Gender Equality and Millenium Development Goals

Abstract: The Millennium Development Goals explicitly acknowledge that gender roles can have a major impact on development, helping to promote it in some cases while seriously retarding it in others. MDG number 3 (out of 8 ) is specifically about gender, calling for an end to disparities between boys and girls at all levels of education. Education is vital to development, and ensuring that girls as well as boys have full opportunities for schooling will help improve lives in countless ways. Men and women participate in nearly every aspect of life in communities throughout the world and women in a given society — that is, its gender system — have the potential to impact nearly every aspect of life. Therefore, while only one of the MDGs is specifically about gender, addressing gender is of critical importance to every MDG.

Keywords: Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), CEDAW, Millennium Declaration, Capability Indicators, Agency Indicators, Opportunity Indicators, gender equalityand empowerment, human rights, domestic violence, labour market

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a derivative of the Millennium Declaration of September 2000, which spells out the following values: freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and shared responsibility. They are a clarion call of 189 governments, on behalf of their citizens, to ‘free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from went.’(Millennium Declaration). These measures, collectively known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have become a prime focus of development work throughout the globe — a gold standard to which programs aspire, and by which they measure their work.

The MDGs to be achieved between 1990 and 2015, include:

    • Halving extreme poverty and hunger
    • Achieving universal primary education
    • Promoting gender equality
    • Reducing under-five mortality by two-thirds
    • Reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters
    • Reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB
    • Ensuring environmental sustainability
    • Developing a global partnership for development, with targets for aid, trade and debt relief

The MDGs explicitly acknowledge that gender — what a given society believes about the appropriate roles and activities of men and women, and the behaviours that result from these beliefs— can have a major impact on development, helping to promote it in some cases while seriously retarding it in others. MDG number 3 (out of 8) is specifically about gender, calling for an end to disparities between boys and girls at all levels of education. There is general agreement that education is vital to development, and ensuring that girls as well as boys have full opportunities for schooling will help improve lives in countless ways. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude— as a casual reader of the MDGs might, that the relevance of gender to development is confined to the educational sphere. Men and women, both, participate in nearly every aspect of life in communities throughout the world and women in a given society— that is, its gender system— have the potential to impact nearly every aspect of life. Therefore, while only one of the MDGs is specifically about gender, addressing gender is of critical importance to every MDG.

Women throughout the world play critical roles in economic growth and development, and their contributions have an impact on households, communities and national economies. Over the past three decades, significant improvements have been made in women’s status, especially in health and education. In the health sector, greater investment in reproductive health services has led to significant reductions in infant and maternal mortality and declines in fertility rates, reducing women’s burdens associated with childbirth and child rearing. In some countries, women‘s life expectancy has increased by up to a decade over that of just 30 years ago. These improvements mark important progress in women’s well-being and their capacity to participate fully in society. They also have contributed to reducing inequalities between women and men. However, progress has not been uniform and continues to lag in many countries. In many developing countries, women and girls are still the poorest, least educated, most unhealthy and, most marginalised segments of the population. Of the world’s 876 million people, l5 years and older who cannot read or write, nearly two-thirds are women according to UNESCO estimates (UNESCO 1999). Although the gender gap in primary and secondary school enrollment rates is closing in many regions, girls still lag behind boys in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Opportunities for paid employment for women relative to men have also increased, but the quality of employment for women has not increased in the same way and may even love deteriorated. The gender gap in earnings persists and women’s jobs tend to enjoy less social protection and employment rights than do men’s jobs. In the majority of countries in Latin America and Asia, 50 percent or more of the female non-agricultural labour force are in the informal sector, where earnings and social protection are for less secure (United Nations 2000). Violence against women continues to be a serious violation of women’s rights. According to Heise and Ellsberg (1999), around the world at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. And despite the gains mentioned earlier, maternal mortality remains staggeringly high: over half a million women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth- related causes (WHO 2002), 99 percent of which occur in the developing world. The HIV/AIDS pandemic presents an especially urgent challenge because, worldwide, rates of infection among women are rapidly increasing; among those 15-24 years of age, females now constitute the majority of new infections (UNICEF/UNAIDS/WHO 2002). Women’s economic vulnerability and low social status contributes significantly to their increased risk of HIV/AIDS. For all of these reasons, Goal #3 is important in its own right and is salient to all the other MDG goals.

