Progress toward global gender equality slow and fragile, U.N. says

Malava, Kenya - Women carrying food for a celebration. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

Advocates and leaders from around the world are at the United Nations in New York City to press for equal gender rights by 2030. Massive change is needed – now – if there is hope to achieve the goal, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Achieving gender equity is a crucial part of reaching loftier goals like eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 and addressing problems such as climate change. Current efforts are simply not enough.

“Women continue to suffer disproportionately from the economic crisis, from the impacts of climate change, from the displacement caused by conflict, persecution and so much else,” said Ban in his opening remarks at the opening of the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. “Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are essential to our sustainable future.”

The session kicked off on Sunday with the marking of International Women’s Day. It is a particularly important session because it takes place 20 years after the passage of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality and women’s empowerment. It helped to bring forward issues of discrimination and violence faced by women and laid out a vision for achieving a world where there is gender equality.

Attendees of the session adopted a political declaration reaffirming the Beijing platform. The next week will see discussions aimed at accelerating progress toward the goal of gender equality by 2030. Both Ban and U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka shared concerns that the progress made in the past few years is not enough to reach the 2030 goal.

“Yes, much has been done, and much of it worthwhile. However, what we chose to prioritize and act on has not led to irreversible and deep-rooted change,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka to the session. “We must achieve substantial change within the first five years, and equality before 2030. We must use the knowledge generated by our experiences to shape that future.”

Ban and U.N. Women presented a report at the start of the session that provides a “20-year review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.” Its characterization of the past 20 years are far more damning than the speeches given by Ban and Mlambo-Ngcuka. It characterizes the past 20 years as experiencing “slow and uneven implementation, with serious stagnation and even regression in several areas” toward gender equality, according to Mlambo-Ngcuka in an opening letter.

The report says that the increases in women’s education has not been matched by employment opportunities and pay. It estimates that it will take 75 years to see women achieve equal pay for work of equal value at the current pace of progress. That is in addition to continued limits on the ability of women to make decisions in some parts of the world, high maternal mortality rates and “alarmingly high” levels of violence against women. It shows that simply putting money toward the problem is not enough to enable lasting change.

“The lack of resources, in national budgets and internationally, for implementing the Platform for Action emerges as a key challenge in the review,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “This is counterpointed by evidence of improvements where official development assistance has been concentrated – for example in education – yet significant underinvestment in other sectors and overall remains an acute concern.”

Progress has been made. For example, global maternal mortality fell by 45 percent since 1990. Though it is behind the targets set by the Millennium Development Goals and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, responsible for 86 percent of all maternal deaths, are still very high.

And the report continues in the same fashion. Gains made in the past few decades are tempered by not reaching established goals or creating little change. The overall report is decidedly pessimistic and concerned by changes since the Beijing platform was adopted, though not outright dismissive. What it makes clear is that the status quo is not sufficient. And it is not a matter of simply getting more financial resources in place.

Achieving gender equality in the next 15 years requires fundamental changes to power dynamics.

“Power relations between men and women must change profoundly for progress to be made. Men must be partners in the pursuit of gender equality, in their decision-making roles; as heads of state, CEOs, religious and cultural leaders, and as partners and parents,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka to the session. “Men and boys are key in dismantling the patriarchy, which includes ending unequal pay, and saying no to marrying children.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.