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Gender justice a must for ending poverty

With only five years left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it is time for a “reality check”, declared international TV anchor, Daljit Dhaliwal, at the start of a panel discussion on how to propel gender equality and women’s empowerment as a primary basis for reaching the MDGs.

UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay © UNIFEM/Metin OnerLarge numbers of women and girls are being left behind. “How can this be remedied?” Dhaliwal, the panel moderator, asked.

“Unleashing women’s potential” is the most important thing we can do, responded Søren Pind, Minister for Development Cooperation of Denmark.

“Women’s economic empowerment is a human rights issue, and smart economics,” said the Danish Minister. He explained that human talent is an important determinant for a country’s economic success. Yet only 20 out of 128 countries have equal opportunities for women in business.

As a new UNIFEM report* shows, women are more likely to be unemployed than men and more than half of all women work in vulnerable employment, such as unpaid family workers. In addition, women earn less than men: on average 70-90 percent of men’s salaries world wide. Strengthening women’s entrepreneurship opportunities can enable their access to economic assets and help ensure their right to a decent livelihood, explained Inés Alberdi, Executive Director of UNIFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women.

“More than 350,000 women and girls die unnecessarily each year from pregnancy or childbirth,” said panelist Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, yet most of these deaths “could be prevented with low-cost, targeted interventions, something which has been known to the medical profession for decades.”

Maternal death and disability “are not simply development or public health issues,” Pillay continued. “They are also the result of multiple human rights violations.” The underlying causes often relate to gender inequality, gender-based violence, and laws and policy decisions that discriminate against women. Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, mainly Africa and South Asia. Preventing them “can be the most powerful single indicator of a State’s genuine commitment to combating gender inequality and discrimination,” Pillay stated.

Inequality and discrimination against women can be fostered by attitudes that start at a young age. Children’s movies, videos and TV shows “can leave a life-long imprint on how children perceive women” and can give children a “seriously imbalanced world view”, said Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis.

The more girls watch television, she said, the more they see their options in life as limited. By contrast, the more boys watch TV, the more sexist they become.

Her Institute on Gender in Media works with the creators of children’s entertainment to reduce gender stereotyping in films for children 11 years old and under. “If they see it they can be it,” she said, explaining that if children grow up seeing women in decision-making jobs they will be more likely to accept that women belong there.

A major hindrance to women’s progress, she observed, is to think that “the necessary change has already taken place”. If people believe the problem has already been fixed, discrimination against women cannot be addressed.

Speaking about the importance of increasing women’s voice in decision-making, Awa Ndiaye, Minister of State for Senegal and Minister of Gender and Relations with African and Foreign Women’s Associations, thought it was because of the “elitist mindset of men” that women have not yet achieved equality in political institutions. Senegal is one of only 29 countries in the world that have reached or exceeded 30 percent women’s representation in parliament. The global average is 18.6%. Some of the world’s poorest countries – including those emerging from conflict – have made great strides in increasing the number of women in parliaments. “This shows that progress has more to do with political will” than with a country’s level of development, said Joanne Sandler, Deputy Director of UNIFEM.

The panel discussion, “World’s Women at the Centre of Achieving the MDGs”, was held at the United Nations in New York on 20 September 2010, during the Summit meeting of world leaders to accelerate progress on achieving the MDGs.

*”Gender Justice: Key to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals” published by UNIFEM, the Development Fund for Women  www.unifem.org/progress

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22 September 2010