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.

Companies have much to offer when it comes to helping female entrepreneurs in developing countries access markets

Ongoing research into controlling cassava diseases in Africa may boost crop yields. The main beneficiaries of this could be female processors of cassava crops — but only if improved yields come alongside better market access. 

One interesting initiative, combining the private and not-for-profit sectors, shows how training can help women raise their incomes by overcoming market challenges.

In Africa, women are largely responsible for processing cassava into locally consumed products such as gari (toasted cassava flour) or tapioca. Once uprooted, the crop's rapid perishability makes further commercialisation difficult. In Ghana, for example, around 40 per cent surplus is produced because of limited access to commercial markets. [1]

These female processors need better processing equipment, such as crushers used to make flour, in order to reach new markets with processed products such as higher-quality cassava flour, sugar syrups or livestock feed components. [2]

Investment firm Goldman Sachs and the Goldman Sachs Foundation funds an initiative that aims to improve growth-oriented small businesses owned by women across the developing world. 

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women project involves a network of local NGOs and academic institutions training women in entrepreneurial skills. Partner institutions, local businesses and Goldman Sachs employees offer support including mentoring on business skills. Female graduates of the programme own small businesses in diverse industries such as agri-business, construction, retail and food services. 

One beneficiary is Kabeh Sumbo from Liberia. Her firm sells locally processed vegetable oil to nearby restaurants and hotels and to the public. Since graduating, Kabeh has applied for a loan to expand her business, taken on six employees and opened two warehouses. 

Christine from Rwanda, another programme graduate, runs a banana wine business. She has ambitious plans to buy equipment and triple her workforce over the next two years. 

Goldman Sachs is not the first company to promote female entrepreneurship alongside the voluntary sector. Others include Mondelēz International, the GB Group or Accenture. [3]

But more businesses still can learn from such initiatives. Earlier this month, Justine Greening, the UK secretary of state for international development, called on UK businesses to join the "development push", specifically recognising that "investing in women is hugely powerful". [4] 

Kabeh and Christine's stories show how a blend of the corporate, voluntary and, in this case, academic sectors can bring major results for small-scale female entrepreneurs.


Henrietta Miers

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.

Small Scale Tech Can Transform Women's Lives

Small-scale technology can help women to raise their status and increase their income and education.


Western development agencies' lukewarm attitude to the role technology can play in poverty reduction does not serve women well. NGOs like Practical Action specialise in community-owned technology that is small-scale, labour-saving and cost-effective and often most benefits poor women. More support for such technology projects could transform women's lives.

Practical Action is not alone. The electrification of remote villages in the north of Pakistan, introduced by another NGO, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), shows how three simple ingredients — running water, community organisation and some technical know-how — can help women.

The district of Chitral and the Northern Areas of Pakistan lie where the Karakoram, the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges meet. When AKRSP first arrived in this isolated area in the 1980s, it found villages scattered up mountainsides with erratic or no connection to the national grid, and local people demanding electricity. Until then, light came from pinewood torches and expensive kerosene lights.

AKRSP introduced micro-hydroelectric technology using water from the region's fast-flowing rivers to generate energy. In Chitral alone, 209 'micro-hydel' systems had been established by 2012, bringing electricity to more than half of the population. Villagers themselves build and maintain the systems.

Community ownership is central to making this technology work. Village organisations, in which women are active, contribute towards installation costs and decide on connection fees, energy charges and subsidies for the poorest households. Some committees charge more for electricity-hungry appliances such as washing machines, and restrict their use in the evenings when lights and televisions are on to prevent system overload.

For women, gone is the drudgery of time-consuming household chores such as washing clothes and churning butter by hand. Eye and respiratory diseases from kerosene and pinewood torches have declined, especially among women who spend much of their time at home. Electric light enables women to spend more time turning the local wool, shu, into products that form their largest source of income. Television — for example through the Allam Iqbal Open University, in Pakistan — has opened up education for women where a strict culture of purdah (the practice of concealing women from men) confines them to their village boundary. [1]

NGOs such as Practical Action and AKRSP show that small-scale technology can benefit women in a number of ways.



[1] Ummar, F. and Khan. A.S. Electrification Benefits Women in Chitral, Pakistan (ENERGIA News, 2006)


Henrietta Miers

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.