By Sophie E Pleterski, on 12 March 2014
“The message of gender equality still resonates over a century after it was first proposed by the revolutionary Clara Zetkin.”
One of the opening statements of Professor Maxine Molyneux’s Lunch Hour Lecture reminded us that with International Women’s Day on 8 March, it was the perfect time to consider what has been achieved by the UN Millennium Development Goal to “promote gender equality and empower women” since the year 2000.
Few people in the UK have heard of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and only about a third of the audience today.
This was a good proportion according to Professor Molyneux (Institute of the Americas), despite our very own David Cameron co-chairing the UN panel responsible for the post-2015 agenda for development goals – a fact that amused some members of the audience (perhaps thinking of recent criticisms about the all-male Tory front bench).
But with the democratic representation of women in the UK at only 22% compared with Latin America’s average of 25%, and our mediocre ranking of 26 on the Gender Inequality Index, perhaps we should be paying a bit more attention.
No doubt owing to Professor Molyneux’s impressive background at the UN and her current research in Latin America, this was a very policy-centric lecture – development goals, gender equality frameworks and Gini co-efficients abounded.
However, she expertly demystified the terminology and statistical data to deliver an important message: progress has been made, but many women globally still face obstacles to achieving greater equality and justice; sexual and reproductive rights; and an end to violence against them.
MDGs: what are they again?
The eight goals established by the UN at the Millennium Summit include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; reducing the child mortality rate; and combating HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Crucially, they were the first comprehensive policy goals to achieve a global consensus between all member states and the world’s leading development institutions.
Molyneux explained that progress cannot be achieved solely through the UN’s policy ideas and frameworks; governments have to find ways to implement them and resource that implementation.
The problem often lies in governments ignoring, diluting, or cherry picking policies to suit their own agendas. But the MDGs succeeded where others have failed.
They created the policy environment in which governments could be held accountable for not meeting their targets. “Naming and shaming is part of the game”, she stressed, “it gives them a political incentive”.
Since 2000, there has been the fastest reduction in global poverty in history, child death rates have fallen by 30% and deaths from malaria have been reduced by a quarter.
However, progress in gender equality is more difficult to measure and the evidence is mixed. In her analysis of the data, Molyneux addressed the role that poverty and race has on gender equality and the fact that inequality is often the direct result of racialised class differences.
To give a snapshot of the successes and failures of MDG policy implementation, Molyneux focused on her research area in Latin America where, she argued, there has been the most development globally due to a number of factors: economic, political, falling fertility rates and engagement with feminist and indigenous rights movements.
She gave examples of the types of improvements in gender equality that have been directly linked to policy changes, citing Bolivia as an example where affirmative action through quotas has increased representation of the indigenous female population.
Molyneux surmised that, overall, it was the political conditions in Latin America that created the context for the implementation of policy frameworks, suggesting that similar successes could be achieved in other global south countries if they created these same conditions.
However, she balanced these positive outcomes with the stark reality for many women in Latin American countries.
She pointed to the ugly phenomenon of femicide in Mexico and Guatemala where large numbers of women are targeted, and a lack of reproductive and sexual rights leading to dangerous pregnancy terminations and poor maternal mortality rates.
Post-2015: will we do better?
Professor Molyneux’s parting message was that, ultimately, progress for women is contingent on a much larger issue (one that effects everyone and goes beyond any specific target) and that is the development model that governments and development agencies will pursue in the future.
She posed the question as to whether the post-2015 development framework will be enough to get governments to tackle central issues of poverty and accountability?
Popular unrest across the globe, but particularly recently in Brazil and Ukraine, show that these questions are already in the minds of large numbers of people: populations whose patience with their governments is fast running out.
By the end of the lecture, I was left with a feeling that there was still an enormous amount to be done to tackle poverty and gender inequality globally.
I’m not sure if Sheryl Sandberg’s current campaign to ban the word “bossy” is going to do it, but perhaps increased focus on our own government’s policies and accountability in the run-up to the 2015 MDG deadline will.
You can watch Professor Molyneux’s lecture below:
Homepage image: An indigenous woman takes a seat near Santo Domingo in Cusco, Peru Credit: Nick Leonard (via Flickr Creative Commons)