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As New York hosts the 2010 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) summit this week, Steve Sharra considers the problems behind advancing gender equality and the absence of peace education from the goals.

Is it a mere coincidence that the 2010 summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) being held this week in New York overlaps with the UN International Day of Peace? Whether it is or is not, that fact alone offers an opportunity to reflect on how the MDGs relate to the promotion of global peace. The idea of ‘peace’ is absent from the MDGs. This has prompted a group of activists to declare ‘Interfaith dialogue for peace’ a missing Millennium Development Goal. However, it may not be the only missing goal, as another activist group, the Charcoal Project, has taken up ‘energy poverty alleviation’ also as a missing MDG. I am sure each one of us can come up with at least one suggestion that could be said to be another missing goal from the MDGs.

There has been a lot of discussion leading up to the UN MDGs summit, but one that caught my attention last week was the BBC programme World Have Your Say. On Thursday 16 September the programme’s discussion centred around the observation that of all the eight Millennium Development Goals, those relating to women were the furthest behind. Evidence for this for me came from a separate news item that celebrated Ghana’s progress, touting it as on target to become the first African country to achieve MDG number one, halving poverty. But the same news report also observed that Ghana would be unable to achieve the MDGs relating to children’s and women’s health, goals number 4 and 5 respectively.

Is it surprising that of the eight Millennium Development Goals, those pertaining to women are the hardest to achieve? Take MDG number 3, promoting gender equality and empowering women. The target for that goal is to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary school enrolment for boys and girls by 2005, and in all levels of tertiary education by 2015. The 2010 Millennium Development Goals report indicates that the global numbers show near parity for this goal, but when regions are looked at separately, the reality is quite different. A few days ago the news coming out of the United States was that more women were now obtaining PhD degrees than men. This was the last remaining area in the American education system where women were not in the majority. On any given day, there are more women on American university campuses than men, with some universities reporting a 45:55 men to women ratio. It is these figures that balance out the global numbers in other parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, where in fact there are 67 women for every 100 men in tertiary education. In southern Asia the ratio is 76 women for every 100 men.

Going by these realities alone, why wouldn’t one conclude that the United States of America and other societies in the global North have achieved gender equity? It is only when one looks more closely at other indicators of power that the above conclusion starts to melt away. As advanced as the United States appears to both Americans and others, it has never had a female president in its entire 234-year history. The US Senate has 18 women and 82 men, according to the website In the US Congress, males make up 83 per cent (441 males) while females make up 17 per cent (92), according to 2009 Wikipedia figures. On average, an American woman earns 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. The speaker of house is a woman, for the first time in the history of the United States. More evidence of gender disparities in the United States comes from gender-based domestic violence. Some estimates put the number of American women who have experienced sexual violence or attempted sexual violence at one in six, according to figures from the activist group Safe World for Women. Every two minutes a woman is sexually assaulted in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

Clearly American women have not only achieved gender parity in higher education, they have surpassed it. When it comes to politics and other areas of gender concern however, the US is not unlike other countries. The world leader for women’s political representation is an African country, Rwanda. There, women make up 55 per cent of their parliament, a feat no other country in the world has achieved.

Throwing around numbers such as these always raises the inevitable question of whether women in positions of political leadership promote peace better than men. This would be an easy question to answer, were it not for the misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘gender’ differences and the nature of political power implicit in that question. For women’s leadership to promote peace, there is need for change in the very process that defines ‘gender’ and entrusts political power. The misunderstanding will endure for as long as gender continues to be defined in confrontational terms as a competition between men and women, masculine versus feminine. Progress will continue to be elusive for as long as gender is seen as an argument for women to prove that they are equal to men in physical strength and endurance, academic achievement and political representation, property ownership and leadership management style.

For the empowerment of women to make a real difference in the promotion of peace, the discussion needs to shift from one of competing forces to one of cooperation and collaboration. Feminist scholars argue that both men and women possess characteristics that are considered, for lack of more refined language, masculine as well as feminine. The difference lies in the way we are socialised. We grow up being taught to behave in a particular way due to what society perceives gender differences to mean and to require. Social norms compel us to reinforce these perceptions and expectations, and then to undermine them when we use those very perceptions and expectations to blame one gender for being collaborative rather than competitive, accommodating rather than uncompromising, submissive rather than aggressive, gentle rather than violent.

One Malawian gender columnist recently captured this contradiction perfectly. In a recent article, Penelope Paliani-Kamanga wrote about being in a vehicle with male colleagues. The car in front was moving rather slowly and cautiously, and the men concluded that the driver must be a woman. In due course the vehicle Penelope and her male colleagues were in overtook the vehicle in front, and she noticed that the driver was actually a man. She went on to observe in the article that advertisers make it a selling point when a vehicle has been driven by a female, making sure to include that in a classified ad. Yet on the road, many men make disparaging remarks toward female drivers, seeing them as incompetent and inexperienced.

The contradictions and misunderstandings of what gender means are not the preserve of one section of society only; as many men and women alike hold distorted views about the inferiority of women and their unsuitability for leadership positions; as many men and women alike believe that women have no one to blame but themselves in the numerous instances that show women not measuring up to men. One example of this came up in a recent radio panel discussion commemorating International Literacy Day, whose theme was ‘literacy and women’s empowerment’. One man called into a live programme on Transworld Radio and said the reason why there were more illiterate women than men in Malawi was that women did not understand the importance of literacy, and therefore chose to drop out of school before acquiring literacy. No doubt there were women who agreed with that sentiment. Equally problematic is the stereotypical view of women as victims who need men to empower them.

It is very common to hear men and women argue that there is no reason for gender equality programmes; women only need to apply themselves the way men do. Do people who think in this way understand why two of the eight MDGs are gender equality and maternal health? Do they understand why several African governments have created entire ministries to tackle issues of gender and women’s development? Why many universities around the world have departments and programmes studying gender and women’s development? One of the startling statistics here in Malawi is that women make up 70 per cent of all small-scale subsistence farmers, yet only 4 per cent of Malawian women own land. An easy solution to this problem would be to simply call on women, in the ubiquitous manner of news headlines, to own more land. Problem solved. But were it that simple.

As world leaders gather in New York this week to review progress on the MDGs with five years to go to 2015, the list of what goals are missing will probably grow. I will take this opportunity to add one more to the list: uMunthu-peace. Target: reform school curricula around the world into peace curricula, making all education peace education. It is in peace education and peace studies that a more meaningful perspective on gender equality has been developed. Such a perspective might enable each of the eight goals to be viewed ultimately as aiming to promote uMunthu, peace and social justice at the local and global level, making them much more relevant to the majority of people around the world.


* Steve Sharra blogs at Afrika Aphukira, the Zeleza Post and the Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy. He writes in his own capacity.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.