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Q&A: How to Analyse a Budget’s Impact on Female Empowerment

Rousbeh Legatis interviews SARASWATHI MENON, director of U.N. Women's policy division

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 8 2012 (IPS) - Tools such as “gender markers”, which screen budgets and resources dedicated to promoting gender equality, are proving critical to improving the effectiveness of monetary support that seeks to empower women and girls.

Saraswathi Menon Credit: Courtesy of UN Women

Saraswathi Menon Credit: Courtesy of UN Women

Such tools also hold decision makers accountable, says Saraswathi Menon, director of U.N. Women‘s policy division. “Policymakers often run away from the problem, because they say ‘we don’t know the conditions of women, because we don’t have statistics and evidence on it.'”

Four years ago, the United Nations (U.N.) called for enhanced gender responsive planning and budgeting processes in order to follow money invested in gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Since then, various U.N. bodies have made an effort to improve internal accountability standards and the quality of programming in order to respond best to different realities of women and girls across countries and regions.

U.N. Women supports over 40 countries to introduce a gender perspective in planning and budgeting processes and budget-tracking methodologies. IPS spoke with Saraswathi Menon of U.N. Women about the agency’s work in this field and about the use of gender markers.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What can budgets tell us about efforts to improve women’s livelihoods? A: There is no direct correlation. However, when budgets allocate funds you can see what the priorities of the government or the organisation are. So, if gender equality is a priority, clearly the budget has to be structured in a certain way.

You do not set aside funds for women but for funds to address the issues that are undermining gender equality. That is how you will analyse a budget – not only in terms of the funds but also in terms of what is being funded.

So in a country where women have limited access to, let’s say, economic opportunities in the countryside and rural areas, you will look at the budgets of the agriculture ministry, commerce ministry, legal ministry and others in terms of how women are now getting access to land, investments, technologies, etc. The pattern of the budget is actually also important as well as the allocation itself.

Now, a gender marker measures only institutional support to women, whether it is a government or civil society or private sector organisation. In that sense, it is not directly empowering but it measures to what extent the investment is empowering.

Q: The U.N. and U.N. Women have worked to improve and expand the use of gender markers. Could you update us on their development at this point? A: Many agencies and organisations have developed markers in order to measure how they are performing. I think this comes from the real push towards work on gender equality.

But the measurements are very different; some are measuring only inputs in terms of funding, some are measuring inputs plus activities and others are measuring outputs.

The methodology itself varies; basically what is often done is a scale. So, if the programme or project has no gender contribution it is given “0”, if it has some it is given “1”, if it mainstreams it is given “2” and if it is directed at gender results then “3”.

There are variations in the way scales are used and variations in the way what is measured. Therefore, one of the things we want to be able to do across the U.N. system is to make this approach a little bit more systematic .

You will always find different agencies requiring different things to be measured, because their mandates are different. But yet at the same time there should be some common principals that we apply across the boards.

Q: What will be required in order for the U.N. to see progress across the board in its use of gender markers? A: Some institutional changes will be required. One of the problems we face is that your financial systems have to be structured so that this measurement becomes possible.

So there are methodological issues that will have to be addressed, but fortunately because so many have been working in the area, I think by comparing experiences we can take the best principles and methodologies and apply them across the board.

Then you have, of course, this commitment to do things in a common and balanced way so that you can be comparable and you can actually aggregate the contribution at the U.N.

So there are methodological and institutional challenges and always there is the issue of commitment. But I think on the side of commitment we see at the highest level in the U.N., starting with the Secretary General and the heads of agencies, there is real commitment to making a change.

Q: What are the risks of assessing gender equality and (rural) women’s empowerment only through the lens of a gender marker? A: This is only one prism. It is a prism of us looking at ourselves in terms of how we are prioritising and what contribution we are making. But the real measure of success are the changes in women’s lives, their own aspirations being voiced, their taking part in decision-making and the outcomes that are related to that.

Conditions of life, work, health and so forth, these have to change. The real measures are the outcome measures.

But this is one piece of a larger picture. And I think that it is very important that all of us who work in rural areas and on gender issues are held accountable for what we are doing.

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