The disempowerment of women and girls is the single biggest driver of inequality today, said Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Program, during a plenary on the final day here at the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, where more than 4,500 people from 149 countries and 2,200 organizations gathered to discuss women’s health, equity, and international development.
But there has been significant progress in the last 20 years: “Millions of lives have been improved, and millions of lives have been saved” due to the sexual and reproductive health and rights framework established by the first International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, said Crown Princess Mary of Denmark speaking during the morning plenary.
Kavita Ramdas, the Ford Foundation’s representative in New Delhi, called the global struggle for gender equality the largest and most consequential in history. Women and girls should ensure that in striving for equality, they approach the world differently – shape it to your vision, she urged the attendees.
The Drive to 2015
So where should advocates for women focus their energies going forward? Clark hammered home the importance of speaking up to shape the new global development agenda that will replace the Millennium Developments Goals (MDGs) in 2015. The process has three tracks: a high-level UN working group appointed by the Secretary-General, which just launched a new report; an open UN working group that meets regularly in New York; and of course input from the member states, which will ultimately approve or reject any proposal.
“Thus, advocacy for sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and girls’ and women’s empowerment will need to be maintained at a high level for close to two more years,” Clark said. “I hope that the energy emanating from this conference will help make that possible.”
Fortunately, said Clark paraphrasing Hillary Clinton, “investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.” As Karen Grépin and Jeni Klugman made clear in their report launched at Women Deliver, investing in girls and women can pay huge economic dividends for families and societies.
“We need to convince decision-makers, especially in this time of financial constraints, that it’s something that they should and can do,” said panelist Tarja Halonen, former president of Finland and co-chair of the UN’s high-level task force on the follow-up to the 1994 ICPD. “You don’t need to choose whether you do right or do smart, you can do both.”
Re-Thinking the Framework: A More Holistic, Innovative Agenda
“When the evidence is so clear, why is this agenda so far from being completed?” asked Princess Mary, pointing out that globally, the targets of MDG 5 – improve maternal health – are unlikely to be met. The answer lies in part, that “we’ve been using largely the same arguments and rhetoric since Cairo,” she said, “which begs the question of scalability…how can we effectively reach larger targets?”
“There has also been a strong call for a more transformational, universal, and holistic agenda which does not place challenges in silos but, rather, recognizes the links between them,” said Clark. For example, under the worst case climate change scenarios, human development will slow and perhaps even reverse in some parts of the world, she said, and the poor and marginalized – of which girls and women represent a disproportionate number – are the most vulnerable to these effects.
Similarly, “adolescents and youth are largely missing from the current MDGs,” said Princess Mary, but “we cannot afford to leave this resource untapped.” The freedom to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights allows young people to plan their lives, she said, as expressed in the Bali youth declaration.
Many of us feel like we came late to the MDGs and didn’t have a voice in their creation, said Theo Sowa, chief executive officer of the African Women’s Development Fund.“But the real danger will be if we drop the MDGs entirely and start over with a whole new framework,” she continued. “Let’s remember what works, and let’s build on that.”
“Let’s be bold,” Sowa urged, pointing out that when you talk to someone making $1 a day, they don’t want to make $2 a day – they want much more. “Let’s be imaginative, let’s be innovative, and let’s work together.”
Panelist Karl Hofmann, president and CEO of PSI, emphasized the need to work with those outside the normal audience for gender issues. In order to change people, he said, you have to understand where they’re coming from and connect with them.
“I think the vision needs to be ‘this can be done,’” Clark said. “You can help – you can be part of something that brings transformational change.”
“We live in important times,” said Halonen, and it’s incumbent on us to, as Ghandi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.”