Just days before the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) summit, Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s International Development Secretary, announced a change in direction, putting women and children at the centre of its aid policy. This shift will double the number of female and newborn lives saved by 2015, Mitchell will tell the assembled heads of state in New York on 20-22 September.
Progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment is critical to progress on the MDGs overall, say specialists, and the UK leadership will be calling for collective international action on this issue at the summit.
According to a report by Martin Greeley at the Institute of Development Studies, “... There is increased recognition of the linkages between gender equality and achievement of all the MDGs. For example on MDG4, on child mortality, given the role of women as primary care givers to children; MDG6 on HIV and AIDS, on account of the interaction of gender inequality and the spread of the virus; and MDG7 on water, sanitation and the environment, given among things, women’s disproportionate role in water provisioning.”
But even though there is awareness, few resources are directed at gender-based programming, posing the greatest risk to MDG attainment, writes Greeley.
Indeed, maternal mortality is the MDG with the lowest success rate, despite new figures showing a 34 percent decrease from an estimated 546,000 in 1990 to 358,000 total deaths in childbirth and pregnancy worldwide in 2008.
“The progress is notable, but the annual rate of decline is less than half of what is needed to achieve the MDG target of reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent between 1990 and 2015. This will require an annual decline of 5.5 percent. The 34 percent decline since 1990 translates into an average annual decline of just 2.3 percent,” according to the World Health Organization.
Room for improvement
Belay Ejigu Begashaw, director of multisectoral NGO The MDG Centre, in East & Southern Africa, in Nairobi, told IRIN: “The maternal health numbers are embarrassing; maternal mortality is not even covered by the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria]. But there have been other achievements, such as in education, even if the ratio of girls in secondary school [and university] is still bad.”
Poverty is the main cause, with household chores and lack of appropriate sanitation like toilets among the principal reasons why girls do not attend secondary school, even though a secondary education is particularly important for women’s empowerment.
Funding is key to making progress by 2015, and the combination of the 2008 economic crisis, food and fuel price crises, has set back the MDG cause significantly, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, which started from a very low base, says Begashaw. Oxfam estimates that an extra US$37.5 billion a year is needed for agriculture and food assistance alone.
Another aspect of the financial crisis, according to Oxfam, is how it hit women’s work: “Governments have responded to job losses in textiles and garments industries, largely of women, by channelling fiscal stimuli into construction, which largely employs men.”
Oxfam’s research found women doing additional paid work in the informal economy, and maintaining or increasing their unpaid, caring work in the home.
Indeed, according to an ODI report: “Time poverty affects both MDG6 (combat killer diseases) and MDG7 (environmental sustainability). It can prevent women accessing healthcare, if clinics are far away, and affordable childcare is unavailable. Similarly, environmental degradation can exacerbate time poverty, if women and girls travel long distances to find supplies of firewood and water.”
But key to tracking progress on gender equality and accurately assessing the success of respective MDGs is disaggregating data; failure to do so “masks the gender dynamics of poverty”, states The Lancet report.
The UN admits progress has been uneven and many of the targets will be missed in most countries. According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2010: “An estimated 1.4 billion people were still living in extreme poverty in 2005. Moreover, the effects of the global financial crisis are likely to persist: poverty rates will be slightly higher in 2015 and even beyond, to 2020, than they would have been had the world economy grown steadily at its pre-crisis pace.
“Gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the heart of the MDGs and are preconditions for overcoming poverty, hunger and disease. But progress has been sluggish on all fronts - from education to access to political decision-making.”
One of the key criticisms of the MDGs as they were set out in 2000 is the emphasis on poverty at the expense of gender, equity, social inclusion and human rights, and it is these aspects that are being targeted by activists in New York.
In addition, they largely ignore gender-specific issues such as harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage, gender-based violence, and unemployment among young women – all issues addressed by Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, in her first interview as new head of UN Women. She also noted that, of all the MDGs, those relating to women had shown the worst performance to date.
“They [women] don’t have the same opportunities as men regarding the most essential human rights. Women are discriminated [against]. Their rights are violated. There are still some places where women are mutilated. There are places where women can receive terrible punishments.”
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