Turning Promises into Progress for Gender Equality and Women's and Girls' Rights

The Beijing Conference on Women marked an important moment in the struggle for gender equality and the rights of women and girls but, twenty years on, what’s changed?

For a start, gender is now firmly on the agenda at least here in the UK. Internationally too there is more talk of gender equality than in previous decades.  But, sadly, talk is often all there is.  The plethora of international commitments has not really translated into the achievement of gender equality.

There have been some successes, most notably where the MDGs brought new funding and some political pressure; more girls in school, more women in parliaments.  But we still live in a world where one in three women will be subjected to sexual or intimate partner violence in their lifetime, where women continue to earn less than men for doing the same work and are more likely to be living in poverty, and where women are excluded from meaningful decision making whether at home or in international negotiations.  In every country in the world women and girls still face discrimination and the denial of their rights simply because of their gender.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, and fifteen years after the ground-breaking United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 recognised the importance of women’s full and equal participation as actors for peace and security, we at the Gender and Development network have joined with colleagues at Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) and the UK Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) network to produce a new report Turning Promises into Progress.  Combining our expertise enabled us to look in more depth across eight issue areas central to gender equality (women, peace and security, violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and rights, political participation and influence, education, economic justice, unpaid care and discriminatory social norms) to consider the advances made or, more often, not made.

Throughout the report we have made concrete recommendations which we hope can inform development thinking in the future.  In particular we suggest how to begin tackling the causes of gender equality to make real progress in the decades to come for example by building women’s ability to make their own choices, supporting women’s rights organisations and collective action, promoting positive social norms, and rethinking government approaches to the economy. 

As we reflect on the landmark anniversaries and look forward to the implementation of the post-2015 agenda we can perhaps allow ourselves some cautious optimism.  Technical expertise is greater and the women’s movement is growing stronger; organisations around the world have marked the Beijing anniversary with calls to action that are both practical and inspiring.  The question now is whether we can garner the necessary political will and resources over the coming decade to secure the rights of women and girls and achieve gender equality.

Giving women a vote and a voice in Afghanistan's future

Afghan women participate in Free and Quality Education Campaign launch. Photo credit: UN Photo/UNAMA

Just over a decade ago, Afghan women were not seen and not heard in public life. Hidden behind a wall of conservative attitudes and behaviours, unable to leave the home, forced to cover themselves from head to toe - in every way, they were second class citizens. They were denied an education and access to healthcare, denied employment, and denied freedoms we take for granted – like the freedoms of association and expression. They were denied even the most basic dignities, and routinely subjected to sexual and physical violence.

But now, while huge challenges remain in many parts of the country, Afghan women are taking control of their lives, pushing for equal rights. They are once again insisting on having a voice and a vote in deciding Afghanistan’s future as well as their own. And it’s a change that is increasingly being driven by young people, in a country where almost seven in every ten people are under the age of 25.

In March I visited Kabul and Helmand and was inspired by young Afghan men and women who are determined that progress made will not be lost.  They were determined that their daughters will have the same freedoms and rights that others around the world – the freedom to make their own choices about their lives, the right to be educated, the right to be a full member of society, to contribute to the economy and to have a political voice. 

Afghan women are making their position clear – they will not accept a return to the past, but they will be an integral part of the future of Afghanistan.  

Sustainable progress  is also about giving women the skills, the knowledge and the confidence to take control of their lives.  And for me, doing that all boils down to one thing: education.   There is a saying in Islam that if you educate a girl you educate a family; if you educate a man, you educate an individual.  We are starting to see progress - 39% of the 5.9 million Afghan children regularly attending school are girls, over one in four teachers are now women, both up from virtually nil in 2001. 

Empowered, educated and highly motivated women such as  Habiba Sorabi, the Governor of Bamiyan Province;  Dr Sima Samar, the Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Fawzia Koofi MP are inspiring young Afghan girls. They are positive, courageous role models, showing Afghanistan and the rest of the world what can be achieved. 

