A century ago, when the world first commemorated International Women’s Day, equality between men and women, equal access to employment and equal pay, as well as the provision of services that can give women the opportunity to be independent and active were just remote ideas of courageous pioneers.
Since then significant progress has been achieved in closing the gender gap in education and in having more women active in political processes, including at leadership levels. Yet, much remains to be done to improve women’s and children’s health, to do away with discrimination and violence, and to ensure women’s full and equal participation in all areas of public and private life.
Women are the backbone of rural economies throughout the least developed countries. They are marginalized, however, if not excluded altogether, from playing a key role in economic decisions. In addition to working in the fields, women also handle the large majority of domestic work, and engage in petty sales or micro enterprises, and other activities that support their families’ well-being. But they are still frequently denied the right of representation in decision-making, the right to own land, obtain loans, or receive an education. This exclusion virtually guarantees a vicious cycle of poverty instead of the promise of sustainable development.
In 2009 UNCDF, together with UN Women (former UNIFEM) and Belgium, launched the Gender Equitable Local Development programme (GELD), a global initiative that seeks to address some of the key challenges faced by rural women. The program operates on two dimensions: first, it strengthens the institutional capacity of local governments to create an environment where policy planning, budgeting and public expenditure is aligned with women’s priorities. These changes are particularly important in the health, education, and agriculture sectors, as well for investment in infrastructure; and second, GELD supports skills training for women to allow them to better access, engage and influence their local governments’ policy formulation, investment approaches, processes and outcomes.
From this rights-based and bottom-up approach, GELD programs were implemented in six African countries: Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Ethiopia – added in 2010 thanks to a generous contribution from the government of Austria. This has resulted in gender responsive budgeting, which has led to – among others – investments in new wells to save women the backbreaking daily ritual of walking a dozen kilometers to find water, new clinics for maternal and child health services, and water and toilet infrastructures for girls in schools offering them privacy and dignity.
Through GELD, UNCDF and its partners have demonstrated it is both possible and desirable to place gender equality and women’s empowerment at the centre of the local development agenda. GELD and similar programmes have repeatedly proved that giving women voice yields better results for everyone. In particular, evidence suggests that building the skills of women to participate effectively, combined with facilitating their access to resources such as information, credit and other basic services, advances gender equality and social justice.
Gender concerns are equally central to UNCDF’s work in microfinance. Experience has shown that increasing women’s access to microfinance has wide-ranging benefits, not only for women’s well-being, but also for the welfare of the family and the health of the lager economy: women are more likely to use credit and savings to keep children in school and look after other basic family needs; they are also more likely to start businesses that can help entire families escape poverty.
UNCDF policy is that at least 50% of the clients of a UNCDF-supported microfinance institution should be women (in 2010 the average was 60%) as a way to meet the multiple economic and social development objectives of poverty alleviation strategies.
UNCDF deeply believes investing in women constitutes a breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs. It will continue to stress the centrality of women’s participation at all levels of development in 2011 and beyond.