Definition of Gender Equality and Empowerment

Like race and ethnicity, gender is a social construct. It defines and differentiates the roles, rights, responsibilities and obligations of women and men. The innate biological differences between females and males are interpreted by society to create a set of social expectations that define the behaviours that are appropriate for women and men and that determine women’s and men’s differential access to rights, resources, and power in society. Although the specific nature and degree of these differences vary from one society to the next, they typically favour men, creating an imbalance in power and a gender inequality that exists in most societies worldwide.

Definition of Gender Equality

According to the UN (2002), ‘equality is the cornerstone of every democratic society that aspires to social justice and human rights.’ The term gender equality has been defined in multiple ways in the development literature and has been the subject of great debate in the U.N. It often means women having the same opportunities in life as men, for instance equality of access to education and employment, which does not necessarily lead to equality of outcomes. Several experts have proposed conceptual frameworks for understanding gender equality. The United Nations Human Development report (1995) refers to gender equality in terms of capabilities (education, health, and nutrition) and opportunities (economic and decision-making). Similarly, the World Bank defines gender equality in terms of equality under the law, equality of opportunity (including equality of rewards for work and equality in access to human capital and other productive resources that enable opportunity), and equality of voice (the ability to influence and contribute the development process).

Three primary domains of equality between men and women emerge from both of these frameworks: capabilities, access to resources and opportunities, and agency or the ability to influence and contribute to outcomes. The capabilities domain refers to basic human abilities as measured through education, health, and nutrition. It is the most fundamental of all the three domains and is necessary for achieving equality in the other two domains. Access to resources and opportunities- the second domain, refers primarily to equality in the opportunity to use or apply basic capabilities through access to economic assets (such as land and property) and resources (such as income and employment). The third domain- agency, is the defining element of the concept of empowerment (see below) and refers to the ability to make choices and decisions that can alter outcomes. Gender equality in this domain can only result from an equalizing in the balance of power between women and men in the household and societal institutions.

These three domains of equality are inter-related. Progress in any one domain to the exclusion of the others is insufficient to meet the goal of gender equality. While they are inter-related, the three domains are not necessarily dependent on each other. So, for instance, illiterate women may organise thereby building their agency to influence outcomes for themselves and their households. Not surprisingly, women then use that agency to demand capability (better health or education) and opportunity (access to decent work). Similarly, women with capabilities (as measured by education) may have no economic opportunity, as is evidenced in many Middle Eastern countries.

Gender inequalities exist because of discrimination in the family and societal institutions, and social, cultural, and religious norms that perpetuate stereotypes, practices and beliefs that are detrimental to women. Human rights conventions provide redress for discrimination. Among these, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979, is the most universally accepted instrument for realizing gender equality and influencing cultural and traditional definitions of gender roles and family relations. The treaty has been ratified by 170 countries, including every nation in the Western Hemisphere except the United States, but its impact is dependent on political will and resources.

Economic institutions and policy can exacerbate existing gender inequalities instead of mitigating them. There is a strong tendency to see the market as a liberating force for women. While modern markets can and do undermine some of the pre-existing forms of culturally- determined gender inequality, they also incorporate and transform pre-existing inequalities into new ones (Elson and Pearson 1997). Similarly, laws and policies play a significant role in determining the extent of gender inequality that exists in a society. They can serve to protect women’s rights or to reduce them. For example, in many countries, women still lack the legal right to inherit own property and, in many others, violence against women is not considered a criminal offense. Without transformations in economic relations or the implementation and enforcement of legal rights and protection, gender equality and the empowerment of women can remain an elusive goal.

Definition of Empowerment

The concept of empowerment is related to gender equality but distinct from it. Based on a review of literature on the definition and measurement of women’s empowerment, Malhotra, Schuler and Boender (2002) conclude that empowerment is a process that marks change over a period of time and requires that the individual being empowered is involved as a significant agent in that charge process. Several experts agree that an empowered woman is one who has the agency to formulate strategic choices and to control resources and decisions that affect important life outcomes (Kabeer 1999). The core of the concept of empowerment lies in the ability of the woman to control her own destiny. This implies that, to be empowered, women must not only have equal capabilities (such as education and health), and access to resources and opportunities (such as land and employment), they must also have the agency to use those rights, capabilities, resources, and opportunities to make strategic choices and decisions (such as is provided through leadership opportunities and participation in political institutions).Table 1 illustrates various dimensions of women’s empowerment that are important at the household, community, and national level.

