Pretoria — A public presentation of the "Progress of the World's Women" report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Pretoria, South Africa this week suggests that one of the most powerful constraints on realising women's rights and achieving the Millennium Development Goals is a lack of accountability to women's needs.
The report sets out a gender-responsive definition for accountability: the capacity of women to get information and explanations of government actions, initiate investigations or be compensated where necessary, and to see officials sanctioned where women's needs are ignored or women's rights not protected.
Poor women in particular are affected by weak accountability, and if they are to gain a voice in corporate and civic governance in spite of unequal gender relations, the report recommends that the number of women in decision-making posts be increased and, equally importantly, institutions be transformed to be more responsive to women's needs.
Effects of economic crisis
The Pretoria presentation focused on women's rights in the context of powerful global market forces.
"We see the economic and financial crisis as an opportunity to reconsider our economic models in terms of gender equality and achieving the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals)," said UNIFEM's deputy executive director, Joanne Sandler, at the launch Monday.
Drawing on figures produced by the International Labour Organisation, UNIFEM's Progress report shows how more women than men are in vulnerable employment, working without pay for a member of their household or self-employed. Over 60 percent of unpaid family workers are women.
In formal employment, hundreds of thousands of the jobs created in Africa during the economic growth period following the turn of the millennium - many of which were filled by women - are proving to be extremely vulnerable in the downturn.
UNIFEM Executive Director Ines Alberdi, who was addressing the Fifth Annual Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament in Vienna on Monday, said that in Africa, where a booming export apparel industry has provided thousands of new jobs for poor women since 2002, including over 100,000 in Kenya, Lesotho and Swaziland, falling holiday sales are destroying the industry's viability.
Morocco's textile industry, including carpets, knitwear and garment manufacturing, where women constitute up to 79 percent of workers, has already lost 10,000 jobs due to the crisis.
According to Alberdi, statistics from the 1997 Asian financial crisis show that increased violence and abuse against women and a rise in infant and child deaths are some of the possible detrimental effects of the present crisis.
She added that girls in poor countries with low education attainment rates are more likely to be pulled out of school as households cope with declining resources; by 2007, girls already accounted for 54 percent of the world's out-of-school population, a percentage likely to rise higher.
Who answers to women?
"...it is now a truism that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Global crises such as this one, which can define a generation, can upset the business-as-usual way the world operates, which makes it so hard to bring about change," said Alberdi.
Business-as-usual, according to the report, has seen governments try to attract investment by, for example, weakening labour and environmental standards in special Export Processing Zones (EPZs).
UNIFEM is sharply critical of this approach in terms of accountability, pointing out that what attracts investment to these zones is the low cost of labour - mostly female. The often-secret deals reached between governments and companies in these zones place huge obstacles in the way of millions of women demanding fair wages and working conditions.
The report evaluates several voluntary or consumer-driven corporate social responsibility initiatives, before making recommendations which may not be welcome reading for transnational business owners: gender equality must become an explicit part of national legislation and international trade policy (and gender disaggregated data will be needed to guide this); women should be involved in national economic planning and the negotiation of trade agreements; and special - though temporary - measures to increase the number of women in decision-making are needed, including quotas for women on the boards of publicly-listed companies.
In a nutshell, governments must hold market institutions accountable.
This will require powerful mobilisation of women. Pointing to the role played by women's movements around the world in challenging authoritarian governments, pressing for peace, and promoting legislative changes to laws governing marriage, inheritance and harmful traditional customs, the UNIFEM report's authors are optimistic that governments can be made to answer to women.