The millennium development goal on gender set out to promote gender equality and empower women, with a target of eliminating gender disparity in all levels of education no later than 2015. Indicators focused on ratios in education and literacy, wage employment and national parliaments.
While MDG3 has helped boost political will, and encourage more development groups to invest in resources to promote women’s equality (pdf), broad progress towards gender equality has wavered, with persistent gender-based inequalities in health, education and politics around the world.
According to deputy director of UN Women John Hendra, who spoke to the Guardian’s global development professionals network at the European Development Days in Brussels recently, the next development framework will need to tackle structural inequalities if it is to succeed where the current MDGs have fallen short.
“We’re trying to make sure that women and girls are at the centre of the next agenda, that the current MDGs are important in terms of achievements, but that they really fall short of having the transformative change that’s needed … Unless the next agenda really addresses the structural constraints and discriminatory norms that hold women back we really won’t get to where we need to be.”
So how can that happen? “We feel very strongly that it has to be a stand-alone goal that addresses some of these constraints head on, and that across the framework we choose targets that are limited in number but will have a transformative impact on the lives of women.”
The question of what a goal on gender can realistically achieve, and how much can be left to mainstreaming [the process of assessing the implications for women and men of a planned programme] gender issues into wider policies, was raised at a panel discussion on gender in which Hendra took part. The answer seemed to be that it depends on how effective mainstreaming is.
One of the main concerns over putting gender into the mainstream has been that it leads to the abandonment of gender-specific policies, and doesn’t challenge existing paradigms enough to bring about actual change.
The EU heads of mission and ambassador Mara Marinaki, who is also the managing director for global and multilateral issues in the European external action service, drew on her experience of the EU’s commitment to gender. Marinaki said that bringing gender into the mainstream won’t work in all contexts, and stressed that successful approaches could only be established through strong feedback between governments and institutions.
“There have been a series of guidelines to mainstream [gender] and they serve as a compass to individual states … We very much appreciate the feedback we receive from member states on how far they have come, and [whether] this uniform approach has been helpful, or should be set aside. Has it served its purpose, or should we move to an ambitious next step that would be more detailed in terms of what we need to achieve, and more encompassing?
“If we do move towards a universal agenda… we need to look at the issues of domestic resource mobilisation,” he said. “We’ve talked about climate-proofing infrastructures in certain contexts, but we should also make sure [those we invest in] are gender-responsive.”
On public sector job cuts, Hendra said a large numbers of women have been affected and are now in vulnerable employment. He said cuts to development spending had had a “disproportionate impact on women” and left gender equality “chronically underfunded”.
Of course values like ‘gender-responsiveness’ are notoriously difficult to measure, but this in itself makes it all the more important, Hendra maintained.
“The things that are difficult to measure are often the most important. If we’re going to move towards a more transformative agenda there’s a dichotomy we have to address: many say the MDGs are easy to measure but they don’t really address the deep-seated challenges that communities and societies face. To do that we have to … focus on getting baselines in place by January 2016, and do the best we can do as a broad development community in measuring the most difficult areas.
“We need to be able to much better track where programme resources go in terms of targeting gender equality and involving women. Gender markers, audits and scorecards allow you to see objectively how your organisation or programme is doing.”