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Half the sky, half the power*

Isagani R. Serrano**
Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM)

In my younger years as a social activist around the 1970s I came across and got fascinated with a Chinese saying, “Women own half the sky.” What that meant to me was that men can only make half of what could possibly happen.

Four decades have gone by since then. Today we see a world still very much dominated by men. It’s a world that counts more than a billion poor and hungry—majority of them women—caught up in the cross fires of wars and civil conflicts in different places and subjected to various forms of discrimination, social exclusion, political oppression.

It’s been 15 years since the Beijing Conference and 10 years since the Millennium Declaration that gave us the minimalist Millennium Development Goals. Both promised to deliver a better future for the world’s poorest, and a future of equality and empowerment for women.

It would seem as if nothing has changed after all these years. Everywhere, the condition of women has shown little improvement. The picture gets grimmer the farther one moves from the cities. In rural and outlying regions of the world you find the state of gender equality and women empowerment in bad shape, or getting even worse.

What the world report says

Let’s listen to what the latest report on MDG progress has to say. This UN report launched in September 2009 says that Goal 3—promotion of gender equality and empower women—is still long ways to go and would not be realized by 2015.

Gender parity in education has yet to be achieved. The gender gap is more evident in secondary school enrolment. Girls have outnumbered boys in higher education, though not in poorer regions. Girls from poor and rural households face higher barriers to education.

Paid employment for women is expanding slowly but still inadequate in many regions. Women remain more vulnerable on the job front, double burdened by much larger share of unpaid work.

The global financial crisis is creating new hurdles to women employment. And although men were hit hardest by the financial shock, women may be more deeply hurt in the long run. There’s hardly any social protection to fall back on.

On a brighter note, women’s political representation is slowly growing. But Asia lags behind Latin America and the Caribbean which is leading the way among developing regions.

Progress in Goal 5—improving maternal health—is pathetic. Giving birth safely continues to be largely a privilege of the rich. Fewer than half of pregnant women in developing countries have the benefit of adequate prenatal care.

The risks are high for both mother and child when pregnancy occurs at too young an age. Access to contraception may have expanded, but unmet need remains high, especially in countries with the highest fertility.

Funding for family planning is declining, even as progress in maternal health stalls. Prospects for safe delivery improve in some places, but remain grim in others.

In Goal 6—combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases—two thirds of those living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom are women.

Progress along Goal 7—ensuring environmental sustainability—hardly gives comfort. There may have been great progress in the Montreal Protocol that controls ozone-depleting substances (ODS) but species and ecosystems continue to be threatened by global warming due to rising green house gas (GHG) emissions.

Reducing deforestation could play a key role in lowering GHG emissions, but yearly we’re still losing forests equivalent to the size of Bangladesh. Global warming degrades  land and water resources, and threatens agriculture, fisheries and our food security.

Women compose majority of the poor in rural and outlying areas who depend on natural resources for their living. But these resources now come under severe stress from the impacts of climate change.

The sanitation target is unlikely to be met as 1.2 billion people still continue with unsanitary practices, like open defecation, despite health risks to their families and communities.

The world seems well on its way to meeting the drinking water target, but some countries still face big problems. While most regions are moving forward to improve the lives of the urban poor, access to improved drinking water sources remains predominantly a rural problem.

What the Asia-Pacific report says

The MDG picture in the region looks impressive prior to the global crisis, and perhaps remains so in spite of it. China’s growth, for one, has yet to really slow down.

The Asia-Pacific is an  early achiever in the following indicators—reducing gender disparities in primary and tertiary education; stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS and TB; ensuring a proportion of protected area to preserve biodiversity; reducing ODS consumption; and, halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. It’s on track in gender parity in secondary education, ensuring universal access of children to primary school and halving the proportion of people living below the poverty line.

But we are in the region that’s home to half of humanity. A small percentage means millions of people still being left behind.

Poverty reduction is the region’s greatest achievement. Between 1990 and 2005, reduction from 1.5 billion to 979 million was simply phenomenal, especially considering  population increase of 800 million during that period.

However, even such progress will not be sufficient to achieve all the MDGs by 2015. The region has been slow in reducing hunger. It is slow in ensuring that girls and boys reach the last grade of primary education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and providing basic sanitation.

