In 2000, world leaders representing all 191 countries that belong to the United Nations pledged to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. These goals aimed at tackling some of the most pressing threats of our time – gender discrimination, poverty, hunger, maternal mortality, and more – have since become the main framework for development policy worldwide.
They have even been adopted by many of the international agencies and banks that control the budgets of most poor countries, and they have been reflected in the budgeting priorities of the UN. Ultimately, the MDGs create opportunities for advancing women’s human rights, but only if we are able to participate effectively in the process of realizing the goals.
On September 20-22, the UN General Assembly has convened a high level plenary meeting to address progress towards achieving the MDGs, with five years remaining before the 2015 deadline. The clock is ticking, not only for those governments responsible for making the MDGs real in their own countries, but for the billions of people every day denied the right to food, health, education and more. As the UN strategizes a way forward, MADRE calls for an approach that is rooted in human rights and committed to ending gender discrimination.
What Do the Millennium Development Goals Mean for Women?
The challenges reflected in the MDGs threaten all people, but they are not gender neutral. Around the world, women bear a disproportionate burden of these dangers. What’s more, achieving the eight goals listed below will require protecting women’s human rights and incorporating women’s expertise and participation.
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger: The often forgotten truth is that women make up 70% of the world’s poor. When they demand access to opportunities to improve their lives, such as education and employment, they are often blocked by gender-discriminatory laws and social norms.
- Achieve universal primary education: Fifty-four percent of girls worldwide are not in school. Nearly two-thirds of adults who have been denied education and cannot read are women. A recent study showed that educating women helps save children’s lives, raising their awareness of issues of health, nutrition and parenting. For every additional year of a woman’s education, the mortality rate for children under age five dropped on average by nearly 10 percent.
- Promote gender equality and empower women: This MDG focuses on gender disparity in education, but women’s equality and empowerment will require so much more. For instance, physical or sexual violence goes unmentioned, but up to six out of every ten women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. To enjoy the full range of human rights, women must be able to lead a life free of all forms of discrimination and violence.
- Reduce child mortality: Mothers worldwide, usually the primary caretakers of their children, must grapple with the realities of poverty. When they are unable to access adequate health services, stable food supplies or clean water, child survival is threatened. The MDG target calls for a reduction of two-thirds, but since 1990, the child mortality rate has only dropped about a quarter.
- Improve maternal health: This month, the World Health Organization released statistics that suggest that the rate of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth has dropped more than one-third since 1990. But the MDGs call for a reduction of three-quarters in the maternal mortality rate, and 358,000 women still died in 2008.
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases: For women between the ages of 15 and 44, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death and disease worldwide. The vast majority of these women, 98 percent, live in the developing world.
- Ensure environmental sustainability: Rapid industrialization, resource consumption and climate change have generated deadly effects for the world environment, with specific and disproportionate consequences for women. For instance, the majority of smallholder farmers are women who, in the poorest countries, grow as much as 80 percent of the food.
- Develop a Global Partnership for Development: This goal envisions development as led by international banks, pharmaceutical companies and others in the private sector. Yet, it is governments and not the private sector that are obligated to ensure people’s rights and well-being. The MDGs will not be achieved through policies that promote the interests of the private sector at the expense of human rights.
The Real Story Behind the MDGs
- Governments’ commitments to the MDGs appear to be an extraordinary step forward, but when we scratch the surface of the goals mentioned above, we find that their progress is measured by a limited and contradictory set of technocratic “targets” and “indicators.” These are more concerned with statistical change than with creating the structural change that is crucial to improving the lives of women and their families worldwide.
- For example, the “target” of MDG 3 is to eliminate gender disparity in education. Yet it will take much more than girls’ education to combat the deeply entrenched violence, discrimination, stereotypes, laws, and customs that generate grave violations of women’s human rights in every country of the world.
- The indicators intended to measure progress towards MDG 3 are equally problematic. They include:
1. the ratio of girls to boys at all levels of schooling (with no regard for the quality or content of education and without addressing the social forces that keep girls out of school);
2. the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament (without regard for the more crucial question of whether these women respect human rights);
3. the share of women in non-agricultural sectors of the workforce (without recognition of the need for decent wages, working conditions, and public services such as day care, health care, clean water, and transportation).
- The MDGs call for change, but not for creating the conditions to make real change possible. To address the root causes of the problems that the goals are supposed to rectify, we need to grapple with precisely those phenomena that the MDGs take for granted. These include policies that have increased poverty and inequality around the world (such as free-trade agreements, wage freezes and hostility to worker organizing) and subordinated human rights to “national security” as defined by the ongoing “war on terror.”
- The MDGs fail to even mention sexual and reproductive rights, women’s labor and property rights, or one of the most fundamental obstacles to ensuring these rights, namely, violence against women.
- Women’s human rights advocates have pointed out that sexual and reproductive rights are central to achieving at least four of the MDGs: women’s equality and empowerment (Goal 3); reducing child mortality (Goal 4); improving maternal health (Goal 5); and combating HIV/AIDS (Goal 6).
- One way to gain insight into any policy is to look at its authors. The MDGs are sponsored jointly by the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the United Nations operates within a human rights framework, the missions of the World Bank and IMF are to advance a set of economic policies that are often at odds with human rights.
- At the heart of the MDGs beats a fundamental contradiction: poor countries are expected to meet the MDGs by implementing the very neoliberal economic policies that have, in large measure, caused the crises that the goals are intended to address. These policies include cutting government spending, privatizing basic services, liberalizing trade, and producing goods primarily for export.
- The MDGs use the World Bank standard of an income of US $1 per day to indicate extreme poverty. This income-based measurement of poverty obscures the experience of millions of people, for whom poverty is not primarily a function of income, but of their alienation from sustainable patterns of consumption and production. Indigenous women, for example, assert that their poverty and wealth are determined primarily by access to, and control of, their natural resources and traditional knowledge, which are the sources of Indigenous culture and livelihoods. In Indigenous communities, human rights (specifically, governments’ recognition of collective Indigenous rights over land, natural resources and traditional knowledge) are key to fighting poverty.
Going Beyond the MDGs – What Are the Next Steps?
- To achieve the MDGs, policymakers must recognize that poverty is a function of human rights violations (such as the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to development). Indeed, we must posit housing, health care and access to food and water as non-negotiable and universal rights, not only as “needs” to be met.
- The poor must be seen as autonomous subjects demanding that governments meet their legal obligations, not as a passive “target group” of policymaking. Sustainable development—which depends on broad civic participation, social justice and a fundamental shift in the balance of power—is sidelined by the failure of the MDGs to operate within a human rights framework.
- Human rights standards are a useful yardstick for evaluating the MDGs. They reveal that the MDGs are not a spontaneous expression of governmental goodwill. In fact, the MDGs fall below the threshold of pre-existing and minimum international obligations, some dating back more than 50 years. Governments must uphold their broader responsibility to protect international human rights.
- For the goals to be a tool for advancing women’s human rights, they must be treated not as a technical process, but as a political process. MADRE is working with our sister organizations and other women’s organizations internationally to push for a rights-based approach to the MDGs that goes beyond improving statistical indicators to addressing root causes of human rights violations.