One of nine children growing up from a small town in an African country, Meaza was told: "Oh, you're so smart and have so much potential, it's too bad you're not a boy." But her mother, who was illiterate, believed her children deserved better. "When I think of my mother, I think about how women are prevented from reaching their potential", she says. "If you're illiterate and send five kids to college, you must have a lot of unused potential." Today, Meaza is a lawyer and a leader in legal advocacy to promote women's rights.
Solutions to gender disparities depend on finding ways to enable women and girls, as well as men and boys, to realize their full potential. While the examples we can point to, in which innovative solutions have been scaled up to become mainstream practice, are few, they are increasing and require greater visibility and investment at all levels.
Midway to the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), finding such solutions is imperative. The 2000 Millennium Declaration recognizes that gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also central to achieving all of the MDGs. Improving gender equality, according to the World Bank, promotes universal primary education, reduces child mortality, improves maternal health and reduces vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. It also influences poverty reduction directly through women's greater labour force participation, productivity and earnings, and indirectly through the impact of women's improved household decision-making on family well-being. In contrast, the disadvantage women face in terms of rights, resources and voice is reflected in their poor performance across many of the MDGs, according to the World Development Report 2007.
On each of the indicators of gender equality, progress is steady but uneven--and, overall, painfully slow. The greatest advances can be seen in education: by 2005, about 83 of 106 countries with data had met the intermediate target of parity in primary and secondary enrolments. However, there were still 72 million primary school-aged children out of school, of which 57 per cent were girls. Women's participation in paid non-agricultural employment has also increased, albeit slowly, but the persistence of wage gaps, occupational segregation and higher unemployment rates, together with the concentration of women in the informal and subsistence economy, continues to limit their economic advancement, as stated in The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.
Finally, women's political representation, as measured by share of seats in parliament, has inched up from 12 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2007. More than 95 countries have voluntary or mandatory measures to increase women's political representation. In 2006, countries with quotas nearly doubled the number of women elected, compared to countries without. In a further reflection of political will, in March 2007, women were presiding parliamentary officers in 35 countries and had achieved full parity in cabinet positions in two States: Chile and Spain.
Improving women's access to political decision-making at the global, regional, national and local levels is an important measure of political will to eliminate gender disparities. Not only are women who assume leadership positions strong role models, helping to challenge gender stereotypes and show what is possible; it is clear that where there is a critical mass of women in decision-making bodies--whether parliaments, cabinets or boards of directors--new issues get put on the agenda. Issues of affordable child care, accessible health-care services and other measures to remove constraints to women's full participation in economic and political life are more likely to make it on the political agenda when women are involved in shaping that agenda.
Despite a more favourable policy environment, experience has shown that there is no quick fix to eliminating gender disparities. …