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Changing the gender agenda in India

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A group of Indian Hindu women gather to perform a morning puja, or prayer ritual, in the River Ganges in Varanasi on 18 September 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

2015 has been declared the year for global action on development. The post-2015 agenda aims to fill the gaps in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is far more ambitious than ever  before. The year  could prove crucial for integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment into the global development and climate agenda. But will these global processes reach their intended goals? And what do they entail for gender justice in developing countries like India?


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The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledge gender equality as not only an integral development goal in itself, but also one that intersects all other goals. As a result, achieving the gender equality goal is bound to be costly. But at the UN’s third Financing For Development (FFD 3) conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July, countries failed to reach specific pledges or commitments for financing gender-inclusive development.

This lack of specific commitment leaves much to be desired from the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA). The OECD GenderNet estimated that in 2012–13, only 5 per cent of total international aid was devoted toward gender equality projects. The AAAA strongly acknowledged the importance of gender equality. But the outcome was criticised for failing to address the structural imbalance of power in international financial architecture, which leads to the side-lining of women’s rights.

The outcome failed to adopt an integrated human rights-based approach. Gender equality and women’s empowerment were conveyed as ‘smart economics’. While the under-utilised economic potential of women and girls is a major impediment to growth, their entitlement to basic human rights must not be phrased in profit–loss terms. By solely focusing on their potential to boost economic productivity, the FFD 3 outcome tended toward the ‘instrumentalisation’ of women. The outcome should have also acknowledged the macroeconomic implications of the disproportionate distribution of unpaid, domestic and care work. This may have helped further the post-2015 agenda in India.

India will likely struggle to achieve the SDGs for financial reasons. At present, a shocking 2–3 per cent of Indians pay taxes. Mobilising domestic finance — including optimal tax collection reform — can help supplement the traditional sources of aid.

But the lack of adequate resources may not be the only obstacle to achieving the goals. In 2013, the ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ was set up to enhance women’s safety after the infamous Delhi bus sexual assault and murder case in December 2012. But despite a massive corpus of Rs 10 billion (US$150 million), the fund remains largely dormant. Approximately Rs 8 billion (US$120 million) of the funds remain unused due to a lack of prioritising, planning, or both. If India commits to achieving the SDGs, it must diversify its domestic financing strategies while also reassessing mechanisms to effectively distribute the existing funds.

India should develop an integrated gender-responsive approach to mobilise resources in a targeted manner. This could prevent inter-sectoral competition for its limited resources. In the 2015/16 National Budget, the monetary allocation to the Ministry of Women and Child Development was cut by 51 per cent. This shocking figure translates into cuts and reductions to existing schemes that could lead to a massive setback for gender justice in India.

Ratifying the SDG agenda — with gender equality at its heart — could propel the country back into action.The country has opposed external oversight mechanisms.  But for its own benefit, India must devise a ‘people-centric’ approach toward monitoring state-specific and national progress on the road to the internationally ratified commitments.

In December 2015, countries will aim to reach a universal agreement to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. Gender plays a relevant role in climate change negotiations as well. Data shows that climate change exacerbates existing inequalities. Those in poverty are the most vulnerable to its impacts. Because women and girls make up for a disproportionate 70 per cent of the world’s poor, they are differentially impacted by climate change.

In rural India, women are predominantly responsible for providing food, water and for arranging fuel. The effects of climate change on soil fertility, water availability and food security have very direct impacts on women. s, women and girls face a higher risk of death. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami claimed the lives of 4 times as many Indian women as men in the affected regions.

To achieve honest climate justice, the Paris conference must include women’s voices and priorities in the global discourse. As they are the most directly affected section of the population, women at the grassroots level can also be important agents in climate solutions. Yet global discourse has historically reaffirmed existing gender hierarchies. Women have traditionally lacked adequate voice and representation in global processes. And innovative local grassroots adaptation strategies have been disconnected from the international agenda.

2015 could change this trend. If the global processes resolve previous shortcomings, and take decisive action for gender equality, it could be the year that transforms the gender narrative in development.

Vidisha Mishra is a researcher at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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