There are Afghan female doctors, engineers, pilots, lawyers, politicians, business women, leaders and decision-makers.  Brave women, such as the female police officers I spoke to in Helmand, are determined to contribute to the provision of security in their communities. Step by step, they are rising to the challenge, taking their rightful place in Afghan society and the country is becoming a better place for it.

‘Afghanistan has gone too far forward to return to the situation under Taliban rule’.  That is the message I heard consistently when I spoke to Afghan women leaders, Afghan youth representatives and Afghan civil society. So what has really changed?   My time in Afghanistan drove home the reality of how far the country has moved on.  The Afghan media is widespread and active; people have access to social media and are inextricably linked to the rest of the world.  The country can never be as isolated as it was; the women of Afghanistan can never again feel alone. 

The world is watching, and we care.   I am personally committed to seeing a future Afghanistan where women are integrated in to every aspect of society.  I know that the Secretary of State for International Development, my Rt Hon Friend, Justine Greening, is equally determined.

But we are not naive, nor complacent.  Afghan women and girls will face difficulties; there will be significant challenges and it will take time.  Afghanistan has experienced over 30 years of conflict, it has ingrained conservative values and its future remains uncertain.  Afghan women continue to experience appalling levels of violence and discrimination.

 Women’s freedom to utilise their rights is patchy throughout the county   geographical factors play a part, local cultures, values and influences also have a role to play.  Change must happen, but it must be driven from within, by the Afghan people. And it is not something that women can do on their own; Afghan men and boys need to be part of, and committed to, the notion of equality - only then can we ensure that every Afghan girl is given the best possible start in life.

But while this change must come from within Afghanistan, there is much that the international community is doing to help pave the way. $16b has been committed until 2015, and the UK’s contribution of £178million per year until at least 2017 is making real changes to the lives of Afghan women and girls.

I said earlier that education was vital. And it’s at the heart of everything we are doing to promote equality in Afghanistan. From providing basic education to increase the woefully low literacy rates (thought to be around 20% for 15-24 year old Afghan women) to expanding economic opportunities for women such as providing  vocational training to almost 4000 females, and providing essential business advice.

For instance, funding to the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Fund provides assistance to fledgling female entrepreneurs,  such as the Afghan Tailoring Company in Helmand, a small female run business which now employs  30  female workers. 

In addition, we are strengthening women’s voices through civil society: supporting access to justice and healthcare and further involvement in the political process, including direct support, training and workshops for female candidates in the forthcoming elections.  

Nobody can deny that there is still a long way to go. But even though the challenges are great, I truly believe Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.

Follow on Twitter: @FCOHumanRights and @SayeedaWarsi

Read and comment on the FCO Human Rights & Democracy Report.

Read our latest report on Afghanistan.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities. 

This blog was originally posted on Amnesty International UK's website. To see the blog as it originally appeared, click here.

Veeru Kohli - the ultimate outsider

When Veeru Kohli stood as independent candidate in Hyderabad's provincial elections on 11  May 2013 she made history. Jacky Repila explains how Oxfam's Raising Her Voice programme played a part in her journey from bonded labourer to election candidate.

She is poor. Making the asset declaration required of candidates, Kohli listed just two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of 2,800 rupees, wages for labourers in Karachi are around 500 rupees a day.

She's a member of a minority group - Hindus represent less than 6 per cent of the country's total population. The vision of tolerance and inclusion of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has sadly been eroded as we can see from the 500 Pakistani Hindus who recently fled to India to escape discrimination.

Pakistan ranks 134th out of 135 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index.

She's uneducated and does not boast the political connections or patronage of most politicians. In fact she has ruffled feudal feathers, escaping captivity from her former landlord and fighting in the courts for the release of other bonded labourers.

And then of course, she's a woman.  Only 3 per cent of all candidates contesting the general seats for the National Assembly were women.

And yet, in spite of the inevitable establishment backlash seeking to devalue her credentials, on 11 May 2013, 6,000 people voted for her.

