Women: The Missing Piece of the Poverty Puzzle

UNITED NATIONS - Women are seen as the key for ending global poverty and the issue of gender equality is receiving special attention at events marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Wednesday.

One of the largest is the International Women's Tribunals on Poverty, which will highlight the feminisation of poverty.There will be four major tribunals this week presenting testimony on the worsening conditions of women worldwide, and discussing strategies to tackle the root causes at the political and economic level. They will take place at the United Nations in New York, in Cairo, Egypt, Lima, Peru, and in Delhi, India.

"We know already that the concept of Women's Tribunals has been very successful and we are expecting the biggest ever alliance of women's groups and NGOs in India to join together on Oct. 17 in Delhi to discuss responses to poverty that the government can deliver on this year, especially for women," said Ciara O'Sullivan of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a three-year-old movement that claims nearly 2,000 member organisations and millions of supporters worldwide.

"Three hundred women from 20 states are attending this unprecedented moment," she told IPS.

The fact that so many women live in poverty means they are critical -- but often ignored -- players in reversing poverty itself. While figures from the World Bank estimate that 1.1 billion people live in "extreme poverty", surviving on less than a dollar a day, women represent a disproportionate 70 percent of the world's poor.

The U.N. Population Fund notes that worldwide, women on average earn slightly more than 50 percent of what men are earning, while women and girls are often the last to eat, and women's health problems are considered less important than other family priorities.

The huge numbers of women affected means that empowering women is critical to the effort to halve extreme poverty by 2015, one of the so-called Millennium Development Goals set by world leaders meeting at the United Nations in 2000. They also include gender equality and reducing child deaths by two-thirds and maternal deaths by three-quarters, although these goals are lagging in nearly every country.

This week's events are organised by many different institutions, but one of the biggest campaigns is "Stand Up and Speak Out", supported by GCAP and the Millennium Campaign. The Stand Up and Speak Out campaign, now in its third year, consists of a global call to action against poverty and inequality, and for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

The U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and Women's Funding Network recently established a partnership to draw international attention to women during the Stand Up Campaign by launching a call for greater investment in women by governments and donor institutions.

UNIFEM notes that among the factors that place women at risk of poverty are their unequal access to resources and capabilities, such as education, skills, land and property, the discrimination they face in the labour market and their lack of political voice. In all countries, women do most of the unpaid household and care work -- yet this work is not counted as contributing to national economies.

The partnership is a unique initiative because it also focuses on the mobilisation of a vast online community to support the message that, in the fight against poverty, gender equality is an essential target.

"The Economist [magazine] estimates that over the past decade, women's work worldwide has done even more to fuel the global economy than has the stunning growth of China," said Joanne Sandler, UNIFEM's acting executive director.

"We know what is possible when women are recognised as agents of change," she said. "To realise this vision we must remove obstacles such as discriminatory ownership and inheritance laws to help women embark on asset building."

"Women are indeed the missing piece of the poverty puzzle," agreed Christine Grumm, president and CEO of the Women's Funding Network, a U.S.-based group that mobilises private donors and foundations to support a range of initiatives for women and girls, including programmes to help women start businesses, leave violent homes, gain access to health care, raise their self-esteem, and advocate for fair public policies.

While the network has raised more than 400 million dollars over the last 15 years, it notes that just seven percent of all philanthropic dollars overall are earmarked for programmes for women and girls.

"Our network's experience in the area of economic empowerment has convinced us that policy supporting women's economic empowerment -- from education to job training to child care to financial literacy to microfinance and beyond -- holds the potential for vast change, and fast change. Our cooperative outreach with UNIFEM will call on policy makers to recognise the untapped potential of women in eradicating extreme poverty," Grumm said.

More than 720 different events are to take place in over 100 countries in the 24-hour period from 9 p.m. GMT on Oct. 16 to 9 p.m. GMT on Oct. 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. These events will range from major rallies and concerts to gatherings in school assemblies, town halls, and refugee camps.

The international gatherings are intended to help the poorer, marginalised people of the world get actively involved with existing campaigns, become aware of the work that is being done and become actual agents of change.

According to GCAP, last year, 23.5 million people were part of the campaign and literally "stood up" against poverty in a 24-hour period, setting a new Guinness World Record. This year, GCAP and the United Nations Millennium Campaign hopes to break that record, although it is unclear what the lasting impact would be.

A wide variety of organisations, institutions and community groups are expected to call on political leaders to deliver more and better aid to the poorest nations, implement fairer trade conditions, cancel debt, and ensure gender equality.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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