Table 1: Commonly used dimensions of empowerment and potential operationalisation in the household, community, and broader arenas




Broader Arenas


Women’s control over income; relative contribution to family support; access to and control of family resources

Women’s access to employment;

ownership of assets and land; access to credit; involvement and/or representation in local trade associations; access to markets

Women’s representation in high paying jobs; women’s CEOs; representation of women’s economic interest in macro-economic policies, state and federal budgets


Women’s freedom of movement; lack of discrimination against daughters; commitment to educating daughters

Women’s visibility in and access to social spaces; access to modern transportation; participation in extra-familial groups and social networks; shift in patriarchal norms (such as son preference); symbolic representation of the female in myth and ritual

Women’s literacy and access to broad range of educational options; Positive media images of women’ their roles and contributions

Familial/ Interpersonal

Participation in domestic decision-making; control over sexual relations; ability to make childbearing decisions, use shifts in contraception, access abortion; control over spouse selection and marriage timing; freedom from domestic violence

Marriage and kinship systems indicating greater value and autonomy for women (e.g. later marriages, self selection off spouses, reduction in the practice of dowry; acceptability of divorce); local campaigns against domestic violence

Regional/ national trends in timing of marriage, options for divorce; political, legal, religious support for (or lack of active opposition to) such shifts; systems providing easy access to contraception, safe abortion, reproductive, health services


Knowledge of legal rights; domestic support for exercising rights

Community mobilisation for rights; campaigns for rights awareness; effective local enforcement of legal rights

Laws supporting women’s rights; access to resources and options; Advocacy for rights and legislation; use of judicial system to redress rights violations


Knowledge of political system and means of access to it; domestic support for political engagement; exercising the right to vote

Women’s involvement or mobilisation in the local political system/campaigns; support for specific candidates or legislation; representation in local bodies of government

Women’s representation in regional and national bodies of government; strength as a voting bloc; representation of women’s interests in effective lobbies and interest groups


Self-esteem; self-efficacy; psychological well-being

Collective awareness of injustice, potential of mobilisation

Women’s sense of inclusion and entitlement; systematic acceptance of women’s entitlement and inclusion

Source: A. Malhotra, S. Shuler, and C. Boender, 2002.

The Costs and Consequences of Gender Inequality:

A recent analysis conducted by the World Bank (2001) establishes that women bear the largest and most direct cost of gender inequality and lack of empowerment. These costs are individual, societal, and inter-generational. For example, women’s economic dependency on men reduces their ability to safer sex options to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection (Gupta and Weiss 1994). And violence against women which is gross infringement of women’s rights has severe health and economic consequences for women (Heise and Ellsberg 1999, Panda 2002). Several studies have established the benefits of reducing gender inequality. Saito and Spurling (1992), for instance, have estimated that giving women farmers in Kenya the same level of agricultural inputs and education as male farmers could increase yields obtained by women farmers by more than 20 percent. Hill and King (1995) show that, all else being equal, countries in which the ratio of female-to-male enrolment in primary and secondary school is less than .75 can expect levels of GNP that are roughly 25 percent lower than in countries in which there is less gender disparity in education. Finally, research on gender inequality in the labour market shows that eliminating gender discrimination in occupation and pay could increase not only women’s income, but also national income. If tender inequality in the labour market in Latin America were to be eliminated, not only could women’s wages rise by about 50 percent, but national output could rise by more than 5 percent (Psacharopoulous and Tzannatos 1992).

