Page last updated at 22:46 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 23:46 UK

Women are key to fighting poverty

By Emma Thompson
ActionAid ambassador

This week Gordon Brown will be in New York to galvanise world leaders into combating what he describes as a growing "development emergency".

Emma Thompson
Unless the specific barriers that prevent women and girls from escaping poverty are tackled, the world won't be able to make progress towards the millennium goals
Emma Thompson

This emergency is not a tsunami or a hurricane but poverty.

In 2000, members of the United Nations - all the world's governments - undertook to halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

They set targets for improvements in health, education, sanitation and other basic rights.

Eight years on, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - as they are known - look unlikely to be achieved on time.

On current trends, the goal of halving hunger won't be met until 2035 - 20 years later than promised.

On many of the key goals, from maternal mortality to sanitation, whole regions are lagging behind.

Slow progress

Despite fast-growing economies, many African countries are having little success in reducing poverty.

Why has progress been so slow? Part of the answer is that too little money is being put into achieving them.

Many of the G8 countries are dragging their feet on the big aid increases they promised at the 2005 Gleneagles summit.

The UK is one of the better performers and Gordon Brown should be commended for his attempts to hold other G8 leaders to their promises.

Without his efforts, the New York meeting would not even be happening.

UN General Assembly
World leaders are meeting at the UN in New York

But money alone is not enough. It has to be targeted where it will be effective in ending poverty and it is easy to see where the effort to reach the Millennium Development Goals has failed most starkly - all you need to do is look at the situation of women and girls.

Education? Ten million more girls than boys are missing in primary schools; two-thirds of the world's illiterate young people are women.

Health? In Africa, women now account for 75% of all young people living with HIV and Aids. I have met some of those young women on my visits to South Africa, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Uganda with ActionAid.

Widespread neglect

Life itself is more precarious if you are born female. In Pakistan and India, girls have a 30-50% higher chance of dying between the ages of one and five than boys.

Neglect of girls is widespread as many families place a lower value on their daughters compared with their sons, regarding them as little more than economic and social burdens.

This is not an accident - it is the result of shameless discrimination and ActionAid believes that unless the specific barriers that prevent women and girls from escaping poverty are tackled, the world won't be able to make progress towards the millennium goals.

This applies even to the general goal of halving hunger. Since women produce up to 80% of food in poor countries, and 80% of smallholder farmers are women, women must be in the frontline of the assault on hunger.

Women queueing to vote in Rwanda
The majority of members of the Rwandan parliament are women

A major injustice is women's lack of secure access to land. In Kenya women provide 70% of agricultural labour but only 1% own the land they farm.

This makes it difficult for them to borrow the small amounts of money they need to buy seeds and fertilisers. Research shows that where women have secure tenure of land, productivity increases.

Setting examples

I would like to urge Gordon Brown to take the lead in promoting the rights of women and girls. He could follow the example of some of the world's poorest countries.

Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has made dramatic strides in increasing girls' access to education and improving women's health, thanks to high-level political commitment.

Rwanda has just elected the world's first parliament with a female majority: 44 of its 80 members are women, so rich governments can't argue that male chauvinism is too entrenched in Africa and Asia to be worth fighting.

The millennium goals are still achievable and it is absolutely essential that the world keeps its promises.

That's why I will be eagerly watching the outcome of the meeting in New York, to see whether the rich countries can match the political determination shown by Rwanda and Bangladesh and take action to get the world back on track to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals.

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