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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2004: Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment
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Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment

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Challenges: Filling the Half-empty Glass

Challenges: Filling the Half-empty Glass

A recent analysis of national reports on progress toward meeting the MDGs found that “Despite the rights-based perspective reflected by most reports in discussions on Goal 3 [gender equality and empowerment of women], the approach to women in discussions under other goals continues to be instrumental rather than rights-based. Examples are the discussions on child mortality in several reports, where women’s lack of knowledge of care and feeding practices is most commonly identified as a barrier to achieving the goal. Such a formulation ignores the gendered variables that mediate child survival, while accepting without comment the invisibility of fathers in parenting and care.” (11)

Even 10 years after Cairo, the report found that “women are still being seen in terms of their vulnerabilities” and cast most often within their traditional roles of mothers or as victims—not as actors in the development process.

Other impediments to progress include the continued lack of good quality data disaggregated by sex, the paucity of financial and technical resources for women’s programmes at both international and national levels, and confusion about the relative merits of gender mainstreaming versus womenfocused programmes.

DATA. Without sex-disaggregated data, it becomes impossible to put benchmarks on or monitor policy or programme effectiveness. In most countries, serious gaps still exist in available data on women’s economic activity and decision-making ability and on the differential impacts of anti-poverty or other programmes. Data that allow cross-country comparisons are even more scarce. Efforts currently under way to fill these gaps need to be prioritized and strengthened.(12)

LIMITED RESOURCES. A second ongoing problem is the paucity of resources. Many commitments made by governments and agencies cannot be met because of the lack of funds. National programmes promoting women’s advancement are particularly susceptible to arbitrary budget cuts in times of fiscal stringency.

A particularly unfortunate trend is the tendency to cut funding to women-focused programmes or agencies based on the argument that gender is now being mainstreamed throughout the institution. A particularly unfortunate trend is the tendency to cut funding to women-focused programmes or agencies based on the argument that gender is now being mainstreamed throughout the institution.

MAINSTREAMING EFFORTS. Gender mainstreaming became the approach of choice in the 1990s in response to the recognition that women-focused programmes or agencies are easy to isolate or marginalize. However, gender mainstreaming is a difficult process and one in which good practices are still evolving.

The UNFPA global survey found considerable shortcomings in understanding of what a gender equity approach means and how to operationalize it within programmes and policies as called for by the ICPD. Mainstreaming efforts, undertaken without a women’s agency to back it up, can be unfocused and even easier to ignore than women-focused initiatives. What is required is a combination of mainstreaming efforts (with a clear operations research approach to determine what works and what doesn’t and why within key institutions(13)) and a well-funded and resourced women’s machinery (including ministries for women’s affairs or gender equality and focal points for gender issues within ministries, commissions and departments) that has the technical capacity and political placement to spearhead policies and programmes.

POLITICAL WILL. Behind these factors lie the questions of political clout and commitment. In situations where a vocal national women’s movement is able to advocate for needed policies, programmes and resources, forward movement can be quick. In other situations, NGOs or other civil society organizations are running interesting programmes for gender equality, but most are not scaled up into governmentsupported programmes. However, even in situations where the women’s movement is not strong, political leadership can play an important role in advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the policy level.


For the rights-based approach to population issues to be translated into effective laws, policies and programmes, it is important that the most important existing human rights instrument, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), be used effectively.

The UN Millennium Project’s Task Force 3 on Primary Education and Gender Equality has recommended using CEDAW to monitor progress and strengthen accountability on gender equality and women’s empowerment. A 2000 study concluded that effective utilization of CEDAW depends on widespread knowledge of CEDAW; dialogue among government representatives, CEDAW committee members, and NGOs; use of sex-disaggregated indicators for tracking policies, laws, and budgets; and government recognition of how to link policies to CEDAW.

To date, CEDAW has been insufficiently used to track the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action or to develop the mechanisms for such implementation. See Sources

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