Thursday, July 1, 2010

Women Deliver Best

The employment of a large number of women at the very front-line of public service delivery - teachers, nurses, agricultural extensionists, micro-finance providers - would make a significant contribution to speeding achievement of the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

It is widely felt that good governance and improved basic service delivery are key for achieving the MDGs. Gender equality is also considered a key to achieving the MDGs, since the factor holding back achievement in so many of the MDGs is the serious discrimination against women and girls that keeps their enrolment and employment rates low, their maternal mortality rates high, and generally undermines their capacities to contribute to the economy and society in ways that would reduce poverty and speed growth.

Good governance and gender equality are not separate. Governance in the interests of advancing women’s rights is what is needed to accelerate the achievement of the MDGs. A key means of achieving good governance for gender equality is via recruiting women to staff the very front-line of public service delivery.

Around the world, when women are at the ‘front-line’ of delivering basic services, and when they are present in a ‘critical mass’ of at least 30 percent of service providers, there is evidence that they are more responsive to the needs of women clients of public services than men are.

Strong correlations are evident between high numbers of female teachers and the retention of girls in school. The presence of women health workers is linked to decrease of maternal and infant mortality rates. In the justice and security sectors, women judicial personnel have been more willing than male counterparts to apply gender equality legal provisions to deciding cases, while the presence of more women police particularly at the station level is associated with higher willingness of victims - both female and male - of sexual violence to report.

In places where women head local governments, spending patterns change in favour of women and children, particularly through increased local investment in water, education, employment and poverty reduction for women. In the long run, water and sanitation services are also more effective and sustainable if women take an active role in the various stages involved in setting them up, design and planning, and operations and maintenance procedures.

The larger picture is also very important. Worldwide, women at the front-line of services become role models for others. The ‘feminisation’ of public space makes it more accessible to women and other marginalised groups, and encourages women and girls to consider careers in the public sector. Another well-known benefit of more women in public service provision is that women use their incomes for investment in the human development of family members and spend a great deal less on conspicuous consumption than do men.

In the absence of a critical mass of women, patriarchal stereotypes about women can be pervasive and have a negative influence on the way that services are designed and delivered. For example, a perception that women are not farmers has meant that women have often been ignored as target groups in the organisation of agricultural extension services, which affects productivity in the agrarian economy. Similarly, gender biases may lead the police not to investigate cases of rape, and judges to treat perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence with leniency, undermining the credibility of the rule of law.

Since achievement of the MDGs depends importantly on women and girls’ access to basic services, it would seem a simple and logical choice to invest heavily in training and recruiting women to the public sector. But on the contrary there is a dearth of women across the service delivery chain, from civil servants responsible for designing and managing the delivery of services to frontline professionals responsible for the delivery of services continues. This is particularly true for service areas such as agriculture, where strong gender biases often prevent recognition of women as farmers. A rapid infusion of female professionals as civil servants and at the front-line of service delivery would enhance and increase the uptake of basic services for women.

Perhaps nowhere would this insight be better applied than in fragile post-conflict states, where there is a desperate need for rapid recovery of communities and of years of lost investment in human capital. Women’s employment in service delivery could accelerate recovery by targeting those whose education and health and income control has the greatest multiplier effect for poverty reduction.

As we move closer to the deadline to meet the MDGs, governments need to carefully evaluate and design policies that increase the number of women in service delivery in various sectors including the police, agricultural extension services, schools and health clinics, election management bodies and others. In addition, adequate resources need to be allocated to this priority, so that women service providers are not stranded in token numbers at the coal face of service delivery, and have work conditions that enable them to work effectively, with dignity and in safety.

While there are no easy ‘magic bullets’ for accelerating achievement of the MDGs, increasing by a considerable margin the number of women delivering public services, backed by public policies prioritising women’s needs, would bring us a lot closer from here to 2015.
*Chief, Governance, Peace and Security Section, UNIFEM.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.