It is estimated that 70% of the world’s poorest people are women. Women also represent almost 70% of the people currently working in the RESULTS UK office and to mark a special week – that begins today with International Women’s Day and ends on Sunday with Mother’s Day – we are going to highlight the reasons why we need to prioritise gender in all our efforts to fight poverty.
RESULTS UK’s advocacy work is focused on addressing some of the major root causes of poverty such as lack of access to health care, education, sanitation and basic financial services. All of these issues disproportionally affect females so every day this week we are going to be posting an article that discusses the impact of these issues on women and girls in the developing world.
Righting women’s rights
A debate in the House of Lords debate last Thursday – about International Women’s Day – kicked off by highlighting the shortage of women parliamentary candidates in the upcoming UK general election. In many societies, gender disparities are even greater, with women and girls being denied their basic human rights and unable to participate in decision-making processes at any level.
Women living in poverty face the greatest number of inequalities. They are the least likely of all people to be well nourished; to have an education; and to be in control of their own health and wealth. Posts later this week will look at these topics in more detail.
One of the greatest risks for young women is being expected or pressured to get married and bear children at an early age. Pregnancy puts many girls and their babies at risk – of the 500,000 women who die in childbirth every year, 99% live in developing countries. Unsafe abortions account for around one in eight of all maternal deaths. It is also believed that gender-based violence has a greater impact on women’s health than major infectious diseases such as malaria.
Working age women have fewer job opportunities than their male counterparts and often receive less pay for doing the same work. Women put in two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.
Why do we need to invest in women and girls to fight poverty?
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan argues that:
“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health – including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.”
The return on a country’s investment in its women is enormous. Investment in girls’ education, especially secondary education, yields high returns in the form of increased wages. Greater access to credit and other financial services increases women’s mobility and increases household consumption. Women in employment also enjoy greater status in their family and community, contributing to their overall empowerment.
Educated, employed and economically productive women are more likely to use health care systems and have fewer, healthier children. Studies have shown that educated and employed women are at a much lower risk of HIV, maternal deaths and post-natal complications. They are also more likely to take advantage of other health services such as reproductive health services, testing for HIV and TB, and family planning. Educated women are also more likely to send their own children to school.
This video from the Girl Effect looks at the changes to society that can be brought about when we focus on girls – the message is “invest in a girl and she will do the rest”.
Women and the MDGs
Gender issues are addressed explicitly in three of the Millennium Development Goals:
MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
Target: Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people.
MDG 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.
MDG 5: Improve maternal health.
Target: Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.
Target: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health.
Of all the MDGs, the least progress is being made in reducing maternal mortality. Deliveries attended by skilled health workers in the developing regions have increased since 1990, from 53% in 1990 to 61% in 2007, but there has been little progress in reducing maternal deaths – maternal mortality only declined marginally from 480 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 450 in 2005. At this rate, the target of 120 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015 cannot be achieved.
Redressing gender inequality remains one of the most difficult goals to achieve because it requires addressing long-held societal attitudes and norms, as well as power structures.
While female participation in the global labour force has increased, there are still significant gender gaps in participation rates, occupational levels and wages. Paid employment for women has expanded slowly and women continue to assume the largest share of unpaid work. Even when they are employed, women in developing countries typically undertake forms of extremely vulnerable employment lacking security and benefits. Women’s share of waged non-agricultural employment has increased in the last decade, but only marginally.
The gender gap in primary school enrolment has narrowed in the past decade, although at a slow pace. Progress in secondary schooling has been even slower. In some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the gaps are actually widening. Only 53 of the 171 countries with available data had achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary education, 14 more than in 1999.
Opportunities to get back on track in 2010
Some progress has been made in addressing gender inequalities but so much more needs to be done if all the MDG targets are going to be met in all regions of the world. This year, there are a number of key opportunities for the international community to identify the areas that are most off-track and agree to a clear plan to accelerate progress. With just five years to go until the MDG targets are due to be met, it is crucial that urgent action is taken to ensure that women and girls in the poorest parts of the world are not left behind.
The first opportunity is the football World Cup where it is hoped that the lasting legacy will be a commitment to get all children, particularly girls, across Africa into school.
The second is the G8 summit where the Canadian government has already pledged to make maternal and child health a priority.
The third opportunity is the MDG Summit itself, in September this year, where countries will come together to agree how progress towards all of the MDGs can be accelerated.
Investing in women and girls is the right thing to do both economically and morally. We need to make sure that all these opportunities are seized with two hands. Let’s hope for and work towards the goal that all world leaders wake up and make 2010 the year when efforts to achieve gender equality are finally set on the right trajectory. Simply put, as in the ‘Girl Effect’ video, empowered women will make a better world.