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Mahbub ul Haq on Women’s rights 21 Aug 95

The Earth Times

21 August 1995

‘Economic premises of our society will have to undergo fundamental changes’

By Ashali Varma

Mahbuh ul Haq of Pakistan is the creator and prime author of UNDP’s annual Human

Development Reports. A sought-after lecturer and writer, his distinguished background also includes stints as Pakistan’s finance minister, and as a senior advisor to Robert S.

McNamara when the latter was president of  the World Bank.  After more than six years as special advisor to the Administrator of UNDP, Haq is leaving for his native land,

where he will help on a think-tank on human development. The following are excerpts from an interview he gave to The Earth Times:

What impact is your latest report likely to have?

I do hope that the conclusions of this report will fundamentally alter the perceptions about women’s economic and  political role in societies. I think this is the first time that  valuation of women’s work is being done. It is not just that we have estimated that $11 trillion of global output is invisible, representing women’s contribution. It is not just that we have .quantified that women work much longer, hours than men, in economic terms. And it is not just that women have emerged in our study as the main bread winners within the family, and within the global society. I think the policy implications go far beyond that.

What are those implications?

 The policy implications are that women can no longer be regarded as economic Nonentities– which is how they have been regarded throughout the centuries. The Policy implications are also that all the economic premises on which we have founded our society will have to undergo a fundamental change. Whether it is property ownership, whether it’s bank loans and collateral for these loans, whether it’s divorce settlements, whether it’s sharing of income and assets, I believe that women have suffered in their status–largely because their economic status has been regarded so low.  I dearly hope that many men will join the effort, to get women into an equal partnership, and an equal relationship, in all economic transactions. I think it is unfair—morally, legally, and economically – that women should contribute more of the work, and end up with one percent ownership of property. 

I think it is not only unfair, but totally unproductive, that women should not be given credit when they are the best savers and investors in society. That after .producing 90 percent of food in Africa, they should be given only one percent of rural credit, while men have access to 99 percent in rural credit, after having contributed so little to food production. The task now is not to get women into the health stream, and the nutrition stream, or to get them an equal participation in social services. Those battles have been largely won; and the remaining task can be managed. Those are the battles of yesterday. I think the battles of the future are battles over economic arid political opportunities. This battle has to start with a proper recognition of women’s work, and their economic role.

Are you hopeful for women?

I think there’s tremendous hope in the analysis of our report. First, when we look at the last 20 years, it is heartening to see that gender gaps have been reduced very fast. And they have been reduced not only in some of the more progressive societies they have been reduced in many conservative societies. The largest increase in female educational enrollment has taken place in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia during the last 20 years. When they opened up their systems and had free education and free health care for everyone, women took advantage of it. And this has been the silent, quiet revolution that has been going on in society after society.

In the last 20 years, women’s education has increased twice as fast as male education; the life expectancy of women has gone up 20 percent faster than male life expectancy; fertility rates have dropped by one-third, and contraceptive use has gone up from one quarter of couples to one half, liberating women from constant pregnancies, and enabling them to have greater control over their bodies and their time. You begin to sense a certain hope that if we are determined, things can happen.

You frequently cite the positive example set by Nordic countries. Why?

Nordic countries have achieved near-equality of the sexes through affirmative action.  Therefore there’s great hope that others can do it, too.  But it will take a great deal of effort on the part of the governments as well as on the part of the civil society. It will not happen automatically.  I stress this because affirmative action is under great attack in some societies. It is said, “Let the markets take care of it. Let the existing mechanisms arrange equality of the sexes.” That will never happen. When power structures are uneven, and power is concentrated in the hands of a few, you cannot make a change without strong affirmative action. Some countervailing power has to be organized. And that’s why, in respect of women’s future movement, it will be a great pity if affirmative action is not used by the governments.

And if affirmative action and other measures in support of women’s equality  are emphasized in Beijing and put into greater effect, I think that the 21st century may be the first century to mark genuine and perhaps universal gender equality. I personally believe that that’s going to be the most exciting development of the next century.

How would you deal with countries where there are traditional and cultural and religious biases that prevent equality for women?

I think cultural and social barriers have at times stymied women’s progress in many societies. But one note of hope that I detect .in reviewing the progress of the last 20 years in our report is that these social and cultural barriers fell by the wayside when the women wanted to take advantage of  opportunities. The fastest rate of increase in female education has occurred in the last 20 years in the Arab nations–which do have a number of cultural and religious reservations about many aspects of the international struggle for gender equality.

I think ultimately it is true that there is no one universal model of gender equality. We’ll be making a great mistake if we think that women and men want the same rules in every society. I don’t think we can export the Western model, or an American model, or a Nordic model, to developing countries, which have a very rich cultural and social tradition going back centuries. But there is a consensus on the bulk of the agenda for gender equality. I know of no culture that

suggests that there should not be education of women, or health care for women, or adequate nutrition for women—or that they must be starved compared to men. Nor do I know of any religion that preaches violence against women. But I think there’s no way of creating one universal model of gender equality.

 What suggestions do you have for getting more women into the UN Secretariat?

