International Women’s Day: What about women in the developing world?

United Nations Info

International Women’s Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women’s groups around the world. This date is also commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for “liberty, equality, fraternity” marched on Versailles to demand women’s suffrage.

The Role of the United Nations

Few causes promoted by the United Nations have generated more intense and widespread support than the campaign to promote and protect the equal rights of women. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the Organization has helped create a historic legacy of internationally agreed strategies, standards, programmes and goals to advance the status of women worldwide. Over the years, United Nations action for the advancement of women has taken four clear directions: promotion of legal measures; mobilization of public opinion and international action; training and research, including the compilation of gender desegregated statistics; and direct assistance to disadvantaged groups. Today a central organizing principle of the work of the United Nations is that no enduring solution to society’s most threatening social, economic and political problems can be found without the full participation, and the full empowerment, of the world’s women.

For more information, contact:

Development Section
Department of Public Information
Room S-1040, United Nations, New York, NY 10017

Getting a lot of interesting information through DEVELOPMENT GATEWAY (see the link under BLOGROLL in the right column of this blog), I found today a message from

9. Women and work: Jobs for the girls
“MAN may labour from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done, says the old proverb. To add insult to injury, she gets less out of her labours than he does. In both rich and poor countries, poverty most often has a feminine face. It is bad enough…
Contributed by Emmanuel Asomba on 05 Mar 2007

For the full text I went to:

Women and work: Jobs for the girls”

Mar 3rd 2007
Economic growth may be the best means to liberate women

“MAN may labour from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done, says the old proverb. To add insult to injury, she gets less out of her labours than he does. In both rich and poor countries, poverty most often has a feminine face. It is bad enough in America: according to the Census Bureau 14.1% of women live in poverty, compared with 11.1% of men. In the developing world, the situation is much worse. By some estimates 70% of the world’s poor are women and the depth of their deprivation, which often involves subsisting on less than $2 a day, makes American poverty look positively benign.

The World Bank would like this to change. Late in February, together with the OECD and several European governments, it convened a conference in Berlin on increasing the economic power of women. The bank reckons that restricting women’s participation in the economy is not merely unfair, but bad economics. To put matters right it has released a “Gender Action Plan”, which calls for better data and a harder push for World Bank schemes that seek to move women into the economic mainstream.

The process of liberating women in rich countries was painfully slow (and is not yet complete, according to some). Developing countries still have many institutional barriers that hinder growth, and economic access for women. Disparity in the schooling of boys and girls is still great in many countries, for example. This not only stunts the prospects for women, but also reduces economic growth by essentially hobbling half the potential labour force.

Currently, the World Bank says that women earn an average of 22% less than men, and have much less access to credit; in Africa, for example, they receive just 1% of the credit going to the agricultural sector. Changing this could have an enormous impact on deprivation around the world. This is why Grameen Bank, among other poverty-fighting institutions, has chosen to focus its efforts on women. Almost all of its borrowers are women, and the micro-lender tries to ensure that its loans raise the economic status of women within their families by ensuring, for example, that ownership of houses built with Grameen loans stays with the women.

There is also evidence that giving women more financial power fosters economic development. Where men control most of the finances, it is more likely that households will distribute what they have unequally between male and female children, leaving the female family members with insufficient resources to meet basic needs. This, in turn, can hinder development of both mind and body. Giving women economic power can significantly alter decision-making in ways that improve general welfare. Households where women contribute a significant portion of the revenue spend more money on food and childcare and less on alcohol and tobacco.

But the World Bank may have cause and effect reversed. Does liberating women promote economic growth or does economic growth spur women’s liberation? In an economy where adding economic value involves muscle power, women are bound to be paid less, and valued less, than men even before the effects of childbirth and childcare are taken into account. And in most societies, lower economic value translates into reduced social and political status.

The experience of developed countries certainly seems to indicate that economic growth is profoundly liberating for women. As the value of brute force falls opportunities in the labour market for women grow. Modern contraceptives, and labour-saving appliances, make it easier for them to take paid work. And with that comes economic and political power. There is a strong argument that women’s liberation movement owes less to the “feminine mystique” than to the dishwashers and washing machines that reduced household drudgery. If so the bank would do better to concentrate on spurring economic growth rather than fretting about gender”.

I found this a very interesting text and could not resist adding a personal comment to a couple of paragraphs:


When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development”.

Generally speaking, this is only true for the developed world, not for the women in the developing world where that tradition represents maximally a couple of decades.

In May 2006 I was participating in the Beijing International Conference on Women and Desertification.

