less than one percent – far from the goal of a three- quarters reduction by 2015.

Similarly, progress towards targets of MDG 3, such as boosting women’s political participation and eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015, has been halting.

The problem, some women’s groups say, is the entire approach towards understanding and addressing problems of gender inequality. Focusing on individual women’s issues, such as maternal mortality and access to education, fails to take the larger picture into consideration – the symptoms are being treated while the infection spreads.

Lysa John, global campaign director of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), told IPS that trying to effect social change this way is useless. “If you want to really do something about gender equality,” she said, “you have to do it in all spheres, rather than making it into a piecemeal issue.”

“This seems to be the problem with the way all of the MDG commitments are being phrased,” she added.

John takes the aim of reducing maternal mortality as an example – in order to achieve this goal, she explained, efforts must focus on the system as a whole. “It’s about revamping the public health system. If the public health system doesn’t work for the poor or socially-excluded communities, it’s never going to work for women anywhere,” she said.

She pointed to the lack of gender parity in political appointments around the globe as a prime example of an underlying inequality that gives rise to specific issues such as these.

The lack of political power, she told IPS, raises the question of “whether one is willing to make women equal partners in the policy-making and budget-allocation processes so that resources are generalised to infrastructure, public access to services for all communities, ending violence against women, and ensuring equality in wages.”

The resistance to the idea of power sharing, she notes, essentially turns women’s issues into “a charity”.

Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s deputy representative to the U.N., takes a similar stance on the summit draft document. Speaking to WeNews in early August, Truscott explained that the document’s largest failing is in viewing women’s empowerment as “a key goal in itself” and not as “a basic human right”.

Truscott has produced an edited version of the document that includes a stronger focus on human rights, categorising women’s empowerment as a “fundamental value” and “an issue of social justice”.

Both Truscott and John believe that the creation of the agency’s new women-focused entity, U.N. Women, will be instrumental in effecting positive change for women’s rights in light of these setbacks.

In the meantime, the wording of the final document will depend on the input of the 150 member states attending September’s summit.

Regardless of the specific language used, John says, there is much work to be done.

“When the last woman on the ground, who is far from democratic processes on the national and local levels, is able to feel a sense of ownership over local institutions as an equal decision-maker,” she said, “that’s when change has happened.”

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