WASHINGTON – Improving political, economic and social opportunities for women is the single most important step countries can take to end extreme poverty worldwide by 2030, the head of the United Nations Development Program said.
Sustained economic growth certainly is needed, especially after the financial crisis that pushed 400 million people back below subsistence level. But growth alone will not lift up the estimated 1.5 billion people, almost one fifth of the world’s population, who live on less than $1.25 a day, a group the UN and the World Bank are targeting to eliminate extreme poverty, Helen Clark, UNDPadministrator, said in an interview.
“The silver bullet is equal rights for women and girls, and that has to figure prominently,” said the former prime minister of New Zealand and the first woman to head the agency.
“Just headline GDP growth won’t do it. You have to target poverty, you have to target inequality. That means bringing in all the people who are excluded. Women are so often excluded, and people with disabilities, minorities in societies, people pushed to the fringes,” Clark said.
The scorecard for the Millennium Development Goals, the blueprint signed by 193 nations for tackling extreme poverty by 2015, shows that the least progress has been made on women’s issues. On Goal 3 for achieving Gender Equality, for instance, women’s equal representation in national parliaments has either stagnated or gone backward since 2000. Similarly Goal 5 on improving material health shows lowering maternal death rates has stalled in every region except eastern Africa and central Asia.
Clark called it “no surprise” that maternal mortality is furthest from reaching its goal. It reflects a failure to understand the widespread impact that holding back women from full social, economic and political engagement has on development outcomes. For example, if girls marry young, they lose out on education and are more likely to face health problems and poverty.
Take Ghana. It declared women dying in childbirth a national emergency and gave pregnant women free access to health care and free transport to maternity centres. Yet its maternal death rate remains high, significantly among 12- to 15-year-olds -- girls marrying too young to bear children safely, Clark said.