Gender equality must be at the heart of the global development agenda after 2015
It’s now well over a decade since the leaders of 189 nations made a historic commitment to end extreme poverty by signing up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Promoting gender equality and empowering women was one of the eight landmark pledges.
With the 2015 deadline looming, the question of ‘what comes next’ is being fiercely deliberated in development circles. The UK has an influential role to play in fashioning an ambitious successor to the MDGs, with UK premier David Cameron being appointed by the UN Secretary General to co-chair a High Level Panel on post-2015.
In the face of increasing backlash against women’s rights globally and a risk of reversals in fragile progress on gender equality, there is a powerful case for maintaining a strong and explicit focus on gender equality beyond 2015. We explore why in detail in this Gender and Development Network briefing (PDF) but we’ve outlined the main arguments below.
The current state of gender equality
Despite hard won gains on women’s rights over the past 15 years, gender inequality has proven more intractable than anticipated and remains a major driver of women’s poverty. Women account for about two-thirds of the 1.4 billion people globally who live in extreme poverty. United Nations data shows that women across sub-Saharan Africa are more likely than men to live in a poor household – up to 20% more likely for women of working age. A similar picture has been identified in Latin America. Gender equality must therefore be central to the post-2015 development framework because women are disproportionately represented among the poorest and most marginalised people in the world, and without specifically addressing gender inequality, women’s poverty will persist.
Gender disparities remain most pronounced among the poorest women and women from socially excluded groups, such as disabled women, Dalit women, or women from minority ethnic groups. For example, the latest World Development Report shows that almost two-thirds of out-of-school girls globally are estimated to belong to ethnic minority groups in their own countries. This time around, much greater priority must be placed on reaching the poorest and most marginalised women and girls, including through the inclusion of incentives – for example weighting progress among poorer or socially excluded groups of women more highly than progress among richer groups.
Gender inequality is a barrier to tackling poverty
As well as being a major driver of women’s poverty, gender inequality blocks progress on other key development goals. For example, research by the OECD found that women’s access to resources is strongly correlated with child health outcomes. Countries where women lack any right to own land have on average 60% more malnourished children; this rises to 85% where women lack access to credit. There is also a clear link between levels of gender discrimination and rates of maternal mortality. It is no coincidence that the most off-track of all the MDGs is on maternal health – an issue which is rooted not only in poverty but in gender inequality and women’s low status in society. Tackling gender inequality is therefore a prerequisite to making progress on reducing poverty in all its various manifestations.
Hard won gains are under attack
We’re also operating in a much-changed global landscape, where gains on women’s rights are increasingly under attack and there is a risk of losing ground. The 1990s were a decade of huge possibility and political will on women’s rights. Issues of social justice, equality and rights – including a questioning of women’s position in their own societies – emerged onto the development agenda as a result of the growing strength of social movements, particularly women’s movements. Now we are operating in a darker international environment, marked by the resurgence of fundamentalisms, and increasing attacks on women’s rights and women’s human rights defenders.
In the face of this opposition, there is a real risk of reversals in progress on gender equality unless we continue to push for a progressive position on gender equality and support the women’s rights organisations all over the world that are spearheading struggles for equality, often in the face of violent opposition.
Reflecting the priorities and aspirations of women themselves
It’s for all these reasons that we believe it’s critical to maintain a strong focus on women’s rights and empowerment in the post-2015 global development framework. This will require a two-pronged approach of mainstreaming gender in targets and indicators across the board, and a standalone goal or domain for gender equality.
Yet for a new gender goal to have legitimacy and sway, it must reflect the diverse realities and priorities of the poorest and most marginalised women themselves. The first step on the pathway to 2015 and beyond is therefore to ensure the full and meaningful participation of southern women’s rights organisations in shaping a new and ambitious global development agenda – an agenda with women’s hopes and aspirations at its heart.