UNITED NATIONS - Although women's representation in national parliaments has been steadily increasing since 1990, women still occupy only 16 percent of parliament seats worldwide.
This means they are also severely under-represented when governments decide how and where to spend billions of dollars each year.
In response to this vast gender gap, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and United Nations Volunteers program (UNV) have launched a new two-year initiative in Latin America that uses "gender-responsive" budgets to strengthen women's role in governance and resource allocation in the region.
Affirmative action policies in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have already raised women's representation in parliaments to nearly 20 percent.
Worldwide, the country closest to 50-50 gender parity in parliament is Rwanda, with women comprising 49 percent of the country's National Assembly as a result of the elections held in 2003.
Aileen Allen, a program specialist in UNIFEM's Latin America and the Caribbean section, told IPS, "We are hoping to have women trained in using gender budget analysis as a tool for their advocacy, and that the planning in the municipalities takes the priorities into consideration that these women have identified through the participatory mechanisms."
A gender-responsive analysis examines whether men and women are equally represented in the existing revenue and expenditure patterns of government budgets. This process does not involve creating separate budgets for women or increasing spending on women's programs, but merely promotes gender equality and all that entails.
It helps governments understand how they may need to adjust their priorities and reallocate resources to live up to their commitments to achieving gender equality and advancing women's rights.
This analysis also recognizes ways in which women contribute to their societies and economies through their unpaid labor in the productive economy as well as in their roles as caregivers for families and communities.
UNIFEM has been working on gender budgets globally for a long time. It started projects related to the issue in Latin America at the national and local level in 2000.
"In a lot of municipalities in the region there are participatory mechanisms that have been established and women actively participate, but they were often unable to ultimately influence the policy decisions or sometimes they are unable to participate in a way they would really like to," Allen said.
"What we are trying to do is really strengthen women's capacity to participate and we are using gender budgets as a sort of entryway."
The latest project involves five Latin American countries that already have a history of trying to increase women's participation in decision-making processes.
It will be working with the Municipality of Rosario in Argentina, the Instituto de Formacion Femenina Integral in Cochabamba in Bolivia, the Instituto de Administracion Municipal in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Municipality of Cuenca, Ecuador, and the Federation Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador in Peru.
U.N. volunteers placed with each institution will sensitize communities, civil society groups and local government on the project. Meetings and seminars will be organized to discuss gender budgeting, and trainings will be given to stakeholders, such as women's collectives, civil servants and gender advocates, on applying gender budget analyses.
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, and Ad de Raad, executive coordinator of UNV, signed the project at UNIFEM's headquarters in New York City.
"UNIFEM has supported the development of gender budgets in 34 countries," Heyzer said. "We have shown that analyzing budgets from a gender perspective can enhance transparency and accountability in how public resources are raised and spent."
"Budgets are used to shape policies, set priorities and provide the means to meet social and economic needs of all citizens. This is why we launched a campaign in 2001 to get every country to commit to adopt a gender responsive budget initiative by 2015."
De Raad added, "Volunteering represents an enormous reservoir of skills, energy and local knowledge which, when properly supported can be a strategic resource for women to make their voices heard and their actions left. This is one key element in achieving the MDGs and UNV is fully committed to work with UNIFEM towards the goal."
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; environmental sustainability; the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and the poor.
Experts note that achieving the goals means equality at all levels of education and in all areas of work, equal control over resources and equal representation in public and political life.
UNIFEM's Africa division has also expressed interest in developing a similar program for the region.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service