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Global perspectives on gender equality – failing to prove success in measurement

By Ruth Phillips - posted Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Decades of anti-poverty programs in India have failed to reduce rural poverty or gender inequality significantly, despite a rapidly growing middle class and sustained economic growth in that country. It is also clear that decades of postcolonial rule have failed to ensure social or economic equality and personal safety for women in a number of states in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Wars for 'democratization' have failed to grant women freedom from practices inherent in their social and economic inequality in South Asian and other religion-based states. In many countries issues such as 'gendercide,' the impact of preventable health problems such as HIV AIDS and maternal death, and the growth in sex trafficking, lead us to the same conclusions of secondary status for many women.

The persistent problem of lack of equality for women exists, despite the widespread and influential impact of feminism and feminist networks and NGOs involved in global efforts to address fundamental gender inequalities since the 1970s. In spite of the recognition at the highest level of international responses, that gender inequality is a major issue in tackling world poverty and reducing conflict.


Although it cannot be argued that Western democratic states have addressed issues of gender equality entirely, as there are persistent problems remaining such as sex trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and unequal pay, it can be argued that within those states there are vastly improved forms of gender equality.

The best vehicle for gender equality appears to be NGOs as, owing to their truly internationalized nature and growing global networks, they represent the greatest structural opportunity in the contemporary world for leading movements and issuing challenges to why women continue to experience persistent, multiple oppression.

The level of transformation required to ensure a global standard of women's equality to men, has to happen through NGOs, international institutions and broad social movements. However to do this, they need to embrace the importance of their political and policy roles, and, along with their transformative work at a grass roots level, bring states and cultures to account for the ongoing gender power imbalances.

However, this may also require significant reorientation in policy development and in measuring the success and effectiveness of gender equality, through the sustained improvement in the lives of women who are unquestionably the world's 'subaltern.'

Despite much of the rhetoric of success in the wake of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality, it is difficult to sustain claims of global progress for women just because more women in some countries are gaining school and tertiary education or in positions of formal governance. It is widely reported that more that 100 million girl babies have been killed because boys are preferred (Economist, 2010) and that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped and murdered in conflict as a means of a 'weapon of war' for ethnic or religious dominance, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade.

Any observer of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals must be cynical about the potential for the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2015. The UN reports that with less than 6 years to go they are half way towards halving extreme poverty, but what could possibly be said about achieving women's equality across the globe?


The key measures and claims of success for the MDGs are about empowerment steps such as more girls in school and more women in formal government, not about an all-encompassing measure of gender equality.

The formal global influence of feminism can be seen to have begun in1975 when theInternational Women's Year was recognised by the first UN conference on women, held in Mexico City. Four years later, in 1979 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, covering political, economic, social, cultural and civic values.

In 1985, in Nairobi and again in 1995 in Beijing, decade celebrations of women occurred, with the aim of advancing the status of women (UN, 2010). In a further recognition of how important gender equality was for 'improving' the world's wellbeing, in 1995 the Human Development Report introduced the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Index (GEM), under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

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About the Author

Dr Ruth Phillips is a Lecturer in the School of Social Work and Policy Studies, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has a strong social-policy practice background, research interests in international NGOs, the welfare state in South Korea and social policy.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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