There should be a woman Under Secretary General right next to the Secretary General–a woman leader of great eminence–so that the world can not  ignore that message. That way we do not have to wait every 10 years for a conference to remind the world about gender equality. The new UN agency can coordinate policy for women. Unfortunately, there is some anxiety on the part of existing UN  agencies–they think that this new agency will replace them. It will not. It will only, strengthen them, support them, provide them with an umbrella. I have nothing against existing agencies. I think they are struggling valiantly under very difficult circumstances, and one has to respect them, particularly Unifem and lnstraw. But, that doesn’t mean that we should not fill the

policy vacuum at  the highest levels that exists today.

Unicef does a lot for children and the UN Population Fund does a lot in its field. But, that doesn’t mean that the agencies do everything for children and population. In fact, other agencies do a lot

more. But there must be some very clear policy advocates. This is what we need from the new policy agency for women. And I hope, instead of the controversies that have been generated around what I have said about creating a new UN policy-setting agency for women, we all try to strengthen the struggle for gender equality, which is one of the most exciting challenges we face today.

Why not use existing UN agencies to expedite what comes out of Beijing?

At the moment we have a number of WID (Women Development) programs. In fact, every international agency feels now compelled to set up a WID program. But these programs represent normally  less than one percent of the total resources of these agencies. Now are we to understand that women’s concerns deserve less than one percent of the total resources? It is  not that we need to separate women’s programs into a marginalized zone–we must mainstream them. What is missing, however, is a policy advocate for women at the highest level. Perhaps the new “agency” can be more like a collection of a policy team, right in the Secretary General’s office–probably no more than 15 to 20 people, led by an eminent woman of international stature.

What, specifically, would be your priorities for Beijing?

Let me make it clear that what I’m expressing are my personal views, because they go far beyond the Human Development Report. And they do involve some structural changes within the UN system. First, let us take care of the worst human deprivation—put in 20 percent of the budgets in the developing world, and 20 percent of the aid budgets, into primary education, primary health care, clean drinking water, family planning, and basic nutrition. At Beijing we need to convince the global community that since women form the bulk of the deprived (still two thirds of the uneducated are women, for instance). Let us “genderize” the 20:20 compact on its way from Copenhagen to Beijing.

[Editor’s note: Copenhagen was the site of the 1995 World Summit for Social Development; Beijing will be the site in September of the Fourth World Conference on Women.] Women’s  programs should be given the first claim on additional resources.

Second, I would very much advocate an international institution for credit to poor women. The window that is being opened in the World Bank today, with $200 million, is just a start. What we need is billions of dollars for women, in international and global programs. That should become one of the banners in Beijing. Because nothing liberates poor people so much from their poverty as access to credit, so that they can set up their own micro-enterprises, and grow and grow, over time. It is often lack of assets, and credit, which are really crippling for the poor.

Third, I would advocate that we set a definite date—let us say the next 10 years –within which gender equality in law is firmly established. There can even be sanctions against countries which refuse to accept gender equality in law, because this is a violation of human rights. If we are willing to move on all other aspects of human rights, what stops us from making this as a basis of sanctions? The only thing that stops us is that in this framework, all nations are equally guilty. So, at Beijing there must be a focus on how we can implement gender equality in law within the next 10 years, and a complete program of action and of monitoring must emerge.

Finally, I look for a UN agency on women. I should not misappropriate this idea from my wife, Khadija Haq who wrote about creating such an agency six years ago. The idea is not to replace existing organizations such as Unifem (United Nations Development Fund for Women) and Instraw (International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women) and many other good programs. I think they are making constructive, sensible contributions, within the limited resources that they have been given. The idea of this new UN agency, at the highest level is to set up a policy agency. It’s that agency that must insure the valuation of women’s work is properly done. It’s that agency that must insure equality under law and that the implementation of the 1979 CEDAW (Convention 011 the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) is followed upIt’s that agency that should insure that by the end of the century, we have 50 percent women in professional positions and in senior management in the UN–we have now only 11 percent in senior positions and 30 percent in professional ranks.

[Editor’s note: 139 countries have signed the convention; 41 of them UN’s 185 members have not signed it; 6 have signed without ratification; and 43 have ratified the convention with reservations.]

This is the last Human Development Report that you are presenting. Any lessons from this experience over the past six years?

Many lessons, of course, and many fond  remembrances. But let me mention just a few. First, the totally unprecedented response to the annual Human Development Reports suggests that there is a great demand in the world for honest, professionally courageous, even blunt, policy analysis. In this world of ours, what is often wanting is courage rather than wisdom. That is why I hope that the intellectual independence and professional integrity of these reports will be protected even after I leave.

Second, I have learnt that there is still much room for hope and idealism in a world that has grown increasingly cynical. Despite the wise counsel for realism from many friends, I have often chosen to sail against the wind. I have often embraced many idealistic goals.

Third, let me also say how much I have come to appreciate the UN system. During the preparation of the Human Development Reports, one of my great pleasures was to meet young, inspiring minds in all UN agencies—idealistic, eager still untouched by worldly cynicism. They became an integral part of an informal intellectual network. We can conquer the world with ideas, not with soldiers in blue helmets. The late Barbara Ward, my intellectual leader, used to remind us: “Ideas are the primary movers of history, Revolutions usually begin with ideas.”