More, the rosy picture in the region hides the wide disparities between and within sub-regions and countries. Disparities are marked in income differentials between the region’s richest and poorest, and in the condition of women relative to men.

An example is South East Asia. Here’s where MDG progress overall was most marked—11 out of 21 assessed indicators already achieved and on track for another four. Yet, here you’ll find a country like the Philippines with more poor people now than when it started on the MDG track 10 years ago.

A contested success story

A month after the World Summit on Social Development of September 2005, which reviewed progress from the Copenhagen Social Summit of 1995 and the Millennium Summit of 2000, Newsweek bannered the story of Asia’s growing poor. The magazine advised us to forget the success stories, warning that 1.9 billion Asians are being left behind—and getting angry.

In the same vein, the 60th anniversary of Time magazine’s Asian edition featured Asia’s astonishing but ironic achievement: the greatest economic miracle the world has ever known but achieved at a terrible cost to the region’s environment.

Despite rapid economic growth in some countries, much of Asia still remains far below the global average for prosperity. National GDP rates have risen much more quickly in Asia than national poverty rates have fallen. India, one of the leading economies, has the world’s largest population in abject poverty.

Disparities between and within countries of the region are growing and threatening social breakdown.

Asia is living dangerously, says Time magazine. Dams used for irrigation and power projects, like the Mekong River and its tributaries, have caused degradation of ecosystems and threats to people’s livelihoods. These dams have reduced the river’s flow, allowing ocean saltwater to reach far into the Mekong Delta, killing freshwater fish and harming rice harvests.

Or take yet another case. Every winter, when dry weather allows airborne pollution to build in the atmosphere, vast areas of Asia are blanketed by the so-called Asian Brown Cloud first observed in 1999. This thick haze of dust, soot, sulfates, nitrates and other gases and chemicals can cover an area larger than the US and can reach a thickness of 3 kilometers.

The phenomenon is caused by forest fires, factory and vehicle emissions, and other man-made sources of smog. It blocks up to 15 percent of sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface. It causes respiratory illness and may disrupt weather patterns, producing droughts in some areas and floods in others. India, Pakistan, the Indian Ocean, parts of Southeast Asia and China are most affected, but the cloud travels far beyond the region, even as far as North America.

China’s carbon footprint and historical contribution to climate change is far less than that of the US, but its GHG emissions are rising fast and can harm present and future generations. The same goes for India and other fast-growing countries of Asia.

Asia’s forests are vanishing fast, even as questionable biomass growth are reflected prominently in land use change and forest (LUCF) accounting each country’s GHG inventory. Coral reefs are dying and once fertile fishing grounds are collapsing everywhere.

In all these, the greatest impact is ever on the poorest, with even greater harm befalling the women among them.

This situation cannot continue. Some other ways must be found to promote the wellbeing of the poor, the women and children, and every inhabitant of this region.

It should be made clear that Asia’s economic miracle discounts social and environmental costs. And the costs of clean up are simply staggering. Albert K. Fung of California estimated in October 2006 that US$136 billion, or 7 percent of China’s 2004 GDP was needed to clean up the country’s polluted air, water, and soil.

Considering the examples of China and other Asian economic miracles, chances are that Asian poverty might be eradicated within the 21st century. That is, if poverty is not reproduced in some other ways.

And there’s the rub in Asian development. The forces responsible for the economic miracle that lifted more than 270 million Asians out of poverty in the past 15 years are the same ones creating all the inequalities between and within countries. It is also the same forces damaging Asia’s environment and compromising the region’s further development and long-term security.

Economic growth means more production, more money to buy and enjoy the amenities of modernity. But it also means more deforestation, further depletion of fisheries, more chemicals into the soil, rivers and water bodies, more air pollution, more social and environmental disasters.

Someday soon Asia may run out of room to grow. Limits to its growth potential will show in many ways.  Already, its resources are sinking and its sinks are not working.

It’s a mixed picture, to say the least, whether you go to the big cities or to the countryside. The vision of Asia free of poverty may turn out to be an illusion as poverty and inequality get reduced at one end and reproduced at the other. Natural resources are being depleted beyond repair and our surroundings are choking in garbage and foul air.