As a former bonded labourer in her mid-fifties with 20 grandchildren, Kohli's journey to election hopeful is the stuff of legend. And Oxfam's Raising Her Voice programme is proud to have played a small part in her success.

Speaking with one voice for women's rights

Kohli is one of the 1,500 women's leaders who have been supported by the Aurat Foundation and Oxfam through training, exchange visits, information sharing and mentoring as part of the RHV programme, seeking to support women's political participation and leadership in 17 countries worldwide.

'No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you'. 

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, speaking in 1944.

Pakistan can lay claim to the Muslim world's first ever woman prime minister and elected Speaker of a National Assembly but there is a glaring disconnect between constitutional rights and customary or Islamic laws. Sensitive to these contradictions, the RHV programme chose to work with an inner circle of well-connected 'home grown' women leaders.

Where well meaning but nonetheless external interventions might have failed, the women leaders who are from and for the communities they live and work in, have put aside party political, faith and ethnic differences to join together and speak with one voice for women's rights.

Reaching out to less well educated, less confident and poorer women in their communities, 187,500 Pakistani women have benefited from the programme. With total funding of just £445,257 over five years this also represents real value for DFID's money. 

The Women's Leaders Groups (WLG) provided safety and strength in numbers, enhancing the potential to form alliances and gain influence which has brought political, economic and social benefits:

  • In Hafizabad (a district of Punjab Province) over half the members of the zakat - Islamic relief - committees are from WLGs.

  • Sindh district level committees - such as education - now have 2 to 4 women from WLGs.

  • Nationally, 116,000 women obtained national identity cards with the help of WLGs.

  • In Attack (a district of Punjab Province) WLG negotiations with panchayats brought an end to honour killings.

  • In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some Awami National Party workers had been stopping women from voting in the 2013 general elections until the WLG raised it with the party leadership who took action against the offenders.

Reinforcing the grasssroots activism of the WLGs, has been the indefatigable advocacy and campaigning of Oxfam's partner, the Aurat Foundation (AF).  Media savvy, an influential player within Pakistani civil society and internationally well connected, AF is a skilful navigator of Pakistan's political undercurrents.

AF strives to influence the structures - laws, political processes, traditional and institutional centres of power - that disenfranchise Pakistan's women and curtail fulfilment of the country's true potential.

Today we launch The Politics of Our Lives: The Raising Her Voice in Pakistan Experience, a report documenting the learning from RHV's work with AF in Pakistan.  It makes essential reading for those wishing to support programmes seeking to shift the balance of power between the sexes in countries where getting it wrong can have very serious consequences.  

A 'road map' it isn't, that would be too prescriptive, but it is a valuable resource for governance practitioners. And beyond this, documents the remarkable achievements, conviction and stamina of the women leaders and their advocates, who, like Veeru Kohli, have pushed the boundaries 'against all odds'.

As Veeru said: "Initially I was not fully prepared, but then I thought, this could be done only by me, so I went on all the way…"

To see Veeru Kohli in action, click here.


Jacky Repila

Jacky Repila works as Learning and Communications Officer at Raising her Voice, Oxfam.

This blog first appeared on Oxfam's Policy & Practice Blog. To read the blog as it originally appeared, click here

How Gender Sensitive Parliaments Aid Empowerment

“Today’s woman of Afghanistan is not yesterday’s. She is knowledgeable, educated and independent, and she is in the minority”

After the member of parliament (MP) from Afghanistan uttered these words at the recent conference on gender and politics at the UK Houses of Parliament, she went on to articulate that even though she holds public office, she is not as empowered as her male colleagues, nor does she have the same influence as they do in Afghanistan’s legislative process. She entered into politics, she said, to help the women of Afghanistan. Though we often hear of geopolitical developments in Afghanistan, the statistics pertaining to gender equality are devastating; female literacy is 12 percent, and even lower in rural areas, where 93 percent of the population, the majority of whom is women, is unable to read or write, according to the United Nations.