II. Historical Development and Characteristics of Goal #3

The MDG goal to achieve Gender equality and empowerment of women recognises the costs to society of continued female disadvantage. As compared to the other goals in the MDGs, the goal to reduce gender disparities is unique because it is not specific to any one sector or issue, such as health, education, or access to water. Instead, it cuts across all the sectors and issues addressed in the MDGs and its success depends on the extent to which it is addressed within each of the other sector-specific goals. Moreover, the goal of gender equality is pre-eminent among the MDGs because if it is not achieved, none of the other goals can be fully met. Despite the instrumental value of gender equality for the full success of the other goals, singling it out within the MDGs as an independent goal serves to underscore its value in and of itself, rooted in the principles of social justice, rights, and non-discrimination. The articulation of this goal and its inclusion in the MDGs marks the culmination of many years of discussions and debates and is related most directly to the discussions and promises made in four particular UN conferences held in three consecutive years in the mid-1990s: the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993; the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994; the World Summit on Social Development held in Copenhagen and the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, both of which occurred in 1995. Together, the declarations and agreements made at these conferences underscored the importance of women’s rights and freedoms, persuaded governments to recognise the gendered consequences of population, social, and macro-economic policies, and emphasised the importance of mainstreaming gender into all development policies and practice. In addition, at each of these conferences governments agreed to a number of time-bound targets, with 1990 as the base year, to serve as benchmarks of progress (Box I). While most of these targets focus on education and health, the Beijing Platform for Action includes a target for increasing the representation of women in positions of power and decision-making. Targets for decreasing women’s poverty or increasing women’s economic equality are notable by their absence. Although poverty and women’s economic rights were key themes at both the Copenhagen and Beijing conferences, governments’ commitment to addressing these issues did not result in the formulation of specific targets. themselves, as well as for households and communities (Shultz 2001). Ensuring that women do not suffer the disadvantage of illiteracy and lack of education is critical for building women’s capabilities, a first step in the empowerment process. It is also an essential ingredient for ensuring child health and welfare, reducing maternal mortality, and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Moreover, by setting an ambitious target for eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education — less than a decade — the MDGs send a clear message that gender inequality in education in this, the 21st century; is unconscionable and must be rectified.

Critique of the Target

Equality in education as a target for measuring progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women is more than justified, but it is not sufficient to measure the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women. One problem with the target is that achieving parity in educational outcomes is not the same as ensuring that all girls are properly educated and can totally develop their capabilities. Second, even though education provides women with an essential capability and has intrinsic value, gender equality and the empowerment of women can remain elusive goals without the opportunity to fully use that capability, for example, in employment, or by participating in decision making in the political arena. Because countries adopted only one target for Goal 3, it is important that, at a minimum, all counties achieve that target.

The three proposed targets nevertheless leave out critical aspects of women’s lives and the range of inequalities that women experience. Glaring by their absence are targets to measure progress to reduce gender inequalities in each of the other Millennium Development Goals. Gender is highly relevant to achieving all the MDGs, be it protecting the environment, achieving sustainable development, enabling universal access to health care and education, combating HIV/AIDS, or reducing poverty and hunger. The Task Forces for these other MDGs must, therefore, monitor and address gender inequalities as a central component of their work. Ensuring that this happens will be an important task for the Millennium Project Secretariat and the Task Force on Gender Equality.

The overall structure of the MDGs fails to acknowledge gender as a crosscutting determinant of inequity and health, and the goals that do address gender only scratch the surface. Although MDG 3 recognises the importance of women’s health in the wider struggle to reduce poverty and promote development, but the indicators chosen to measure progress against this goal— for example, the ratio of girls to boys attending school, the proportion of births attended by skilled personnel, and the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments— do not reflect the broad and inclusive notion of sexual and reproductive rights agreed to at the ICPD and the FWCW. Since almost all of the UN’s health and development initiatives are beginning to be reshaped and designed with the MDGs in mind, the absence of a strong statement on the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights—as well as the absence of any substantial discussion of the non-disease elements of women’s health, such as abortion, contraception, and violence—will have a significant impact on how resources are allocated and programs are designed.

Critique of the Indicators

The United Nations has suggested four indicators to measure Goal #3:

  • the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education;
  • the ratio of literate females to males among 15-24 year olds,
  • the share of women in wage employment in the non -agricultural sector, and
  • the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments.

The first two are indicators of capabilities, the third is an indicator of opportunity, and the fourth is an indicator of agency. Although they represent all three domains of gender equality, they are not without their drawbacks. In addition, there may be other indicators that are better suited to tracking progress toward the MDG gender targets.

