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Countries call for clear targets to increase women's political and economic opportunities

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 19 Apr 2013 06:04 PM
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A woman carrying a baby on her back votes during presidential elections in Freetown November 17, 2012.REUTERS/Joe Penney
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WASHINGTON (TrustLaw) – Sierra Leone and Australia are calling for clear targets on achieving gender equality to strengthen a U.S.-led coalition of countries committed to raising the political and economic opportunities of women.

The Equal Futures Partnership was launched in September 2012 by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to encourage countries to adopt gender reforms that would improve the status of women – not only as a human rights issue but also to increase economic growth and improve state security. The move came after U.S. President Barack Obama put women's issues at the forefront of the global agenda in remarks at the United Nations.

The initiative won strong backing from World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who opened a meeting in Washington on Thursday, when Equal Futures countries provided updates on progress they have made in the last six months. Kim said that raising the position of women is “one of the most effective ways” of eliminating global poverty and reducing conflict. 

“It is about giving half of the population the opportunity to lead productive lives,” Kim said.

The benefits are manifest, Kim and others said. 

Research shows that women account for 80 percent of agricultural workers worldwide and that giving them equal access to fertilisers and land ownership would increase output sufficiently to pull 100-150 million people out of hunger, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said

The price countries pay for tolerating domestic violence is also huge. In Bangladesh, this amounted to an estimated 2.05 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, he said.

While many countries are discussing reforms, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance Kaifala Marah said that if the 21 countries that have joined the partnership to date are to continue making concrete progress then specific goals, not just commitments, are needed.    

“I wish to challenge everyone around this table to establish a quota, two or three targets with a deadline, so that governments can self-assess themselves. Civil society organisations also can assess them against the targets,” Marah said. “Then governments would be able to explain what they have done.”

The proposal won support from Australia as a way to cement change. Australia has a female prime minister and has made significant progress in other fields, nearly doubling the number of women on corporate boards over the past 18 months to almost reach its target of 40 percent. But social attitudes still are lagging behind and people remain unconvinced that gender equality is good business, Kim Beazley, Australian ambassador to the United States, said.  

“Sierra Leone is absolutely right. We need a set of targets on boards, management structures, and candidates for parliament,” Beazley told the partnership.

“If we don’t, the partnership will just wither away into the ranks of internationally worthy initiatives and weak excuses.”

Similarly, South Africa warned against complacency once countries achieve targets such as one-third representation of women in public office. Leaders cannot assume they have succeeded on gender equality because changing social attitudes and deeply entrenched religious or cultural attitudes toward women can take much longer, said Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States.

“You have got to move from legislation to practice,” he said.  “We have got to fortify our legislation against the forces of patriarchy from religion and culture that will make a comeback some time sooner or later.”

Caroline Anstey, managing director of the World Bank who chaired the meeting, made no commitment on setting targets, but she agreed that countries must move from making promises to practicing gender equality.

“Legislation is not enough. We need implementation, implementation, implementation,” she said.

The 13 countries that launched the Equal Futures partnership in September by pledging specific actions to advance the participation of women and girls in their societies were the United States, Australia, Benin, Bangladesh, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Senegal and Tunisia, as well as the European Union.

Since then eight more countries have joined – Belgium, Croatia, Latvia, Morocco, New Zealand, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Timor-Leste. Mexico and Italy also have applied to join. The World Bank and United Nations Women are championing the programme.

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