Gender gap is blocking development says UN

Posted: 17 November 2008

Author: Don Hinrichsen

The gender gap is continuing to widen in many countries, with devastating impact on development efforts, according to the latest World Population (2008) Report. In many societies the rights of women and girls are violated or at best ignored.

The report, issued by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says that development strategies need to recognise and take account of cultural traditions and values if they are to successfully address deepening poverty and the growing needs of women and men for access to quality and appropriate reproductive health information and services.

Unmet need and demand
Unmet need and demand
Unmet need and total demand for family planning. Click to enlarge.
Such culturally sensitive approaches are essential to address extreme poverty and the "second class" status of women and girls in many societies.

Gooday, India. Photo: NOVA
Gooday, India. Photo: NOVA
Like many women in India, Gooday was still in her teens when she married. By the age of 33, she had given birth eight times.© NOVA
"As development workers, we have to partner with forces of positive cultural change to protect human rights and human well-being," stressed Ms Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, during the report's recent launch in London. "Our experience shows that we can work closely with these positive forces for cultural change to protect human rights."

Abuse and neglect

According to the report, gender inequality, abuse and neglect remain widespread:

  • Women and girls comprise three-fifths of the 1.2 billion poorest people living on one dollar a day or less
  • Women are two-thirds of the nearly one billion people who cannot read or write
  • Girls comprise nearly three-quarters of the 130 million children who are not attending school.
Rural school, Burkina Faso
Rural school, Burkina Faso
Rural school consisting of four girls and 26 boys, Burkina Faso Photo © Mark Edwards/Still Pictures
  • More than half a million women and adolescents die every year while trying to give life; 90 per cent of these deaths could be easily prevented if trained birth attendants and emergency obstetric care were available.
  • Some 2 million women and adolescents suffer from untreated fistulas [caused by tearing of the birth passage during delivery, especially among teenage girls] with upwards of 100,000 newly affected annually;
  • 'Honour killings' persist in a number of countries, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, despite national legislation outlawing the practice.
  • Some 70 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital cutting (FGC) or mutilation; with several million more undergoing this degrading and dangerous practice every year.

Lessening gender inequalities and combating harmful cultural practices requires that development agencies work with local community based organisations and NGOs to counter harmful and discriminatory practices, while instituting lasting change.

Bibi, a nurse from Surinam.
Bibi, a nurse from Surinam.
Bibi, a nurse from Surinam. Photo © UNFPA
"Communities have to look at their cultural values and practices and determine whether they impede or promote the realisation of human rights," pointed out Ms Obaid. "Then, they can build on the positive and change the negative."

The report concludes that "international development actors ignore or marginalise culture at their peril" and underscores the need to identify and partner with "local agents of change." In this way, approaches based on cultural knowledge can provide the groundwork upon with to build viable policies and advance the human rights agenda, especially for women and girls.

Don Hinrichsen is a Contributing Editor to this website

Related links:

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

World Bank calls for more family planning

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