With five years left, empowering women is essential for Millennium Development Goals

In Brief: 
  • In September, world leaders pledged renewed efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to reduce poverty, inequality and disease by 2015
  • Recent economic and environmental crises have cast doubt over whether the goals can be achieved. More than 1.4 billion people remain in extreme poverty, for example
  • Because all the goals are highly dependent on women’s participation, an increased focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women, especially at the grassroots level, offer a powerful strategy for meeting MDG targets

In September, the United Nations held a three-day summit to examine and support progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — an ambitious set of promises to significantly reduce poverty, inequality and disease worldwide by 2015.

Some 140 heads of state and government attended, and they pledged to make “every effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” despite the various economic and environmental crises that have in many countries slowed progress towards their achievement.

The Goals were established in 2000 at the Millennium Summit. In their broad outline, the eight MDGs are simple but bold. They aim by 2015 to halve global poverty and hunger; to achieve universal primary education; to eliminate gender disparity in education; to reduce child mortality by two-thirds; to reduce maternal mortality by three-fourths; to halt and then reverse the spread of HIV/AIDs, malaria, and other major diseases; to improve environmental sustainability, including halving the portion of the population without access to safe drinking water and sanitation; and to improve the world’s financial and economic system to better meet the needs of poor countries.

Worldwide, progress towards the Goals has been mixed. According to a report released in March 2010 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while a number of countries have achieved success in combating extreme poverty and hunger, improving school enrolment and child health, expanding access to clean water, and the control of major diseases, progress worldwide has been uneven.

Mr. Ban noted, for example, there are still some 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, as defined by the “dollar-a-day” international poverty line. Moreover, he said, global hunger has actually been rising, because of high food prices and the global financial and economic crisis.

For the other goals, the story is similar. While many countries have made progress at increasing primary school enrollment, more than 72 million children of primary school age around the world, about half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, remain out of school. As to the gender equality goal, Mr. Ban notes, the share of national parliamentary seats held by women has increased only slowly, averaging 18 percent as at January 2009. And while the child mortality rate in developing countries fell from 99 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 72 in 2008, this is nevertheless well short of the target of a two-thirds reduction to 33 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The outcome document adopted by world leaders at the Millennium Goals Summit in September seeks to address many of these shortfalls, pledging governments to “renewed commitment, effective implementation and intensified collective action.” The 31-page document promises a number of specific steps, including strengthening national ownership and leadership of development; further reform and modernization of the international financial institutions; and increased “respect for and promotion and protection of human rights.”

Women are agents of development”

World leaders also cited the importance of the empowerment of women as “essential” to meeting the Goals.

“Women are agents of development. We call for action to ensure the equal access of women and girls to education, basic services, health care, economic opportunities and decision-making at all levels. We stress that investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity, efficiency and sustained economic growth,” world leaders declared.

The Bahá’í International Community wishes to emphasize this point. We believe that efforts to promote the advancement of women is one of the most powerful strategies available for meeting the MDGs, and that the careful analysis of how development programs impact women, moreover, can be used as a critical tool for understanding whether they are likely to be effective.

A point-by-point examination of the eight Goals highlights the crucial role of women at the local level in creating the conditions for social change necessary to resolve the issues of poverty, education, inequality, and disease that the Goals seek to address.

The first goal, for example, is concerned with the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. The vital role of women in the social and economic development of communities everywhere is clear for all to see.

The second goal, on universal primary education, also hinges to a great extent on the empowerment of women. The record has shown that when women are given the opportunity, they will take whatever steps are necessary to see that their children receive schooling.

Progress towards the other goals, too, depends greatly on women’s advancement. The reduction of childhood mortality is intimately linked with the education of mothers. Improvements in maternal health likewise center on women’s education and access to services. So does the reduction of HIV/AIDs and other diseases.

The third goal, of course, is explicitly about the empowerment of women. The fact that it remains so far from full implementation only points to the profound changes that are required in our collective thinking. Specifically, it requires an acknowledgement that the responsibility for effecting change also falls on men, who must themselves participate in efforts to ensure that women are empowered and treated with full equality. This needs to happen in all areas of life, whether home, work or the public sphere. Men everywhere have a profound effect on promoting opportunities for women.

Humanity has two wings”

The Bahá’í Writings state: “The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.”

Ultimately, the effort to achieve the MDGs depends on how humanity chooses to use its resources. There is little doubt that the world today possesses the collective wealth and expertise to meet the Goals.

One NGO recently pointed out that achieving the water and sanitation target would cost on average $6.7 billion per year until 2015 — which is less than half what Europe and the United States spend annually on pet food ($17 billion).

Before the Summit, Mr. Ban announced a US$40 billion Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. “Our challenge is to put our resources where they will have the greatest impact — education, jobs, health, smallholder agriculture, infrastructure and green energy,” said Mr. Ban. “That is why, during the Summit, I will launch a Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. No area has more potential to set off a ripple effect — a virtuous cycle — across the Goals than women’s health and empowerment.”

That “virtuous cycle” hints at why a focus on women is so important. Over the next five years, as projects are initiated or funded, the degree to which those same projects and funds will help women at the grassroots can be used as a key rubric for determining their likely effectiveness and subsequent priority.