Key Challenges for the MDG Process with Respect to Women's Rights and Gender Justice

'The empowerment gap remains high, as women continue to be under-represented in decision making positions within their communities and countries. Although in some countries women's participation has increased in several professions, the legislature and high management positions, the numbers are far away from acceptable levels of equity according to Social Watch'.

by Ana Agostino*

The MDGs were an effort to consolidate previous agreements reached during the 1990s on areas related to human rights, environmental sustainability, population and development, education, health, as well as women's rights, empowerment and gender equality. Nevertheless, women's organizations around the world criticized what they saw as a minimalist approach of the 8 goals.

The struggle during the last decade has been for an expansion of the MDGs to encompass previous agreements but also to fulfil these minimalist frameworks which, even in their limited scope, have not been met. The United Nations Secretary General Report says that 'Redressing gender inequality remains one of the most difficult goals almost everywhere with cross-cutting implications. The root cause of gender disadvantage and oppression lies in societal attitudes and norms, as well as power structures, as identified in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA)'.

The Social Watch Gender Equity Index 2009 provides data that supports the Secretary General's statement, showing that the gender gap is not narrowing in most countries and that progress is taking place in countries that were already comparatively better. The index looks at three gaps: in education, in economic activity and in empowerment. With respect to education it says that this area is where the gender equity gap has narrowed the most with several countries improving their position in the index though not yet reaching the expected improvement.

The UNSG Report also presents a similar view, as it states that there has been progress but we are still far from reaching the goals. In her recent message on the occasion of the International Literacy Day, Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, said that 'two in every three of the world's 759 million illiterate adults are women. This is an intolerable situation reflecting one of the most persistent injustices of our times: unequal access to education'. With respect to economic activity, according to Social Watch, 'of the 163 countries considered, 96 (59%) regressed slightly or severely and only 63 (39%) made progress'-the region worst affected is sub-Saharan Africa. The UNSG report says in turn that although female participation in the labour force has increased, there are gender gaps in participation rates, occupational levels and wages. The empowerment gap remains high, as women continue to be under-represented in decision making positions within their communities and countries.

Although in some countries women's participation has increased in several professions, the legislature and high management positions, the numbers are far away from acceptable levels of equity according to Social Watch. The UNSG Report also says the women's share of national parliamentary seats has increased to an average of 18% (from 11% ten years ago) but it is still far from the 30% target agreed upon at the Beijing's Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Gender based violence and how it manifests itself in manifold forms is another area that greatly impacts the lives of women and that sees limited or no progress. Data from different countries show the persistence of extremely high numbers of women dying due to domestic violence, feminicide and maternal mortality. The UNSG report says that maternal mortality only declined marginally from 480 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 450 in 2005 and at that rate target 1 of MDG 5 will not be met by 2015.

There have been some positive developments in the last years. Special mention goes to the creation of UN Women, a specialized UN agency that addresses the specific issues of women in a comprehensive and holistic approach. The establishment of UN Women was in part the result of the undying persistence of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign in hand with the tremendous mobilization of women around the world to the call of GEAR. Also, during these years the reality of women became much more visible due to a strong positioning of social movements in general and the women's movement in particular that presented very concise demands and proposals. Additionally, visibly concrete initiatives were implemented by civil society which included the development of several good practices by women. The demand for accountability on the side of governments, the financial sector and international organizations has grown significantly and this has also resulted in a broader acceptance of the interlinkage between multiple concurrent crises and their impact on several areas affecting women. The above summarized situation shows that there is much to be done to achieve the MDGs in terms of gender justice articulated with the general concern for the eradication of poverty and inequality and building just and sustainable societies.

Some of the key points that need to be addressed are:

  1. Change of Paradigm: A change of paradigm that abandons the current model of accumulation, consumption and speculation must be supported and promoted.
  2. Climate Change: climate change is not just a technical and scientific issue. Women must and should play a key role-not just as those mostly affected - but as key developers of sustainable alternatives. Therefore, there is a need to work with a gender perspective in the area of climate change that will make visible new paradigms, such as that promoting a 'buen vivir'.
  3. Basic Human Rights: peace and justice, people and earth rights must be first, rather than profit making ventures and schemes. These affect and exclude large sections of the population including women, children, youth, older adults, indigenous peoples, minorities, workers, dalits, persons with different abilities, people living with HIV & AIDS, people affected by conflict, occupation and disaster, people of different sexual orientations, amongst others. An analysis on the best practices to achieving human rights through a holistic approach but emphasizing a gender perspective to the MDGS must be undertaken.
  4. Gender Based Violence: the struggle against violence against women (VAW) and for a dramatic reduction in maternal mortality should be made a priority in all countries.
  5. Education: the provision of quality education throughout life is a priority for the construction of just and sustainable societies and must be a key demand, particularly in reaching gender equality in education, having long term investments and moving away from basic education to Life Long Learning (LLL).
  6. Civil Society: civil society must not only counter, demonstrate and denounce but also become the model of best practices in human rights advocacy and implementation - it must demonstrate the difference that is so urgently needed.
  7. UN Women: the newly created UN Women should be ambitiously funded. Innovative financing mechanisms to achieve its success should be explored, such as through the current Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) making headway in various countries and processes, and most recently in the Draft Outcome Document of the UN MDG 2010 Review Summit.

* Civil Society input: International Council for Adult Education (ICAE); Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). Prepared by Ana Agostino in cooperation with the facilitation team members of the FTF (Feminist Task Force) of GCAP (Global Call to Action against Poverty).


Photo: Bond/flickr/SID ed.