The spirit of the parliamentary conference – a gathering of more than 40 female MPs from around the world – was both passionate and sobering. Despite advances in labour market participation and political representation, womens’ access to basic services, and its consideration in policy, has yet to find adequate representation in the legislative process. This has been evident in the context of the millennium development goal to reduce maternal mortality rates. In this light, foremost in the discussions and keynote speeches was how best to achieve change. In particular, there was an emphasis on how gender sensitive parliaments are instrumental in fostering both political and economic empowerment in a sustainable fashion.

Gender sensitivity, and gender sensitive parliaments in particular, help break what an MP from Zimbabwe called the ‘patriarchal padlock’. This is the notion that parliaments are inherently patriarchal – created by men for men – and operate with norms and codes of conduct culturally coded as male. As with gender mainstreaming, a gender sensitive parliament takes the impact of any planned action onboth men and women into account, including its legislation, policies and programmes. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) notes, it is crucial that change operates at two levels: (I) operationally (i.e. in the form of parliamentary sitting times, caucuses, childcare facilities that are gender friendly) and (II) institutionally in re-writing (the often unwritten) codes of conduct that are disadvantageous to women in the political sphere.

‘Re-writing the unwritten’ occupied the epicenter of almost all discussions. How does one foster gender sensitivity when, as one delegate noted, “governments are very good at coming up with excuses to deny resources to women”? To be sure, a critical mass of women parliamentarians in office is crucial; the interparliamentary union’s (IPU) survey of women and men in parliaments found “women are overwhelmingly the drivers of change in terms of gender equality in parliament.” A 30 percent female participation rate, cited by both MPs and academics, is a tipping point for a sustainably higher level of gender sensitive legislation. IPU’s global estimate is 19 percent.

It is clear that both economic and political empowerment come hand in hand in order to effect sustainable change in gender equality. Political representation alone falls short in achieving economic empowerment for women. The Philippines and Zimbabwe have similar female-to-male parliamentary participation, according to the UN. Why is it the Philippines has a Magna Carta for women yet Zimbabwe was characterized during the course of the conference as having ”gender apartheid”? The seeming similarity in female parliamentary participation speaks to the importance of how women are empowered, not just in representation by numbers, but the terms of their access to the political and economic spheres.

In her speech to delegates, Professor Naila Kabeer commented that women face not one but “an interlocking set of constraints” when trying to gain economic and political empowerment. A pertinent example, given that most women in the global economy work in the informal sector, is microfinance. Though it has been instrumental in facilitating access to the market, the terms of that access (limited to finance with high interest rates) has been disadvantageous, and in some cases, has led to disempowerment through debt accumulation. Economic opportunity, Kabeer argues, must be accompanied by a broader political and budgetary agenda that includes support for education and life skills training for women. A growing constituency of middle class women will, in turn, support further representation of their interests in government.

Though the trigger for this kind of virtuous circle is context dependent, education is key. For many delegates, family and cultural practices that keep girls out of formal education – or educational systems that teach submissiveness to them – were deemed to be a primary obstacle to gender equality. When drafting the communiqué for the conference, it was the censure of these patriarchal cultural practices that was most discussed, in order to take a particular message back home. Rightly so: education is the cornerstone of what Martin Ravallion has termed a country’s ‘initial conditions’ determining the degree to which benefits of economic growth go to the most marginalized, who are often women. As the MP from Afghanistan commented in her closing statement: “barring education is the worst form of violence against women; without it, a woman is deaf and blind. Others make her decisions for her.”


Phyllis Papadavid

Phyllis Papadavid is a writer, economist and advisor to the government of Mongolia, consulting on policies regarding its Millenium Development Goals. Prior to this, for over a decade, Miss Papadavid was international economist and senior strategist at Societe Generale and the former Lehman Brothers advising on international macroeconomics and economic policy. A regular commentator on major television networks, she has published on a broad range of topics including the informal economy, financial crises and structural reform. Her research and professional interests are in gender equality, poverty alleviation and capital markets.