Capability Indicators

There are both substantive and technical concerns with the two capability indicators. The ratio of girls to boys in school reflects the input side of education, that is, how many girls and boys are enrolled in school, which is where most policy efforts have been directed. Getting girls and boys to school is clearly an important first step. Yet, the more important issue is school completion and student learning outcomes. The completion of 5 to 6 years of schools is necessary for mastery of basic competencies, such as literacy and numeracy. School enrolment ratios, whether on a gross or net basis, are poorly correlated, with the rate of primary school completion; moreover, enrolment ratios are consistent with many different patterns of drop-out and retention. Finally, gender differences are brought into sharper contrast in the comparison of enrolment rates against completion rates.

Beyond the substantive issue of what should be the focus of the MDG goal, there are other concerns with the proposed capability indicators. The ratio of girls to boys in school simply depicts the number of girls relative to boys in school. Enrolment rates, by contrast, give a picture of the number of students, boys or girls, enrolled in a given level of education relative to the population of the age group which should be enrolled at that level. Net enrolment rates, which take into consideration the appropriate age for each grade, are a good indicator of access to education, but they are not available for many countries. Gross enrolment rates are more widely available, but they include repeat students in the calculation and so will be higher than net enrolment rates. There are also concerns about the literacy indicator. This indicator was chosen to reflect the performance of the national education system, as well as the quality of the human resources with in a country in relation to their potential for growth, contribution to development, and quality of life. Yet, the quality of the literacy data is suspect. Some countries collect literacy information using sophisticated and comprehensive techniques while others are not able to even provide the most basic information. In addition, because literacy is not a simple concept with a single universally accepted meaning, different countries measure literacy differently. The UNESCO definition (“A person is literate if she/he has completed five or more years of schooling”) has been widely criticised partly because it assumes that people can be easily categorised as “literate” or “illiterate” or because adults with five or more years of schooling may still be functionally illiterate, while those with less than four years of schooling may have acquired literacy skills by non-formal means. Despite these limitations, this indicator is the best that exists across countries and over time.

Opportunity Indicators

The choice of indicator in the MDGs to measure progress in economic opportunity is the female share of non-agricultural wage employment. As noted in UNIFEM’s Progress of the World’s Women 2000, this is an indicator of the extent to which women have equal access to paid jobs in areas of expanding employment. As stated in the report, “Wage employment in industry and services usually puts some money directly into the hands of women themselves, unlike employment as an unpaid family worker on a family farm. Moreover, the pay is likely to be higher than the average pay for self-employment.” The drawback of using this indicator is that it could be interpreted to also mean equality in income. A second drawback is that an increase in women’s share of paid employment adds to women’s total workload such that what women may gain in terms of cash they lose in terms of time (UNIFEM 2000). Third, as Anker (2002) notes, this indicator only reassures the presence or absence of work, and not the “decency” of work itself or the disadvantages women face — in access to employment (measured by unemployment rates), in returns to their labour (earnings or wages), in the types of jobs they hold (occupational segregation), and in security of employment (social protection). Finally, in grouping together all non -agricultural employment, the indicator can’t distinguish between work which is formal or informal, full time or part time, and permanent or seasonal. There is ample evidence that women’s participation in informal employment is as high as 50 percent in some countries such as India, Uganda, Indonesia, among others (Charmes 2000), and that women are more likely to predominate in part-time and seasonal jobs.

The ILO has proposed a series of indicators for equality in access to and fair treatment in employment as part of the ILO’s decent work initiative (Anker 2002). These indicators include gender-disaggregated unemployment rates, the female to male wages or earnings ratio (divided by years of school which controls for human capital), and occupational segregation by sex (the percent of non-agricultural employment in male-dominated and female- dominated occupations and the index of dissimilarity), among others.

These indicators show a sobering picture of women’s status in employment. For instance, in 1997 female unemployment rates were higher than male unemployment rates in all regions of the world for which data were available, although the gap narrowed in some regions (United Nations 2000). Similarly, in no country for which data are available do women earn as much men. For instance, in the manufacturing sector in 13 out of 39 countries, women earned up to 20 percent less than men; in the other countries, the pay differential was even greater (United Nations 2000). Approximately half of all workers in the world are in gender-dominated occupations where at least 80 percent of workers are of the same sex, a form of labour market rigidity that reduces employment opportunity and impairs economic efficiency (Anker 2002). Occupational segregation is also associated with lower wage rates for women, as typical women’s occupations tend to have lower pay, lower status and fewer possibilities for advancement than do male occupations.

