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2011 International Women's Day: A Centenary Celebration

When International Women’s Day was first observed, in March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, women in most countries did not have the right to vote and very few were encouraged to get an education.

Today marks the Centenary celebration. Women have reached a lot of milestones in the interim, but clearly there’s still a long way to go.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day on 8 March is ‘Equal access to education, training, and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.’ This message couldn’t be more timely. Since an increasing number of women in rural areas are taking on roles as heads of households, solely responsible for the family’s food production, the need for access to information and technical training to increase agricultural potential is urgent. Today, in its flagship report, the FAO emphasized that governments must boost investment in agriculture, and that “closing the gender gap in agricultural production by empowering women could potentially boost developing countries' output by 2.5%-4% and feed an extra 100-150 million starving people.”

The need for women’s access to economic opportunities and education can longer be discounted. In September 2000, all U.N. member countries committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end poverty and make development a reality for all by 2015.  Millennium Development Goal 3:  Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women, has specific targets: to even the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary, and tertiary education; to increase the share of women in paid jobs in non-agricultural sectors; and to boost the proportion of women in nationally-elected positions. While significant progress has been seen around the world, the path towards meeting this MDG remains uneven and sluggish on all fronts, from education access to political decision-making.

 Why We Must Care

The U.N. General Assembly cited two reasons for adopting its resolution on  International Women's Day: to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality, and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. Indeed, since 2000 there has been significantly more attention and appreciation paid to the role of women in building strong, peaceful, and healthy societies. International Women’s Day is not just a celebration, but also an occasion to examine the progress made, identify obstacles, and most importantly, map a collective way forward.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the heart of the MDGs, and they are preconditions for overcoming poverty, hunger, and disease. The new 1,000 Days campaign—focusing on preventing malnutrition during pregnancy and a baby’s first two years--acknowledges that nutrition is foundational for health and development and that only by improving nutrition can the world achieve the MDGs. Women are vulnerable to food insecurity despite being primary actors in the food chain, suffering disproportionately from hunger and disease. As a result, poverty remains stubbornly “feminized,” with women accounting for 70 percent of the world’s absolute poor. We must remember that increasing household income does not necessarily improve the nutritional and health status of women and children when that income is controlled by men.

 But when women have bargaining power within the household, they are likely to help translate gains in income into nutritional improvements. Providing women with access to assets such as land and paid work promotes better child health and nutrition and increased expenditures on education, which in turn contribute to overall poverty reduction. In India and China--the two greatest examples of poverty reduction in modern history--gender inequality is threatening to undermine long-term progress based on some discriminatory cultural practices, especially on access to education.

Women’s share in nonagricultural work has barely changed

But there is hope. Achieving the MDGs is still within our reach. After years of stagnation, UNESCO reports that foreign assistance for basic education increased from U.S. $2.4 billion in 2008 to U.S. $3.8 billion in 2009, while over the same time period, aid for overall education increased from U.S. $5 billion to U.S. $7.8 billion. Though encouraging, these levels are far below the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report’s estimate of the cost of providing Education for All:  $16 billion. By denying women and girls the opportunity to attain a quality education, we forfeit great human capital and investment returns. Some of the cost is in young lives: a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age 5. Each additional year of a mother’s schooling reduces the chance of infant mortality between 5 percent and 10 percent. In Africa’s poorest states, an estimated 1.8 million children’s lives could have been saved if their mothers had a secondary education. One key reason is having access to lifesaving health information; for example, women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated on the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

 What Has Worked

 Providing secondary school stipends for girls in Bangladesh:

The Female Secondary School Stipend program in Bangladesh has provided money directly to girls and their families to cover tuition and other costs, on the condition that they enroll in secondary school and remain unmarried until the age of 18. By 2005, 56 percent of all secondary school enrollees in the regions covered by the program were girls, compared with 33 percent in 1991.

 Furthering women’s employment empowerment in Mexico:

Mexico has developed an innovative federal program called Generosidad that awards a “Gender Equity Seal” to private firms. Seals are granted through an independent evaluation that assesses a company’s achievement of specific standards related to gender equity, including recruitment, career advancement, training, and reducing sexual harassment. By 2006, 117 companies had obtained the seal. Similar initiatives have been launched in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Egypt.

 Setting a gender quota for Parliament in Kyrgyzstan:

In 2005, there were no women in the Kyrgyz Parliament and only one woman in a cabinet position. In 2007, following a nationwide discussion facilitated by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), a 30 percent gender quota was added to the election code. By 2008, Kyrgyzstan had the highest proportion in Central Asia of women in Parliament (25.6 percent) and in government (21 percent).

UNDP also supports the participation of women in the political process in Rwanda, where women now make up 56 per cent of the Parliament - the world’s highest share.

Significant progress toward gender equity is essential if the world is to succeed in the effort to make poverty history. Freedom from extreme poverty and hunger, quality education, productive and gainful employment, and being able to give birth without risking one’s life are all human needs and basic rights that every person in the world should be able to enjoy. This is humanity’s moral obligation.

 

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