23 years after Beijing, women still poor

Virginia Muwanigwa Correspondent

Contemporary economic discourse has shown that macro and microeconomic policies and programmes continue to fall short of integrating the contributions of and specific needs of women beyond the paper on which they are written.

This is the 14th in a series of articles analysing progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment 20 years post-Beijing.

In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action recognised that the status of women had somewhat advanced but that progress had been uneven, inequalities between women and men persisted and major obstacles remained.

Then, participants to the UN 4th World Conference on Women attributed the situation to the increasing poverty that was “affecting the lives of the majority of the world’s people, in particular women and children, with origins in both the national and international domains”.

They cited absolute poverty and the feminisation of poverty, unemployment, the increasing fragility of the environment, continued violence against women and the widespread exclusion of half of humanity from institutions of power and governance as key threats to sustainable development, peace and security.

Twenty years on, that description is still valid, despite tacit consensus that equal rights, opportunities and access to resources, equal sharing of responsibilities for the family by men and women are critical to their well-being and that of their families as well as to the consolidation of democracy.

A recent launch in Zimbabwe of the “Poverty is Sexist” campaign in a collaboration between the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and the ONE Campaign, an international campaigning and advocacy organisation of more than six million people taking action to end extreme poverty, shows that not much has changed since 1995. The campaign is calling on “world leaders to refocus the development agenda and unleash the human, social, political and economic potential of women” at all levels.

Then, it was fully recognised that strategies for the eradication of poverty based on sustained economic growth, social development, environmental protection and social justice requires the involvement of women alongside men as agents and beneficiaries of people-centred sustainable development.

One proposal to address the structural causes of poverty was transformation of economic structures and processes to facilitate equal access for all women, including those in rural areas to productive resources, opportunities and public services.

Sustained “economic growth through the provision of basic education, life-long education, literacy and training, and primary health care for girls and women” was also proposed as a means to reduce vulnerability to poverty.

Government leaders then committed to ensure women’s equal access to economic resources including land, credit, science and technology, vocational training, information, communication and markets, noting that “only a new era of international co-operation among governments and peoples based on a spirit of partnership, an equitable, international social and economic environment and a radical transformation of the relationship between women and men to one of full and equal partnership will enable the world to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century”.

The 21st century has come and what is clear is that national, regional and international economic developments have mostly had a disproportionate impact on women and children, the majority of whom live in developing countries.

It remains relevant that states heavily laden with foreign debt, negative impact of outcome of structural adjustment programmes and endemic corruption have consistently and continuously reduced social expenditures, thereby adversely affecting women, particularly in Africa.

Economic recession in many developed and developing countries, has adversely affected women’s employment. Recent research by the ILO reveals that women remain largely employed in insecure jobs, low-paid positions or largely confined to the informal economy.

The latter, known for many years, as the domain of women, has seen an influx of men seeking to eke out a living after being pushed out of formal employment.

Contemporary economic discourse has shown that macro and microeconomic policies and programmes continue to fall short of integrating the contributions of and specific needs of women beyond the paper on which they are written.

“Poverty has increased in both absolute and relative terms, and the number of women living in poverty has increased in most regions.

There are many urban women living in poverty; however, the plight of women living in rural and remote areas deserves special attention given the stagnation of development in such areas.

“In developing countries, even those in which national indicators have shown improvement, the majority of rural women continue to live in conditions of economic underdevelopment and social marginalisation.”

The above statement was made during the Beijing Conference and it is ironic and tragic that 20 years on, despite the myriad of policies and other legal reforms adopted at national, regional and international level, it still resonates with reality on the ground.

While poverty affects families as a unit, the gender division of labour and domestic responsibilities affect women more.

Lack of or inadequate economic opportunities and control over productive resources, including income, savings and credit by women has further constrained them. Poverty can also force women into situations in which they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Proposals to increase the productive capacity of women include access to capital, resources, credit, land, technology, information, technical assistance and training so as to raise their income and improve food security, education, health care and status within the household, community and beyond.

With 2015 dedicated as the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063 by the African Union, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) being due for review, it is important to note that focus should no longer be on analysis of problems but implementation of strategies adopted.

In a statement circulated ahead of the UN 59th Women’s Conference in New York this year, women’s organisations, feminist organisations, individual activists and citizens of African countries working to achieve gender equality, empowerment and the full realisation of the human rights of women and girls urged governments to: commit towards full realisation of gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls without renegotiating already agreed upon commitments . . . at national, regional, continental and global levels; commit to accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, among other political declarations; and affirm the strong linkages between the Beijing Platform and the Sustainable Development Goals that are set to replace the MDGs.

Virginia Muwanigwa is a gender activist and chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, which is the focal point to the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance. She is also the director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

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