Millennium Development Goals Glossing Over Womens' Issues

Friday, July 23 2010

DHAKA - As world leaders gear up to review contributions to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the United Nations general assembly in September, activists in this least developed country worry for core concerns of women everywhere.

Current discussions here centre around the need to make the MDGs more responsive to gender equality and integrate implementation of the Platform for Action (PFA), adopted at the U.N.'s 1995 Beijing women's conference, and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

On Tuesday, for example, participants at an opinion-sharing meeting, called by 'Women for Women', a research and study group, were unanimously wary and sceptical about current top-priority goals for reducing poverty and improving the lives of the people.

"While the eight millennium-goals are time-bound and concrete, with 18 targets and 48 indicators specified for measuring achievements, they lack a rights-based approach,'' Salma Khan, a member of U.N.'s CEDAW Committee told IPS. ''They do not realise women's human rights as a development goal''.

The third millennium-goal is to promote gender equality and empower women, but the lone target specified is eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015, pointed out Khan.

This, she said, is not only limiting but also carried the risk of giving governments leeway. ''For example, Bangladesh has already achieved gender parity at least in terms of (school) enrolment, and our government could get away with that".

"Besides, in the absence of specification, the other goals may not address gender-based discriminations, concerns and issues," said Khan. "The target set out for the goal to eradicate extreme poverty talks only about income-poverty, that too without mentioning the essential gender perspective".

Khan stressed the need for incorporating a broader range of gender-sensitive targets and strategies, and for making gender-equality a cross cutting issue across the goals.

Issues concerning women's participation in politics and decision making; their reproductive rights; violence against women; and discriminatory laws and practices needed to be explicitly mentioned, she said.

One fear was that overemphasising MDGs could divert the government's focus from its CEDAW commitments, as well as sideline the PFA, which identifies 12 critical areas of concern and details out strategies to advance women's equality, non-discrimination and human rights.

"Following the Beijing Conference, we worked for two years helping the government prepare our country action plan," said Prof. Mahmuda Islam, president of Women for Women. "We already have very clear goals and strategies. Now there is a pressure from donors to prioritise MDGs and we fear that the PFA could be marginalised in the process".

"Six important U.N. summits held in the 1990s had been based on the universal declaration of human rights and upheld the agenda of non-discrimination and gender equality in a substantive sense," said Khan. "The millennium-goals seemingly bypass the earlier premises set out by the previous conferences and water down the concerns".

Wassel Bin Sadat, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, thought the millennium-targets too modest. He called on activists to identify goals and issues specific to Bangladesh. "The one-size-fits-all approach will not do".

"You cannot have the same goals for instance, for the sub-Saharan region and South Asia," agreed Khan. "Cultures vary, practices vary, and the state of growth and development varies widely".

One objective of the Tuesday meeting was to inform people about the MDGs and their shortcomings.

"Nearly two million women are employed in the export-oriented garment sector," said Shirin Akhter, who works for the rights of women workers. ''Their minimum wage of monthly taka 930 (about 15 dollars) has not seen any rise since 1990. And now with the phasing out of the Multi- Fibre Agreement their jobs are threatened. Will the MDGs help them survive?"

"The millennium-development move is under the auspices of the U.N., but its engineers are the rich countries,'' said activist Farida Akhter. ''And it could take off only with the sanction of the World Bank and the IMF. We must not forget who is doing what and in what interests".

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is about to finalise its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), in response to the World Bank and the IMF-initiated process.

Prof.Islam, who was in the technical committee on women's advancement for formulating the Interim PRSP in 2002, complained that ''halfway through our work we were asked to incorporate the millennium goals".

"In the IPRSP, women's development had been included in the main strategies for poverty reduction,'' said economist Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad. ''But the recent January 2005 draft places women under 'supporting strategy' along with children, tribal people, disabled people and other disadvantaged groups".

"Why did the government go for the PRSP discarding its five-year plans for development? We need to understand that process,'' said Ayesha Khanam, general secretary of Bangladesh Mohila Parishad, the country's largest women's organisation.
"The process of women's human rights strengthened in the latter half of the last century has taken a regressive trend in the 21st century,'' said Khanam. "It's digressing from its basic concerns".

Khanam touched upon the government's bringing changes to its National Policy for Advancement of Women, announced last year, negating some of its crucial equality principles.

"Without addressing the concerns and commitments of the Beijing process, the world has again set up new goals,'' commented Khanam. ''Governments, including ours, may now try to sidetrack women's rights issues by using these goals. Every other day we get new targets for development-- it confuses people".

In the economist Ahmad's opinion all such goals and agendas, including the MDGs, were linked to the market economy and foreign aid. ''While we are detracted by streams of development goals, uncontrolled and unplanned market economy is increasing disparities in countries such as ours".

"The 2003 Human Development Report of the UNDP finds that compared to 1990, 54 countries have become poorer and the number of poor people has increased in 21 countries,'' Dr. Ahmad told the Tuesday gathering.

Ahmad said the Millennium Declaration of 2000 was based on the U.N.'s universal human rights declaration and the MDGs were also expected to have the same basis. ''But the goals have deviated from that and therefore cannot be acceptable".

"The achievement of the goals will crucially depend on implementation of the last goal, i.e., a global partnership for development,'' remarked Khan. ''All of its seven targets are to be basically fulfilled by the developed countries. But can that be ensured?"

Ahmad cited statistics to show that barely half of this year's global requirement of development assistance could be realised. ''The MDGs are nothing but another U.N.- sponsored agenda which will eventually be dumped under the table, without being implemented," he predicted.

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