Op-ed: We can't put off to tomorrow what needs to be done today


John Hendra

With just 500 days to go until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, UN Women Deputy Executive Director for policy and programme John Hendra says, “now is the time to deliver for women and girls”.

As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals approaches, there can be no doubt that the MDGs, including MDG 3 — “promote gender equality and empower women” — have made a significant difference to the lives of women and girls worldwide.

As the 2013 MDG Progress Report released last month shows, disparities in primary school enrolment between boys and girls are being eliminated, and progress toward gender parity in school enrolment is evident at all levels of education. Women’s political participation continued to increase with 46 countries now having more than 30 per cent female members of parliament. Women’s access to paid employment in non-agricultural sectors has been increasingly, albeit slowly. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has highlighted, the MDGs successfully galvanized greater investment in gender equality by donors. Bilateral aid targeting gender equality and women’s empowerment tripled from USD 8 billion in 2002 to USD 24 billion in 2012 — an annual growth rate of 12 per cent.

However, so much more remains to be done and time is running out.

Most urgently, while the maternal mortality rate dropped by 45 per cent between 1990 and 2013, far too many women still die in pregnancy and childbirth — almost 300,000 women in 2013 alone — when these deaths are largely preventable. Girls from poor rural households are more likely to be out of school. Women continue to be concentrated in vulnerable employment, at higher rates than men, and women still take up just 21.8 per cent of all parliamentary seats worldwide.

Further, some regions are lagging significantly when it comes to meeting the MDG gender targets. Girls still face significant barriers to entering both primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia. Gender disparities only grow in secondary education. North Africa has one of the lowest proportions of women in paid employment, with little change over the past two decades. Very few women are represented in decision-making in some regions — in the Pacific women hold just 3 per cent of parliamentary seats.

Maternal mortality rates remain much higher in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. And globally, young women aged 15 to 24 have a 50 per cent higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than their male peers.

The unfinished business of the MDGs must be addressed in the new post-2015 development agenda, now being negotiated by UN Member States. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the need to accelerate MDG implementation in the time we have left. It’s very welcome to see more than 50 countries already committed to accelerating the MDGs, with many of these countries focusing on MDG 5 on maternal mortality and MDG 3 on gender inequality. Further concerted effort and accelerated action by governments and the international community is urgently needed to achieve these lagging gender equality targets.

That said, and as recognized by UN Member States during this year’s 58th session on the Commission on the Status of Women, some of the most critical gender equality challenges were missing from the MDGs. For example, violence against women, which affects one in three women worldwide, was not included. Nor was women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work — which constrains their ability to participate in social, political and economic life — or woman’s unequal access to productive assets, including land, addressed in the MDG framework. What’s more, integration of gender equality targets and commitments was inadequate across the framework, impeding progress towards achieving all the MDGs.

The new post-2015 development agenda must squarely address these issues and the structural inequality and discrimination that underpin and reinforce gender inequality. …

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