We’re not including women in our fight to attain the MDGs

Date: September 18, 2010
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Many efforts by development partners in Africa have been directed at constitutional reforms, public sector reform, electoral reforms, structural adjustment programmes, economic recovery, peace and security, crisis prevention – the list is long.

Development policy makers and activists alike have gone full circle in devising new strategies for ensuring poverty reduction through the poverty reduction programmes and strategies (PRSPs) and now the emphasis on localising and accelerating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

However, as anyone can see, we still have some distance to go before we break the back of poverty and inequality in many parts of Africa.

One major challenge is ensuring that the various dimensions of poverty are tackled concomitantly in a multi-sectoral way, especially when it comes to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In South Africa, the Women’s Budget Initiative (WBI) was launched in 1995 to review public expenditure on benefits for women and girls. It originally focused on welfare, education, housing and reconstruction but later moved to other areas, including health.

Namibia, Tanzania and Uganda have also incorporated gender equality into their budgets, but most local Authorities in Africa face structural problems in acquiring adequate financial resources from budgetary allocations and many national governments spend huge portions of their budgets on debt repayment.

One recent study on spending in more than 30 developing countries noted that the majority spend more on debt repayment than on social services.

When budget cuts are done, it is a usually an exercise of shifting funds from one sector to another, such as removing funds from infrastructure and relocating them to an emergency or crisis fund. When such cuts are made, those sectors are left without services. Women’s ministries and programmes are often one of the first sectors to receive budget cuts in most African countries – that is, if these programmes had a budget to begin with.

Women’s exclusion in local governance is also common. Women are often not organised, and many are still conditioned into believing that local authority services are a favour and not a right and that politics and development should be left to men.

Inequality is therefore not questioned but accepted as a natural given fact of life. Yet, it is known from empirical data that inequality breeds inequality and produces social disillusionment, social incoherence and social injustice.

As a measure towards addressing these social injustices at the local level, several United Nations Agencies are supporting the implementation of MDG-3, to enhance gender equality and justice by looking through a gender lens to address local development in local authorities. The programme seeks to enhance equitable gender participation in local development planning, public expenditure tracking.

After one year of implementation we have been able to identify local issues and obstacles to women’s equitable representation and participation in local developmental issues.

During the inception phase of the Gender Equitable Local Development (GELD) in Mozambique, we noticed the presence of only three community women in a forum of more than 100 people. When we asked why there were so few women in the meeting, the men told us it was rainy season and the women were busy planting. Another said women from the community didn’t want to come. Yet another man said the local women weren’t interested in development and governance issues.

But then one of the three women bravely raised her hand and asked to speak.

“Let me tell you the truth why there are no women in this forum,” she said. “Women were purposely not informed about this meeting. The truth is that the information was only given to men and that’s why there are more men here today than women. Yes women are busy, but if they would have been informed about this meeting and the importance of their presence, women would have come.”

The room went silent – one could have heard a pin drop.

It was at that moment clear that we had a long job ahead of us in supporting the local authority to create an enabling environment for a gender-inclusive development process.

It was also clear that it would no longer be acceptable to exclude women.

The most important question, though, is what would have happened if that woman had not been present or had not spoken? We would have believed the male perspectives that women in that district were too busy, and unconcerned or unwilling to participate in their local development.

We realised then that we’d have to change the way we planned, identified problems and disseminated information.

But although we had this eureka moment in Mozambique, this type of exclusion is still occurring elsewhere and women’s programme budgets continue to be cut and women’s voices continue to be sidelined in development and governance – including in most budgeting and planning for the MDGs.

Women’s participation is vital if we want to meet the MDGs by 2015. Until we start to look at the reasons they are missing from discussions, or until we ask those important questions about why they’re not there, it’s unlikely African countries will meet their targets.

Mary Okumu is the Chief Technical Advisor for the United Nations Capital Development Fund GELD Project. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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