Women's issues are moving towards center stage in the global campaign to end poverty around the world. This week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President Barrack Obama spoke of the need to provide greater assistance to women in the poorest areas of the world, while last week the United Nations created a new super agency to tackle women's social and economic plight.
At the United Nations this week Gordon Brown announced a health care plan that will give 10 million people in poor countries access to free health care. The program, which will focus on women and children, comes as aid groups warn that in the developing world 500,000 women die needlessly during childbirth or pregnancy every year.
Also this week, a $24 million initiative was launched as part of the Clinton Global Initiative to give more economic power to women in the developing world.
The initiatives come only a week after the United Nations has consolidated four agencies that tackle women's issues, creating a new super agency, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM.
Up until now, the United Nations had agencies that focus on specific issues and groups, including children, the environment, refugees, health and education. But the groups targeted at women were dispersed and, many activists complained, lacked clout.
Widney Brown, senior director for policy at London-based Amnesty International, says the new powers given to UNIFEM are momentous.
"We have a central place in the U.N. where we can hopefully have the sort of political power and financial clout to actually have a real impact on women's lives in all the countries where the U.N. works," she said.
She says women's groups have a lot of work to do. So far, she says, objectives set out in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals are not on target because no one is focusing on the broad issues. "They are taking specific issues that are symptomatic rather than looking at underlying issues of rights and empowerment, which is a longer term goal but is the one that is ultimately going to address successfully the symptoms," she said.
For example, she says, one of the U.N. goals is to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent before 2015, an aim which is still a long way off. She says the U.N. has focused on providing women with access to emergency obstetric care. But the important thing is to look at why emergency care is needed in the first place.
"What we need to be doing is, yes, ensure that there is good emergency obstetric care for women that is available but we also need to make sure that women get to control their lives and their health and their reproductive lives in particular, and that is not being addressed well," she said.
The focus, she says, needs to be on the high number of child marriages, on the fact that once women marry education often stops, and that women often do not have control over the number and spacing of their children.
She adds that land rights and inheritance laws also need to change, so that, for example, when women become widows they are not forced off their land. "What we need is an empowerment driven, poverty reduction program that would focus on women and would ensure that women have access to education, they have access to jobs and economic independence and they can make decisions about their own lives," she said.
One women's aid agency that is focusing on female economic empowerment is Women for Women International. It is this group that launched a multi-million-dollar project at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting earlier this week. The money will be used to put over 100,000 women through an educational program.
Brita Fernandez Schmidt, director of operations at Women for Women, says the fight for gender equality will characterize the next century.
"[In] The 19th century the moral challenge was slavery and in the twentieth century it was the battle against totalitarianism and this century, really, the paramount moral challenge is the struggle for gender equality," she said.
She says women must have access to basic numeracy and literacy education and be given vocational qualifications.
The United Nations is not on track to meet its Millennium Development Goal to halve poverty by 2015 and she says this is because enough money is not being invested in women. "We have a lot of aid money flowing into the countries where we work. In terms of U.S. foreign aid only one percent is reaching women and girls. If we actually want to achieve our global goals of halving poverty, of achieving peace, we have to invest in women," she said.
According to the United States aid agency USAID at least one woman dies every minute due to complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.
In developing countries, only half of girls are enrolled in secondary school.