Gender inequalities must be tackled if MDGs to be achieved in Asia-Pacific and globally

As the world is at the halfway point towards the 2015 target date for the achievement of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we must ensure, in confronting uneven progress to date, that we address the exclusion of vulnerable communities and segments of the population that have been left behind. We must now collectively commit to ensure that all citizens of the world, including the many women and girls and others among the poor, disabled, disadvantaged ethnic groups and castes, internally displaced and migrants, HIVAIDS-affected and rural population, are able to reap the benefits of progress in implementing those eight laudable commitments – ranging from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education. After all, we must not forget that 189 Member States embraced these commitments in adopting the 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration, which constituted an unprecedented consensus on a global commitment to development and opened a new door for the advancement of gender equality.
However, there will be a historic opportunity to make up for these deficits, to make a real difference for the poor and other vulnerable groups in the world, including in Asia and the Pacific, on 25 September – and it is an opportunity that must be urgently seized. More than 100 Heads of State will be gathering for the High-Level Event on the Millennium Development Goals at UN Headquarters in New York.
These world leaders will review progress towards MDG implementation. They will identify gaps in that progress and commit to concrete efforts to bridge those gaps. But
for this to yield accelerated results and happen effectively – and by effectively, I mean if we are to succeed in closing gaps by 2015 so as to make inclusive and sustainable development a reality for all – it will be essential for them to take a hard look at the distressing conditions on the ground.
What has happened in the Asia-Pacific region is testimony to why taking that hard look is so critical – and to the potential of the High-Level Event to make a difference in the lives of so many who have been excluded from the benefits of what MDG progress there has been.
Yes, it is true that Asia has experienced unparalleled economic growth. Yes, it is true that this economic growth has helped keep the region as a whole on track to reach MDG targets of reducing extreme poverty by half and achieving universal education. While this progress is laudable, such achievement is overshadowed by the uneven progress and disparities glaringly visible between countries in the region, within countries, and, between their men/boys and women/girls.
With close to two-thirds of the world’s population in the Asia-Pacific region, the persisting gender-based gaps and related gender inequalities have widespread ramifications and clear economic and social costs, not only in the region, but globally. Two-thirds of the estimated global total of 774 million illiterate adults live in our region, which also has the world’s highest female adult illiteracy rate. An estimated 65 per cent of employed women here, or 447 million, are considered to be in vulnerable employment. Almost 45% of all maternal deaths in the world occur in the region; with South Asia having the second highest maternal mortality ratio in the world (490 per 100,000 live births (2005)). The list goes on. And to make matters worse: with our region being the world’s most disaster-prone, more women than men die as the indirect and direct result of these natural disasters – women accounted for approximately 61 per cent of deaths from Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and more than 70 per cent of fatalities from the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

These grim facts make for grim reading. But the problems have only been worsened by our region’s widespread gender disparities. The 2007 regional survey produced by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimated that persistent gender inequality costs our region $58 billion to $77 billion annually – reflecting the daunting numbers of people deprived of opportunity. And yet, there is a hopeful side to this abhorrent reality: it also indicates the potential gains that Asia and the Pacific, and the world, could make through intensifying efforts to promote gender–equitable progress in achievement of the MDGs.
So what needs to happen on 25 September at the High-Level forum? We have the resources. We have the expertise. But do we have the political will to act decisively in a multi-pronged manner to tackle uneven MDG progress so that no one – man, woman or child – remains left behind?
It is make-or-break time for getting the MDG targets “on track” for all and for ensuring that MDG implementation proceeds in a gender-equitable way. It is time for those more than one hundred world leaders gathering in New York to seriously strengthen cooperation in order to make a difference that will contribute to achieving the MDGs. Some of their options include: increasing overseas development aid; providing financial assistance to the world’s least developed countries; moving much faster on reducing domestic and export subsidies on agriculture in developed countries; and, developing disaggregated MDG-based national development plans with specific budget allocations where necessary.
If any of these actions are to make a real difference, leaders must also take action to accelerate closing the disturbing gender-related gaps in MDG achievement. As an example of collective action needed in the Asia-Pacific region, regional and sub-regional organizations, UN system entities, development banks and other partners should increase their commitment to tackling these disparities that remain pervasive in the
midst of such impressive growth. In addition, such strategies and efforts to promote “engendered” achievement of the MDGs must include support for strengthening the capacity of countries to develop gender-sensitive indicators and to compile sex-disaggregated data to accurately reflect the predicament of women and girls in reporting – which would then help trigger the adoption of much-needed targeted and resourced policies and programmes to improve their situation. As UN system entities and other partners have developed an “Asia-Pacific Regional Road Map for 2008-2015” for delivering coordinated support for national efforts to achieve the MDGs in off-track countries, it will be critical for increased resources and expertise to be mobilized to address gender gaps in the region.
Achieving only some of the MDGs, or achieving some of those MDGs for only some of the population, is not an option. This Thursday, world leaders and all other partners need to demonstrate genuine solidarity and cooperation in support of accelerating national MDG efforts with a genderized lens. This is the only way to ensure that progress is made in achieving all of the MDGs in an equitable and inclusive manner so that no one is left behind – and that all of the world’s peoples, men and boys and women and girls alike, are then able to be beneficiaries of accelerated MDG progress in the region and the world.