Equity takes us further

Development Policy20 Sep 2010Elaine Unterhalter

Possibly one of the greatest steps towards the advancement of women’s rights over the last decade has been the expansion of primary education. But on its own, this is not adequate to ensure gender equality or empower women. The position of gender and women’s issues in the MDG framework is significant, yet constraining.

MDG3, on gender equality and empowering women, has targets and indicators that are weak proxies for the goal. In The Lancet Commission on the MDGs, by the London International Development Centre, we show the indicator on gender parity in education requires equal numbers of girls and boys at school. But this says nothing about what is learned.

Schools might reproduce gender inequalities and studies from many countries confirm that we cannot simply ‘read off’ gender equality from expanding education provision. Increasing the number of women in national parliaments might indicate increasing opportunities for women to enter politics, but will not itself ensure decisions that secure gender justice. The indicator on increasing women’s share of wage employment in the non-agricultural sector, while important in offering an expansion of economic opportunities, gives little attention to the majority of women worldwide who do not work in this sector, or the huge burdens women inequitably carry because of their responsibility for the care economy. There is no MDG target concerned with violence against women, improving women’s rights to land or ownership of property, or expanding adult education programmes.

The limited progress since 2000 on MDG5, which is concerned with maternal health, indicates how many aspects of women’s nutrition and family status have not been supported by existing health, education or economic policy. There is a gender dimension to all the areas the current MDGs deal with (poverty, hunger, health, the environment and global partnerships) but the current framework does not make this visible enough.

In The Lancet, we propose that in reflecting on what should come after the MDGs in 2015 we need a process of reflection and discussion at multiple levels in gender equitable fora of a vision of development. As a contribution to that process, we propose a number of key values for discussion, one of which is equity. In different societies, equality is seen differently, for example linking to equal rights to vote, being treated with dignity, or enrolled in school. This value is a widespread feature of contemporary societies. Equity is an aspect of equality that connects with fairness and justice. Our argument highlights equity and combines elements of opportunity, process and outcome. Thinking about gender equity and women who face multiple forms of discrimination, this would entail attention to three interconnected phases.

Firstly, social provision of opportunities for schooling, health, protection against poverty. These need to take account of diverse contexts marked by intersecting inequalities. Secondly, ensuring processes for engaging in discussion, reflection and decision-making, in which the voices and actions of women are invited and respected. Thirdly, ensuring that all outcomes, for example distribution of places in secondary education or allocation of pay, are reviewed for gender equity. The current MDG promises adequacy. This is a necessary step but not the best we can do. Equity will take us so much further.