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Gender inequality hampering poverty fight

In the past week I was in Antalya, Turkey, attending the Mid Term Review of the Istanbul Programme of Action initiated for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in 2011.

At that time, a UN conference in Istanbul agreed on a 10- year plan to halve the number of LDCs - Countries with low gross national income (GNI), weak human assets and high degree of economic vulnerability - and bring millions of people out of poverty.

Lots of rhetoric on how much progress has been made is being bandied around, but a keen observer should read a report released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and begin to understand that you cannot fight poverty without fighting gender inequality.

UNFPA reports that while the 48 LDCs (most of which are in Africa) have made considerable progress over the past few years in reducing infant, child and maternal mortality, and increasing contraceptive use, gender inequality remains an insurmountable obstacle.

But these are only averages. Until the data is disaggregated, data from even non-LCD countries will show the severity of gender related poverty.
Schooling remains a major challenge, considering the fact that only a few women complete basic education.

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As the report notes, “From adolescence onwards, millions of girls and women are still denied access to schooling or the chance to fulfil their productive potential. They are marrying at ages too young to ensure independent choice, and they are using modern contraceptives at rates far below the global average, with the resulting consequence that reproductive life starts early, is entered into without access to healthcare, and is sustained for many years at high risk to health and life.”

Without education, it would be virtually impossible to obtain decent employment or to have any chance as the reports says “to go through life’s critical transitions, that is, from childhood to family formation and old age without risk of being derailed by child marriage or unplanned child bearing, maternal morbidity, exposure to violence or displacement, the pain of discrimination, or risk of early death.”

Although Kenya does not appear on the list of LCDs, her sub national data reveals a worrying trend in which aggregated national data fails to reveal the extent of problems facing some counties.

Some studies, for example one done in 2010 by Save the Children, reveal disturbing data from specifically Kwale, Kajiado, Narok, and Migori counties and even worse from Kuria sub county.

These counties still retain harmful cultural practices, including marrying off of young girls to old men.

Kenyan media is full of heart wrenching episodes of young girls being saved from marriage to old men, and of children in maternity wards writhing in labour pains.

It is a shame that even with a progressive constitution, Kenyan women continue to be denied independence of choice, which is the essence of every aspect in life including reduction of poverty.

There are lessons for many developing countries that don’t form the list of LCDs to learn and begin addressing the problems facing sub national regions whose data could be as bad as for the LCDs.

The opportunity to address poverty without being LCDs has been presented through Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) to which the entire world assented to at the 2015 UN General Assembly.

There is no quick fix to eradicate poverty. We must, however, reiterate for the umpteenth time that poverty is a direct consequence of poor governance, illiteracy, unemployment, poor leadership, corruption and poor economic performance.

It is also the result of, believe it or not, Africa’s excessive reliance on foreign culture and products. In a nutshell, poverty is man made and sustained by man.

Kenya’s Parliament recently failed in its leadership by rejecting a Bill to ensure at least one-third reorientation of either gender in legislative positions.

This law would have resulted in better representation for women. It was a blatant display of arrogance and perhaps ignorance to change the status of women.

When the Vision 2030 development blueprint was crafted, it was envisaged that the economy would grow at over 10 per cent for at least 20 years to attain the upper middle-income status. It has not happened.

Corruption and illiteracy are still a challenge. There is too much political wrangling, which ties our leaders to sorting out political issues perhaps to ensure they have a favourable outcome in the next elections.

Issues of gender inequality can indeed be addressed through technology and the various ways of doing so should be explored. We must also take education of women to the next level to reduce poverty.

Leaders, however, must rise above selfish interests and ensure opportunity of choice for every woman.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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