The Long Road to Equality

09 Mar 2016

We are pleased to share this article by STI Expert Paloma Durán, Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Fund, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2016.

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At the beginning of the 20th Century, women could exercise their right to vote in only a few isolated regions.  In the case of Europe, it was Finland that recognized that right in 1907. Save a few exceptions, almost every country has come to recognize it today.

The reality is that without women’s participation in the public sphere, there can be no just society.  The public sphere includes not only women’s political participation, but also their economic empowerment, their participation in the labor market, their equal access to education and basic services, their presence in all decision-making processes, and a long list of etcetera’s that constitute the construction of society.

Despite the advances over the last century and the improvements in some areas, the absence of women in decision-making positions is notable in many geographical regions, in which their non-participation renders them ignorant of their situation. 

This has led the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG) to elaborate a strategy, among other actions, within the United Nations Development Program.  In accordance with the strategy, the programs in the 22 countries in which it currently works have approved specific initiatives for women, while simultaneously integrating women’s equality across the board in all of their programs. 

In Bangladesh, a program is under way to strengthen women’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities for productivity, in an area in which 24.9 % of the households headed by widows or divorced or abandoned women suffer extreme poverty. In Ethiopia, work is being done to further rural women’s economic empowerment. In this country, 75% of agricultural labor is carried out by women, but only 18.7% own the land. In the case of Palestine, the program is supporting businesses owned by women in a zone in which 17.4 % of women participate in the workforce, compared to 69.1% of men. 

Along with specific programs to empower women, equality is integrated throughout all the programs. Certainly, building equality into the structure of the programs risks diluting specific efforts in favor of equality.  Because of this, specific indicators have been approved in each program to measure equality integration.

The Fund’s work has taken into account the lessons and experiences gained from its work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which were compiled by the Fund’s Secretary with the United Nations Development Program and UN Women. This work was structured in twenty case studies, spelled out in three areas: a life free of violence against women and girls; increased capacities and resources; and greater participation of women in decision making.

The results of the work that’s been done, applying the aforementioned double strategy, are significant. For example, in the case of Bolivia’s program, 30% of the women who participated in the classes offered by the program on exercising civil rights have run as candidates to lead productive and community organizations. In Timor-Leste, the Education and Health Ministry directs 20% of its budget towards women and girls and has increased the budget for enforcing the law against domestic violence – all because of the work that’s been carried out. In Congo, women who have survived violence have received technical training, equipment and supplies to start up income-generating initiatives. 43 contracts have been signed to cede terrain, thereby assuring land tenure to more than 3,000 households, more than half of which are headed by women. 

The Fund’s experience provides positive data, but there is still much ground to cover. Unfortunately, there are many countries in which poverty is primarily suffered by women. 

Nevertheless, the UN approval of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development confirms the agenda’s universal character, assuming that inequalities are not exclusively the problem of poor societies but rather a universal problem.  

Thus, in addition to the efforts to eradicate the poverty that primarily effects women, it is imperative to take into account the need for equality in all societies. The inequality of women is a social problem, and as such demands the involvement of actors from all walks of life.



Paloma Durán is Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Fund (SDGF) since september 2014. She has participated in three STI Experts Meeting: "Gender Identities in a Globalized World" (October, 2006), "Family Structures and Globalization in Africa" (March, 2008) and "Care and Professions in a Globalized World" (November, 2009).

Visit Paloma Duran's expert profile.

This article was originally published in Spanish by several Spanish newspapers, including El País.