Because of multiple data and other problems, it is difficult to recommend one global indicator to measure progress toward eliminating gender inequalities in access to assets and employment. Unemployment rates, for instance, are an important indicator of labour market performance in industrialised countries, but are of much more limited significance in low-income economies where the majority of the population engages in some form of economic activity usually informal employment or self-employment. Occupational segregation indicators may not cover informal employment, and in some countries, they may not be correlated with other indicators of labour market disadvantage. And finally, data on the gender earnings gap — in both paid and self-employment — are currently not available for many countries. Of these three indicators, the gender earnings gap is probably the best market of gender equality in the labour market.

Agency Indicators

The United Nations has recommended that progress toward women’s empowerment be tracked by the female share of seats in national parliaments. Currently, this is the only indicator that can be tracked on a global scale. It is an imperfect proxy for tracking aggregate levels of female empowerment because it says nothing about whether women have power in parliament to make decisions or whether or not they are sensitive to gender issues and can promote a gender equality legislative agenda. It has also been observed that greater progress has been made in municipal and local level elections than in national elections, so it would therefore be very useful to track progress that women are making at the local level. The International Union of Local Authorities has scattered data on municipal level institutions but aims to construct a global database on women in local government. At the individual level, indicators could include control over fertility and sexuality. Again, however, there is a paucity of such information for most countries. One barrier that stands in the way of women being able to use their capabilities, exploit opportunities, and exercise agency is violence. Worldwide, it has been estimated that violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and is greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined. Therefore, another indicator of women’s agency, albeit is a negative way, is the prevalence of physical violence in the past year experienced by women aged 15-49 at the hands of an intimate partner.

Measuring the true prevalence of gender-based violence presents several challenges. To accurately measure true prevalence of physical violence, the questions used to gather data must disaggregate specific acts of physical violence such as kicking, beating, hitting and slapping, information which can be hard to obtain because of this sensitive nature. Statistics available through the police, hospitals, women’s centers, and other formal institutions often underestimate the levels of violence because of under-reporting. The WHO’s World Report on Violence and Health, which presents data from 48 population-based surveys conducted in 35 developed and developing countries, and WHO’s recent multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence lay a prevalence rates are a good indicator, they can’t be used to track progress toward the goal since data are not currently available for a large number of countries.

General Limitations of All Indicators

Beyond the specific issues associated with each indicator described above, there are a number of more general issues. First, paucity of data on some indicators automatically restricts their use, despite the fact that there may be more valid indicators than the ones for which there is more data. Second, good ratios are not good enough because they say nothing about the absolute levels achieved. Third, national averages mask regional variation. Finally, few indicators exist that measure quality of progress toward the goal instead of just quantity of progress. The dearth of data and lack of standardisation across countries limit a complete and accurate measurement of gender equality and empowerment. There are data gaps across all domains- capabilities, opportunity, and agency- but gaps are particularly prevalent in the domain of opportunity. For example, most Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are missing data on the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector. As noted earlier, even fewer have information on women’s relative earnings. Lack of time-series data is an additional hindrance. Finally, data are often missing for countries that experienced violent conflict during the decade.

Meeting the Goal of Empowerment Women: Other Actions

Meeting the three targets will lay the foundation for women’s empowerment because gaining power in society is dependent upon having capability, opportunity and influence over key decisions that affect life outcomes. However, achieving the goal of women’s empowerment is not only about the content of interventions but about the process. The process of empowerment varies from culture to culture, but there are several types of changes that are considered to be central across cultures. Some of these changes include increased participation in decision-making, more equitable status of women in the family and community, increased political power and exercise of rights, and increased self-esteem.

Women can be empowered through development interventions. Some of the clearest evidence comes from evaluations of well-designed micro credit programs (Hashemi, Schuler, and Riley 1996). In addition to gaining greater respect and legitimacy in the broader community — particularly from male members — because of their access to credit, the opportunity to have control over decisions about loan size, use of the loan, and so forth has been found to be empowering for women. Women borrowers have also gained experience and confidence as leaders of their Trust Banks (in the Philippines) and have gone on to be elected with in their barangays in the Philippines and Mayor in Honduras (Cheston 2002). A significant barrier to women’s empowerment is gender-based violence. As mentioned earlier, the prevalence of violence against women can serve as an indicator of the level of empowerment of women in any given country. The lack of data currently makes this difficult to operationalise in the MDG context, but it does not reduce the urgency to address this problem.