We need to rethink and change the current model. It’s about time we dropped the ‘grow now, pay later’ model and started to shift to a more sustainable path to development.

A future created by development as usual, one that gives little or no consideration at all to social and environmental costs, is neither secure nor desirable.

Green jobs out of the crisis

If every problem translates to work there are just so many problems around for anyone to be out of work. The crisis we face can be an opportunity to create green jobs, especially in rural and outlying regions.

The example of South Korea and China are well worth the try.

South Korea has designed a stimulus package, worth about 3 per cent of GDP, dedicated to ‘greening’ the economy. This surely is a welcome deviation from economic stimulation as usual. Some 80 per cent of the package will focus on measures intended to generate one million green jobs in the next four years.

The Korean package includes investments of $5.8 billion in energy conservation in villages and schools which expects to generate 170, 000 jobs; $1.7 billion in forest restoration creating about 130,000 jobs; $690 million for water resource management and over 160,000 jobs; and, $10 billion investment for river restoration producing about 200,000 more jobs.

China has committed $140 billion of its $586 billion stimulus package to the promotion of renewable energy, which already employs 1 million people.

The current global crisis gives us a break. Perhaps, the longer it lasts the better for all of us.  Less growth implies less emissions and less stress on the environment. Cleaner production and universal reduction in per capita consumption means less carbon footprint and. Maybe it could also mean healthier living.

Women should find a place in all these.  Caring for nature comes naturally for them, just as aggression and nature abuse get easily associated with men.

Basics for women empowerment

Social Watch has developed the Basic Capabilities Index (BCI) as a way to identify poverty situations not based on income. The BCI is consistent with the definitions of poverty based on capabilities and (denial of) human rights. At the same time it is comparatively easy to build the index at sub-national and municipal level, without requiring expensive household surveys as income-based indexes do.

The BCI is based on three indicators: percentage of children who reach fifth grade; mortality among children under five; and, percentage of deliveries attended by skilled health personnel. By themselves these indicators express different dimensions addressed by internationally agreed development goals—education, children’s health and reproductive health.

As a summary index, the BCI provides a consistent general overview of the health status and basic educational performance of a population. It has also been proven to be highly correlated with measures of other human capabilities related to social development of countries. The index enables you to make judgment on the poverty situation, but correlation to environment is not that clear-cut.

The index assigns a score to each country thereby allowing for country comparison as well as tracking overtime. The highest possible BCI score means all women are assisted during childbirth, no child leaves school before successfully completing the fifth grade, and infant mortality is reduced to its lowest possible of less than 5 deaths for every thousand children born.

These indicators are closely associated with capabilities all members of a society should have. Their mutual interaction makes it possible to achieve higher levels of individual and collective development. They particularly emphasize capabilities that contribute to the welfare of the youngest members of society and thereby foster the future development of nations.

In 2007 the BCI was calculated for a total of 161 countries, grouped into five categories for purposes of analysis. The most severe situations are found in countries with critical BCI scores. In the very low BCI category are countries that also face significant obstacles to achieving the well-being of the population. Countries with low BCI scores are at an intermediate level in the satisfaction of basic capabilities and their performance varies in some development dimensions.

The countries that have succeeded in ensuring these basic capabilities for most or all of their populations are in the two categories with the highest BCI values (medium and acceptable BCI).

And yet, belonging to these groups does not imply a high level of development. Rather, it simply means that these countries meet minimum essential requirements in order to progress towards higher levels of happiness and well-being.

If only governments would make good on these bare essentials! Then, probably, we will now be more preoccupied less with everyday survival but more with charting a better, or if you like, a poverty-free and climate-resilient future.

I’m sure such future will be much more sustainable, much more equal, and much more empowering for women.


* Speech at the 5th Conference of the UN-NGO-IRENE/Asia-Pacific on “Women Empowerment in Development of Outlying Regions”, 2 April 2010, Xining City, Qinghai Province, China.

** Participant in the 12-day China visit organized by the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) on the theme “Sustainable Development and Harmonious Social Progress in Outlying Regions” from 28 March to 8 April 2010.


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