Monday, September 14, 2009

View from the top

Women and their role in socio-economic development is a hot topic on the African continent. With the 2015 deadline for the actualisation of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming, there is much talk about the slow rate of progress.

The UN MDG framework, created in response to the world's main development challenges, called private and public sector and civil societies together in partnership to eradicate poverty, ensure the safety of children, create gender equity and the like. Most would agree that in principle, the approach makes sense. Trying to wade through the slew of reports, campaigns and projects to grasp just how far we have come is an arduous task.

The MDG 3, which focuses on women and calls for the 'promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women', is the pertinent focus for Women's Month in South Africa this year. Like the MDGs, shaping fresh approaches to the 24/7/365 challenge of creating equal spaces for women is a lofty goal. After all, the quest for equality has been a perennial quest spoken of for my lifetime and for those who came before me.

Access to education
Scrolling through the data, major advances in specific areas such as increased access to education for girls in Africa are revealed. Clearly, there is still much work to be done and the 2015 timeline is a daunting challenge.

As with most development initiatives there is a focus on rural communities. Given that rural communities make up the majority of the population in most countries across Africa, the emphasis on rural development is clearly necessary, but it also results in a skewed picture of development.

Muted voices
Glaringly muted are the voices of women themselves, especially those who have made it out of the grips of the poverty trap and are languishing in positions of influence, access to resources and choice. Where are their empowered voices?

The empowered woman's voice is strikingly absent in the MDG discourse and project activity. As we read about targets to 'enhance women's participation at all levels of government and other decision making positions', the question remains what happens when they get there?
Is there an assumption that women in urban areas are already so advanced in terms of access to resources and education that they are automatically empowered and by implication do not need further 'developmental' support?

Development issues
The glossy sheen of the luxe vehicles and high life covers up the real story and development issues among women in urban spaces. The stories I hear in my daily interactions with urban women in powerful corporate positions, influential political spaces, accomplished homemakers, entrepreneurs and the like, often tell a tale of disenchanted solitude. It is lonely at the top!

So, in addressing the gender equity development imperative, we need to ensure the views from the hot-seat are shared, distilled and the lessons heeded. Let's make our voices heard in the development debate. For as we strive to upskill, upgrade and upscale our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that our 'empowered' spaces are adequately receptive to growth, nurturing and sustainable transformation for women across the urban and rural divide.

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