WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Empowering women is the single most important factor for reducing poverty and must be central in the new set of global development goals from 2015, a top United Nations official said on Monday.
“The character of this century will be determined by our ability to walk towards gender equality,” Rebeca Grynspan, U.N. under-secretary general and associate administrator of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“All the studies not only suggest but demonstrate that if you tackle gender equality, you empower women, then you will be much more effective in fighting poverty and hunger. There is no question about it.”
Women currently account for about 70 percent of the world's extremely poor, so targeting them could have the greatest impact on reducing global poverty. Moreover, educating women improves family health, helps increase the likelihood of child immunisation and reduces maternal mortality, improving overall conditions in the family, according to World Bank and U.N. studies.
Gender equality is listed as goal three in the current set of Millenium Development Goals and gender issues inform many of the others. The MDGs are used to guide development priorities for the international community from 2000 to 2015. But outcomes so far are patchy and only a handful of targets achieved.
While parity has been achieved in primary education, boys still outnumber girls in the secondary and tertiary levels. The share of women in wage employment outside agriculture has risen to 40 percent by 2010 from 35 percent in 1990, but the wage gap persists and globally women occupy only 25 percent of senior management positions. Women's political agency remains muted. At the current pace, it would take 40 years for women to achieve parity in national parliaments, and maternal mortality in poor countries is 15 times that in developed nations, according to UN Women.
The shortfall in meeting targets has stirred considerable debate over the usefulness of setting new development goals, but Grynspan defended their value in shaping discussions with countries over their development priorities and in focusing investment. They also serve as a tool for civil society to engage in constructive discussions with national governments and international organisations, she said.
If only one goal were to be adopted for 2015, it should be gender equality because empowering women has such broad ripple effects, she said. Families can prosper, children’s health and education improve and national growth expands by investing in women.
Grynspan pointed to success in educating girls in Afghanistan as an example of how important it is to prioritise gender equality and to invest even in countries that present huge cultural hurdles and governance, corruption and violence challenges.
"When you see that 60 percent of girls in Afghanistan are now in school, it is very difficult to say that your money was wasted," she said. In some areas, there were close to zero girls in school previously.
Grynspan acknowledged the significant risk that Afghanistan will slip backwards on gender issues when international troops complete their withdrawal at the end 2014, especially if the Taliban gains a stronger hold, and if donor countries grow exhausted with financing its development. The United States already has invested more than $100 billion in rebuilding Afghanistan - more than the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II - yet internal investigations show large-scale fraud and corruption and limited results.
Looking into the faces of women who have benefitted from having jobs, an education and their human rights respected under international development programmes convinces Grynspan that the momentum must be maintained.
"I have fought for gender equality all my life, and I feel really humble in front of these women. We need to know it is very hard, (exclusion) is very entrenched, it's not a process that will be short term. But we have to commit ourselves even more because any opportunity for these girls to go to school, these women to have access to means of sustaining themselves and any possiblity to be treated with respect and dignity in the judicial system has to be taken advantage of," she said.
"They fear that the world will abandon them, and they tell you that when you are there. They fear that they will be like a bargaining chip, and forgotten about."
An important milestone will be the presidential election in 2014, followed by parliamentary elections. While there are no guarantees for success, she said that "gradualism is part of the game" in development.
As for future priorities, UNDP is undergoing a strategy review that will shape its programmes for the 2014 to 2017 period. While the plan has not been finalised, Grynspan said that one aspect will be more partnerships with other international institutions such as the World Bank, to increase the impact of development.