Gender inequality in every domain of life is setting back the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A thorough commitment to accountability towards women alone holds the key to realizing these goals. That's the message given by 'Progress of the World's Women 2008/2009: Who Answers to Women ', a report brought out by UNIFEM on September 18, halfway towards the deadline set for the achievement of the MDGs.
'Progress of the World's Women...' insists that unless gender equality becomes a standard against which all public decisions and outcomes are gauged, accountability to women cannot be ensured. This requires that egalitarian norms be brought in force where they are absent and existing ones enforced to ensure that women get their due in politics and governance, in access to public services, in economic opportunities, justice, and even in the distribution of international assistance for development and security.
The report highlights how women bear the brunt of poor service delivery to an extent that is often not estimated. Thus, as many households lack access to water in or near their premises, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend as many as 40 billion hours each year collecting water. The magnitude of wasted human effort involved in this can be gauged from the fact that women in these countries spend so much time in securing such a basic necessity of life that their efforts are equal to a year's worth of labor by the entire French workforce!
Though data on the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on poor women is scarce, the report indicates that women's time burdens will increase if drought, floods, erratic rainfall, and deforestation undermine the supply and quality of natural resources. This is because women often ensure household food security and do the bulk of water and household fuel collection.
Another worrying global fact is that maternal mortality rate is dropping very slowly - at just 0.4 per cent a year, compared to the 5.5 per cent needed to meet the MDG to improve maternal health. This has been attributed to the fact that health services and schools are often too far or too costly, agricultural services are male oriented.
Thus, the litmus test of government accountability is service delivery that responds to women's needs. But this is a formidable challenge in many parts of the world. The very meaning of accountability undergoes a shift when women come into the picture, as women's experiences and perceptions are significantly different from men's. So, women perceive higher levels of corruption in public services.
'Progress of the World's Women...' says that the MDG to ensure gender equality and empowerment of women in terms of educational parity appears to be within reach. But to replicate this in political representation and employment is still a distant reality. Greater political representation of women ensures a greater salience of women's issues in policymaking. However, at the present rate of increase, it will take 40 years for women in developing countries to reach the 'parity zone' of 40 to 60 per cent of seats in national assemblies.
Another area of concern is that women's share of waged non-agricultural employment has increased only by three percentage points since 1990 to 39 per cent in 2005. In the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, out of five individuals in the sector only one is a woman. The fact that increasing numbers of informal sector workers - predominantly women - are now getting organized is appreciated. The ILO adopted the Convention on Home Work in 1996 as a result of a sustained campaign led by SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) in India, the world's largest union of women in informal work.
The report argues that in the private sector the respective governments must ensure accountability to women and the same should not be left either to women's activism or corporate self-regulation. Despite women being a major segment of employees, in south Asia only one in fifty-five full time women workers hold senior managerial posts. The same statistic for men in the region is one in eight. The possibility of introducing quotas as a temporary measure to reset the balance has not been ruled out.
Women often earn much less than men for doing the same jobs and gender biases have hardly disappeared in western countries. The class-action suit filed by women employees of the multinational company Wal-Mart reveals that gender discrimination often lie at the core of the policies of multinationals.
Significantly, a greater proportion of the 'brain drain' from poor countries is female, a clear sign that qualified women are seeking opportunities elsewhere. This has the worrying implication that despite producing highly educated women, the upper echelons of the market leadership in these countries will remain male dominated.
An imperative measure, says the 'Progress of the World's Women...', is to improve women's access to justice. This requires gender-based reforms in law enforcement and informal justice institutions. Increasing the presence of women in law enforcement agencies also enhances accountability of these institutions to women. This has been exemplified by the fact that the all-female police contingent sent by the Indian government to Liberia, as part of the peacekeeping force, encouraged women there to engage with the local police, both by registering their complaints and joining the Liberian police service.
On a positive note, the report suggests that the world over women's demands for accountability from the State, law enforcement bodies, employers and international institutions has provided a major impetus for change. As a result, many public institutions have become more accountable to women. The 1990s Anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh is a case in point, as is the initiative of poor women in Delhi to enforce their right to subsidized food in 2003.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) passed in 2005 in India is an example of a scheme which factors in gender equality. The Act guarantees 100 days of work to at least one member of every rural household and mandates that one third of its beneficiaries be women.
The report hails the gains that have been made by poor women in India, subsequent to the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, which has allowed them to seek accountability from the State and their local agencies. The RTI gave leverage to five women from Tilonia in Rajasthan to get their pension, which was being held back on some minor bureaucratic account.
The report also insists that multilateral aid and security institutions must do more to meet their commitments and standards on gender equality. Notably, no system-wide tracking mechanism exists within multilateral institutions, such as the UN and the international financial institutions, to assess the amount of aid allocated to women's empowerment. Also, the record of these organizations in complying with their own gender equality policies often falls far short of expectations.