INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: A TIME FOR CELEBRATION MIXED WITH REALISM
Women can celebrate a century of impressive achievements, but many inequities remain – and we need political commitment and adequate funding to combat them…
As the 100th International Women’s Day rolls around, it is time for celebration mixed with realism. We can celebrate a century of impressive economic, political and social achievements by and for women since 1911, but we must be realistic about the many inequities that remain.
We can celebrate the launch of UN Women, the UN body for gender equality and the empowerment of women, which we hope will be armed with $40bn pledged for the health of women and children at the UN summit in September 2010. It could become a formidable force in the race to meet the gender-related targets of the millennium development goals (MDGs), and set the agenda for a sea change in gender equity beyond 2015.
But we have to be realistic about the patchy progress in embedding gender concerns into development initiatives, and in promoting women’s and girls’ economic, political and social empowerment. While there has been impressive progress on girls’ access to education, maternal mortality rates remain shockingly high in much of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia – representing the greatest global health disparity between industrialised and developing countries.
Similarly, while the recognition of rape as a weapon of war is a step towards ending impunity, the levels of violence against women, within and outside of conflict, remain appalling. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, rampant sexual violence against women is the norm in parts of the country. More than 32,000 cases of rape and sexual violence have been registered in South Kivu province alone since 2005. Violence in supposedly safe spaces for girls, including schools, is also a widespread problem, putting at risk girls’ educational opportunities.
We urgently need political commitment to foster gender equity, backed by adequate and sustainable funding. Again, we have to be realistic. Such commitment and funding will be hard to secure in the wake of the global economic crises, with aid budgets in many donor countries being scaled back, and competing budget demands in developing countries exacerbated by the food and financial crisis. But it is essential to adequately finance initiatives for women and girls and pinpoint new ways to meet the MDGs by ensuring that gender is centre stage.
One major problem is that we still don’t know enough. While there is plenty of information on what causes gender inequality in development, our collective knowledge on what works remains fragmented, under-researched and under-documented. What we do know is that progress on inequity around the globe is often spearheaded by civil society groups that are capitalising on their in-depth local knowledge and the creativity of local women, girls and their communities.
One example is the locally run Adolescent Girls’ Adventure education programme in Bangladesh, which has increased employment, improved school enrolment, delayed early marriage, improved health knowledge and, very importantly, enhanced the mobility of teenage girls to reduce their social isolation. More than 250,000 girls in 58 districts in Bangladesh are now enrolled, and its success will start to be replicated across sub-Saharan Africa this year.
While local change is welcome, we also need change at the national and international levels, with a gender lens integrated systematically into policy and programme development.
Social protection, for example, now has substantial political currency, attracting millions of development dollars. But there has been little or no focus on the gender issues that underpin the very different ways in which women and men experience poverty and vulnerability, even though the development and economic benefits of tackling gender discrimination have been widely recognised.
It is essential to integrate gender in the design and implementation of social protection if it is to have a lasting impact. Cash transfer programmes in Brazil, Mexico and Peru bear this out – not only does channelling funds to women benefit children’s health, nutrition and education, but linking women participants to other gender-sensitive programmes and services can transform their power within the household, including their decision-making, financial security, self-esteem and social status.
As part of a more systematic approach to policy change, we need to understand and tackle social institutions, such as discriminatory family codes, son bias, and limited resource rights and entitlements that perpetuate inequalities leading to girls’ and women’s chronic poverty (pdf) and exclusion with dire consequences for women’s and girls’ physical and emotional wellbeing.
One grassroots initiative aiming to challenge and change attitudes towards gender relations, reproductive health, condom use and partner, family and community violence is the Yaari Dosti (pdf) programme that targets young, low-income men in Mumbai. The programme’s aim is to reduce young men’s HIV risk and violence against women by promoting a model of a “gender-equitable man”. The pilot evaluation found that, compared with the initial 36%, only 9% of men continued to believe that a woman should tolerate violence. And sexual violence against partners declined, from 51% to 39%.
Of course, no single programme or initiative is enough to transform deep-rooted gender inequality. Real social change is an incremental process that is based on local knowledge and community-led, bottom-up approaches challenging discrimination embedded in laws, norms and practices.
Above all, we need more dialogue between the global north and south to explore such frontiers and identify what works in combating violence and discrimination against women and girls, and fuelling their economic and social empowerment. This is what will make the difference in the lives of the millions of girls and women who – 100 years on from the first International Women’s Day – still face poverty, vulnerability and exclusion.