UN commission strikes a blow for gender equality

Thursday, 27 March 2014 19:50 GMT

Women take part in the "One Billion Rising" campaign to end violence against women in Mexico City February 15, 2014. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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Broad consensus now holds that no country can pull itself out of poverty without including and empowering women and girls.

A new call to action by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), agreed after two weeks of talks, might have gone farther on some issues but makes strides toward boosting gender equality where existing anti-poverty goals have fallen short.

The 45-member UN Commission gathers yearly to review progress toward gender equality, drawing thousands of government and civil society participants. Despite clashes over issues such as comprehensive sexual education and definitions of “family,” members agreed that gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights must be prioritized and integrated throughout targets that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015.

They called for a stand-alone gender equality goal, and for equality and women’s empowerment to underpin all other goals that may emerge in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework.

The Commission urged governments to address gaps in the MDGs and target discriminatory norms, laws, and customs, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and all violence against women. Equal pay for equal work and sexual and reproductive health rights for all were also highlighted.

Among other repercussions, these challenges sharply curb efforts to end poverty and boost shared prosperity.

Broad consensus now holds that no country can pull itself out of poverty without including and empowering women and girls. They can help drive growth and development, and leveling the playing field—from households to Houses of Parliament—can be a game-changer, with multiplier effects for whole societies.

Yet they still face stubborn inequalities that harm not only women and girls but their families, communities, and economies as well. Most fundamentally, they face persistent rights violations that demand urgent action: gender-based violence, which is running at epidemic levels, and restrictions on their ability to make decisions about their own reproductive health.

As a global development challenge, how does this add up?

· More than 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence. That’s 938 million women—more than the total number of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
· Conservative estimates of lost productivity as a result of domestic violence, in addition to the enormous person toll, set the figure at about 1.5 percent of GDP, or roughly what most governments spend on primary education.
· More than 220 million women have unmet needs for family planning.
· Nearly 39,000 girls under age 18 are married every day.
· Globally, women still earn significantly less than men and perform the vast majority of unpaid care work, while their labor force participation has actually fallen over the last two decades—as our recent Gender at Work report documents.

The World Bank Group is increasingly working to address such inequalities and  unleash the productive potential of half the world’s population.

We are investing in knowledge and data on women and girls, because gender-related data in many instances simply don’t exist. We know a great deal, but significant gaps remain in the data and evidence about what works and does not work, especially in addressing the barriers to women’s demand for sexual and reproductive health services and how to prevent and appropriately respond to violence.

In reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health, we are looking beyond 2015 to ensure solid foundations to achieve sustainable development goals and universal health coverage, including maternal and child health. As of February 2014, US$429 million has been committed for 38 Country Programs in 32 countries.

We are also actively expanding our focus on gender-based violence as a cross-cutting priority. For example:

· In the last year, 10 new projects focused on sexual and gender-based violence totaling almost US$19 million have been approved.

  • · We are deepening our commitment in the Great Lakes Region and finalizing a US$75 million project there that will focus on social protection and health services for survivors of gender-based violence.
  • · We are moving forward on a US$12 million strategic initiative to pilot and evaluate promising interventions and promote knowledge-sharing across six fragile countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka.
  • · We are also providing budget support to governments for policy and institutional reform to address gender-based violence and empower women. These include a US$600 million to Colombia that mandates specific measures such as meals, transport, and temporary housing for female violence survivors, and a US$500 million loan to Brazil for a major infrastructure project to update Rio de Janeiro’s scattered urban transport system—with key gender considerations in mind. All stations will now have women’s restrooms, improved lighting, and an increased female police presence. Five major stations will offer legal, medical, and counseling support to those affected by gender-based violence as well as 107 electronic information terminals. A similar transport-led initiative is under way in Ecuador, with a US$205 million loan.

We will soon launch a major global report on women's voice and agency. Agency—the ability to make effective choices and translate them into action and outcomes—has intrinsic value as well as broad development dividends.

When teenage Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai visited the World Bank last October, a year after a gunman nearly killed her because of her advocacy for girls’ education, she told a crowd of hundreds gathered in the World Bank atrium, “I am proud to be a girl…I know that girls can change the world.”

Ensuring girls and women have an equal chance to live free of violence, control their own bodies, fulfill their potential, and aim to change the world isn’t just a moral imperative. As the Commission reminds us, it’s essential for every other development goal as well.