When member countries of the United Nations agreed to the Millennium Development Goals 15 years ago, advocates for stronger rights for women and girls were disappointed as governments (and the Vatican) balked at reasserting the bold promises of the international conferences of the 1990s in Cairo and in Beijing. Later campaigns, inside and outside the UN, have forced a particular focus on girls because of the persistence of detrimental practices such as forced or early marriage and genital mutilation, often combined with little or no schooling.
As the formal adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals approaches in late September, there is relatively wide, though not universal, agreement that this time more serious commitments could lead to more meaningful action for women. The question is how much the lives of the millions of poorest, most powerless minor-age girls will change.
What comes next for the goals will be a relatively short period beginning in the autumn when national governments and their statistical experts are expected to decide on their respective countries’ development priorities based on national data. Their reports will then go to the United Nations Statistical Commission, which will assign indicators to the 169 targets connected to the 17 goals. No small job. Indicators are measuring instruments for determining progress or lack of it over the next 15 years. When indicators emerge, it will be possible to see how much emphasis and unambiguous wording will be assigned to expanding the rights of women and girls.
On women, Stan Bernstein, a senior policy adviser to the United Nations Population Fund for more than two decades and now a consultant on development issues, sees hopeful signs, though he knows very well how UN compromises happen when women’s rights are put on the table. He was part of the Millennium Project team that was asked by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2002 to develop a concrete action plan to achieve the MDGs.
In the project’s final report in 2005, Bernstein said, the experts tried to strengthen or fill in gaps in the MDGs on women’s reproductive health and rights, but most of their suggestions were not accepted in a summit of UN members that year. “We got what we could get,” he said. But he added that the ideas formulated by the project were largely carried over into discussions in recent years around the new SDGs, and they have survived. Again, the indicators may have the final word on how explicit recommendations for women can be.
Issues of rights and protections for girls — and children in general, since boys can also face exploitation and abuse — don’t often touch the same hot buttons as those for women. In the SDGs, the phrase “women and girls” is often couched vaguely in calls for equality with male counterparts. To take one example, Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Among the targets listed for meeting the goal are:
By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes
By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education
By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations
Girls have special needs and much greater challenges than boys in many developing societies. Millions of girls will continue to be forced into early marriages and/or subjected to genital mutilation even though the SDGs explicitly call for an end to these practices. Millions of girls are also not going to school. Public policy and a greater commitment of governments to end the conditions that keep girls out of school are critical to changing their lives.
Carol Bellamy, who was an outspoken executive director of Unicef from 1995 to 2005, welcomes the success of the MDGs in helping a majority of the world’s girls complete primary education, but she cautions that this might be the easy part.
“The children we are now targeting are the very hardest to reach, and the costs of their inclusion are going to be higher than average,” Bellamy wrote in a new book that has collected the views of experts who spoke in September 2014 at an extraordinary conference in New York of global advocates for women and girls.
The book, “Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World,” edited by Ellen Chesler of the Roosevelt Institute and Terry McGovern of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, drew on presentations made at the conference by more than 30 women covering all major development topics.
“Those left behind by wider progress on education are, overwhelmingly, the most marginalized girls — the poorest and most exploited,” according to Bellamy, who in a long public and private career has also been head of the Peace Corps, a Wall Street banker, president of the New York City Council and, most recently, as chairwoman of the Global Partnership for Education. “Very often, disadvantage breeds disadvantage, with girls who are out of school more vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation, from commercial sex work to hazardous child labor.” Girls should be a good investment, as contributors to family and national economies.
“Why then so much entrenched resistance, why so many hurdles?” Bellamy asks, saying that the “elephant in the room” is politics. “Gender equity is intensely political.”
Where the political meets the intensely personal are classrooms in which girls fear and often suffer sexual abuse from teachers, and in schoolyards where there are no toilet stalls to provide privacy, particularly with the onset of puberty and menstruation, a life passage that drives large numbers of girls out of education in Asia and Africa.
In India recently, Alka Pande, a reporter for the Women’s Feature Service, based in Delhi, went to the Lucknow region of Uttar Pradesh, where teachers have resisted even talking about the issue, and saw how one nongovernment group, with the backing of the state administration, is trying to change mind-sets. Sex education is missing from many if not most schools in developing countries, and girls know little about their own bodies.
“You all have become shameless as you can talk about menstruation with anyone, anywhere,” a senior teacher told visitors from the nongovernment organization Vatsalya, who came to the school to discuss menstrual hygiene. “This is India after all! How will we face our male staff once we step outside this room?”
“In India, myths around menstruation exist even today,” Pande wrote. “Misconceptions such as menstruating women are unclean or impure and, therefore, they cannot enter the kitchen, must live in a separate room outside the house during those days, and not even dream of stepping inside a temple lest its sanctity is compromised. . . . In such a negative environment and especially in the absence of any candid conversations on the issue, either at home or in school, four-out-of-five girls are simply not prepared to handle this normal biological change when it happens and three-out-of-five are scared to mention it to anyone.”
Normal life, going to school or working at home or in the fields, is put on hold, Pande wrote, adding that many women and girls in rural areas do not have sanitary napkins and are prone to infections because of poor hygiene.
The Uttar Pradesh state government — reinforcing that gender is political — has introduced a plan to buy and distribute low-cost sanitary pads. To get around the embarrassment of having to go to a pharmacy, where the shopkeeper is usually male, the supplies are being manufactured and sold by women, providing jobs for them, too.
An active campaign to sensitize teachers, male and female, must be part of the program, Neelam Singh, a physician and the founder of Vatsalya, told Pande, the reporter: “Government efforts will have no meaning unless teachers are sensitized towards the issue. With enhanced awareness they will no longer feel hesitant to discuss this issue with their students and can help them understand their body better.”
Pande came away from her visit to the Lucknow region, an area rich in history and tradition, seeing hope. “Various studies suggest that there are over 2.8 million adolescent girls in Uttar Pradesh who end up missing out on life and studies during that time of the month. However, if the empowerment agenda goes as planned that would soon be in the past — as it very well should be.”
Carol Bellamy, in her remarks and writing for Women and Girls Rising, asks: “Why should we go to all this trouble? Why should we commit resources desperately needed elsewhere to the education of girls? Why try so hard to get our investments and policies right? The moral case is overwhelming: education is a fundamental human right that helps to forge more equitable societies.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.