At the country level, most initiatives to address violence have been legislative. Although the legislation varies, it typically includes a combination of protective or restraining orders and penalties for offenders. As with property rights, a formidable challenge are often the enforcement of existing laws. Procedural barriers and traditional attitudes of law enforcement and judicial officials undermine the effectiveness of existing anti-violence laws. Training programs for judicial and law enforcement personnel often go a long way to change such attitudes. Beyond training programs, the establishment of female-staffed police stations has been effective in making them more accessible to women. For the women who have experienced violence, a range of medical, psychological, legal, educational, and other support services is necessary.

Finally, to prevent violence, improving women’s education levels and economic opportunities has been found to be a protective factor (Duvvury 2002; Panda 2002). The interventions noted above to improve women’s economic opportunities thus become even more important. Ultimately, however, the threshold of acceptability of violence against women needs to be shifted upwards. To do that requires a massive media and public education campaign. Overall, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) provides a useful international mechanism to hold countries accountable for meeting Goal #3. All nation states that have ratified the convention are obligated to take all necessary measures at the national level to implement the provisions within it, including providing legal protection against discrimination of women. In order to monitor progress made by nation States in advancing the agenda of CEDAW, each nation state is required to sport to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in specific measures that they have taken to advance the Convention’s agenda.

Each country is required to report within one year of acceding to the Convention and at least every four years thereafter, including whenever the Committee so requests. The Committee annually reports to the UN General Assembly and makes recommendations to nation states based on an evaluation of the country reports. A recent study of the impact of CEDAW has shown that it provides a powerful instrument at the national and international level for defining norms for constitutional guarantees of women’s rights, for interpreting laws, mandating proactive, pro-women policies, and for dismantling discrimination overall (McPhedran et al. 2000). For CEDAW to be used effectively requires action of many levels and by many actors. Among the many factors identified by the study as being key to the effective utilisation of CEDAW were the following: widespread awareness and knowledge of CEDAW, constructive dialogue between government representatives, CEDAW Committee members, and NGOs, governments recognizing how policy goals can be adapted to implement their stated commitment to CEDAW, and the systematic use of gender-specific indicators to assess the impact of governmental policies, laws, and budgets.The CEDAW mechanism used to monitor progress toward the MDGs and to hold nation’s accountable.

It is important that the women organisations advocating for sexual and reproductive rights develop ways to achieve progress on a range of issues within the framework established by the MDGs. They should ensure that a rights based approach be applied to development , both within the UN system and at the country level, that prioritises equity, profound social changes, and sustainability, rather than simply the achievement of narrow quantitative targets.

The MDG campaign offers an opportunity to attend to the unfinished business of development by fulfilling the promises made by world leaders to reduce poverty, end hunger, improve health and eliminate illiteracy. Gender inequality fuels many of these ubiquitous challenges and is exacerbated by them. Conversely, gender equality and the empowerment of women can secure the future of women themselves, their households, and the communities in which they live. Relative to the past, current international development rhetoric places gender inequality high among the list of development priorities. Having an independent MDG goal on gender equality is a reflection of this new emphasis. Years of advocacy and political mobilsation by the international women’s movement, and debates at U.N. conferences over the past three decades have contributed to making gender inequality more visible in international discourse. The challenge now is to convert that rhetoric into action.


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KAMAYANI BALI MAHABAL. Senior Research Officer at CEHAT. She is a petitioner in the public interest litigations on prisoner’s rights, right to food and implementation of PNDT Act, 2002. She coordinates the diploma course in Human Rights offered by the Department of Political Science, University of Mumbai. I s a well-known journalist and regularly writes on human rights in mainstream media.

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Senior Research Officer at CEHAT. She is a petitioner in the public interest litigations on prisoner’s rights, right to food and implementation of PNDT Act, 2002. She coordinates the diploma course in Human Rights offered by the Department of Political Science, University of Mumbai. I s a well-known journalist and regularly writes on human rights in mainstream media

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