On the occasion of the 17 June World Day to Combat Desertification, Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General, said:

…women living in dry lands tend to rank among the poorest of the poor, with little power to bring about real change. The United Nations Convention on Desertification and Drought underlines the important role played by women in ensuring implementation of the Convention. Yet, with ownership and decision-making over land and livestock remaining predominantly in the male domain, women are often excluded from participation in land conservation and development projects, from agricultural extension work, and from the overall policy-making process”.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) published the following preparatory text for the participants:

1. Background

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) breaks new ground by enshrining a bottom-up approach in international law. It repeatedly emphasizes the importance of full participation of all stakeholders including civil society, and especially underlines the important role played by women, referring to their capital role in sustainable land management in dryland regions. It calls upon signatories to increase awareness and facilitate the active participation of women in policy processes and initiatives relating to desertification. The issue is no longer that of only incorporating women into agricultural management. Their empowerment is paramount in the design of poverty reduction strategies in areas suffering from desertification and drought.

The Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15 September 1995) recognized that the continuing environmental degradation has often a more direct impact on women. Women’s health and their livelihood are threatened by pollution and toxic wastes, large-scale deforestation, desertification, drought and depletion of the soil and of coastal and marine resources. Those most affected are rural and indigenous women, whose livelihood and daily subsistence depends directly on sustainable ecosystems. In its Platform for Action, the Conference called upon the international community, including civil society and the private sector, to take strategic action in overcoming gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and in safeguarding of the environment.

  • What has changed in rural women’s conditions, ten years after the Beijing Conference?
  • Do woman still have a special role in combating desertification?
  • Does it matter for land management whether the decision-maker is a man or a woman?

Time and again, it has been recognized that women have a special potential for fostering rural development because they work with natural resources on a daily basis. Yet, rural development projects and food-for-work schemes that targeted women exclusively, only had limited success. It became clear that when countering soil degradation and rural poverty, focusing on women alone would help little if the basic structure of inequality between men and women remained un-addressed.

Against this background, the UNCCD Secretariat plans, in collaboration with competent international agencies and donors, to organize an international Conference on the role of women in combating desertification, in the same Country that hosted the ‘95 Conference.

The conference has been conceived in the framework of the 2006 International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD), which was declared by the General Assembly, taking into consideration the exacerbation of desertification, particularly in Africa, and its far-reaching implications for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. Together with this major international event, several conferences will mark the celebration of the year, all of them to discuss the involvement of particular actors in the implementation of the UNCCD. If the Beijing conference will focus on women, it is expected that a similar conference will be devoted to the role played by the youth (Bamako, Mali, April 2006) and the civil society in general (Montpellier, France, May 2006). The outcomes of these major events will be presented to the Summit of the Heads of State and Government to be held in Algiers at the end of the year as culmination for the IYDD.

Women and desertification was also the 2005 theme to celebrate the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (GA resolution A/RES/49/115, 19 December 1994). The results of a number of initiatives undertaken by country and local communities worldwide during 2005 will also be reported during the conference.

2. Objectives

This conference will enable participants to explore ways and means to strengthen technical linkages between the key players of various affected Parties, especially at the grass-root level. In particular, it will:

• Review and assess mechanism aiming at empowering local communities, particularly women, in order to allow end-users to fully participate in land use choice and the adoption of sustainable land management techniques;
o Share experience developed by local communities and women’s associations worldwide through success stories and presentations on current bottlenecks, thereby, facilitating a learning exercise geared towards drafting recommendations for future UNCCD actions in line with the broader Beijing 1995 strategic orientations for an adequate empowerment of women in dryland ecosystems;
o Identify and put into place adequate means to disseminate appropriate technologies, and to improve the accessibility of information by women in desertification-prone regions and decide upon pilot activities at national, sub-regional and regional level that will ensure that women’s issues are fully embedded into action programmes promoted by the UNCCD;

• Review and assess mechanism aiming at empowering local communities, particularly women, Devise a mechanism whereby recommendations for priority actions to are channeled to decision-makers including the UNCCD/COP and the donor communities and continuous update on progress is made through channels to be identified.”

During this conference in Beijing, ten years after the first “women’s conference on desertification” in the same city, I had the honour of taking the floor myself (see my presentation in another posting on this blog) and of participating actively in different working groups. The most remarkable statement I ever heard during that Beijing meeting was the one of a lady African official delegate: “Nothing has changed in the last ten years, as we are now coming up with the same recommendations as ten years again!”

It left me silent for a long time! On March 8th, 2007, I was thinking at that lady’s statement. Did something change since Beijing May 2006? My answer is a positive one: Yes, now we are realizing wonderful things for the women in the refugee camps of the Sahraouis in S.W. Algeria! Presumably other people are having excellent results too. Let us know, bring the good news to the media. Because if we really want to improve the daily life of poor rural people in developing countries, we have to work WITH the women and FOR the women and their children. That’s the GOLDEN key to sustainable development. Who is denying that?

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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