Investing in women and girls – the breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs

Today’s post is contributed by Jon Lomoy, Director of the OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate, as part of our coverage of the Millennium Development Goals Summit taking place in New York. Click on the logo to go to the Summit website.

With only a few years left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by their 2015 target date, world leaders are looking for strategies to accelerate progress. So is there a miracle solution? How about investing in women and girls? UNDP Administrator Helen Clark has called this the “breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs”.

It seems fair to argue that without a great leap forward towards empowering women and girls, none of the MDGs will be achieved. On the other hand, focusing on four key areas could have tremendous catalytic and multiplier effects.

1. Keep girls in school

Studies have shown that women with even a few years of primary education have better economic prospects, fewer and healthier children, and more likelihood of ensuring that their own children go to school. Development would be tremendously accelerated, then, if girls were able to complete a quality secondary education. Adolescence is a critical turning point for girls. With a secondary education, they are better equipped to make informed choices about their lives. But all too often, girls are married young or are taken out of school to care for their brothers and sisters or to work to help support themselves and their families.

Removing school fees and providing financial incentives can help girls to attend school, as can building schools closer to remote communities, ensuring that schools have quality teachers and adequate sanitary facilities, and making them safe places for girls.

2. Urgently improve reproductive health, including access to family planning services

MDG 5 – improving maternal health – is the MDG that is most off-track, with a devastating effect on women’s lives and those of their children. Laws and practices limit women’s control over their sexual and reproductive options, severely compromising their autonomy and equality – as well as their own and their children’s health.  Meeting a woman’s need for sexual and reproductive health services, on the other hand, increases her chances of finishing her education, and thereby breaking out of poverty.

It is time to put voluntary family planning back on the development agenda. Donor funding for family planning has been declining since the mid-1990s and over the same period, progress on maternal health has stalled.

3. Ensure that productive and financial assets are in the hands of women (not just microcredit!)

Women’s economic participation, and their ownership and control over productive assets, speed up development, helping to overcome poverty, reduce inequalities, and improve children’s nutrition, health, and school attendance.

Land – a fundamental productive asset – is also important as collateral for securing finance and credit. Yet although women’s role in food production is critical in many developing countries, they continue to have less access to land, fertilisers, seeds, credit and extension services than men. More equitable access to these resources would make agriculture more efficient in promoting shared economic growth, reducing poverty and improving food security.

The success of microcredit schemes has received much international acclaim, and rightly so. Nonetheless, women need access to the full range of credit, banking and financial services to develop their land and their businesses. In many countries, serious legal, cultural and social barriers limit this access.

4. Identify and support women leaders at all levels

Too often, women are viewed as vulnerable victims rather than as agents of change in their families, communities and countries. Why is this, when women such as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other women political leaders in Liberia are setting an example by rebuilding their country? When inspirational women leaders are changing their communities at the grassroots level every day? Thelma Awori, who has researched African rural women leaders, has found that while women leaders are everywhere – bringing change to their communities and to their families, passing on to others the capacity to aspire – they are invisible.

As a number of developed countries have found over time, increasing the voice and participation of women in politics is essential for advancing issues of importance to women, with benefits for both women and men. Nonetheless, women comprise only 18.9 per cent of the world’s legislators – far from the thirty per cent target of the 1995 UN’s Women’s Conference in Beijing.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­What needs to change?

It is time to act, not just talk – to back up political promises with the investments and resources needed to do the job. The MDGs are a global compact – a collective set of political commitments – and gender equality and women’s empowerment are prerequisites for achieving them all.

  • It is time to increase targeted investments in women and girls, focusing on areas that have proven to have a catalytic impact on poverty, development and inequalities.
  • It is time to confront and overcome cultural and social norms that hold back women and girls: discrimination and prejudice on the basis of sex; social exclusion because of ethnicity, race or caste.  
  • It is time for gender-responsive public financial management systems to measure and monitor progress – whether women and girls have access to the health services, education, business advice and agricultural extension they need; whether they have clean water and decent work and pay; whether they are getting the benefits to which they are entitled – and identify gaps so that investments can be directed to the right people, in the right places, at the right time.
  • It is time to gather evidence about what works. Recording and measuring multiplier effects is an operational challenge for the future and will be under the microscope as donors and developing  countries prepare for the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Korea, 2011.
  • It is time to improve countries’ capacity to collect sex-disaggregated data.  At the same time, it is important to act on the data already available – we have failed to act on what we know.
  • It is time to accurately track the proportion and coverage of aid focussed on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, including investments by multilateral agencies. In 2010, donor countries will decide on their financial contributions to the sixteenth replenishment of the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) for 2011-2014. Mainstreaming gender equality is one of the themes for IDA16. This could help to multiply resources available for women’s empowerment and the achievement of all the MDGs in the poorest countries.

Useful links

OECD work on development issues

OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

OECD Development Centre

The Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC/OECD)

OECD Global Relations

Guest author

4 comments to “Investing in women and girls – the breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs”

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  1. J Myles - 21/09/2010 Reply

    Great comment, and it’s great to see the OECD’s top leadership focus on this, but tell me: will you practice what you preach? What will the OECD do differently, or in addition to its current work, in order to increase investments in and for women and girls?

    • Patti O'Neill - 23/09/2010 Reply

      Many promises on women’s rights were made in New York over the last few days at the MDG Summit.

      The OECD is uniquely placed to monitor these political commitments to make sure that our member countries live up to their commitments. We’ll do that by reviewing their development programmes and analysing and publishing what they invest in aid focussed on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

      More details of OECD work on gender issues are available from See the Development Assistance Committee’s guidelines on aid effectiveness, gender equality and women’s empowerment

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