If the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be achieved, ensuring gender equality and women's empowerment is essential, given the relevance of gender concerns to all of the MDGs.
Yet despite formal commitments made by countries to guarantee equality between sexes, and despite the demonstrated benefits of gender equality to societies and economies, gender discrimination remains pervasive in the Asia and Pacific region.
This is according to a paper launched Thursday, Pursuing Gender Equality through the Millennium Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific, published jointly by Asian Development Bank (ADB), the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
The paper is part of a series of studies identifying critical issues and problems concerning the timely achievement of the MDGs.
"For Asia and the Pacific to achieve the MDGs, women's full participation, involvement in and contribution to the development process is needed," ADB Vice-President Geert van der Linden said, at the launch of the report at ADB Headquarters Thursday.
"But in many developing Asian countries, women continue to face significant barriers to education and health services, economic and financial resources, paid employment, and political participation. As our review shows, some progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go," it says.
The MDGs contain two gender-specific goals - Goal 3 for gender equality and women's empowerment and Goal 5 for maternal health, with corresponding targets and indicators under each goal.
According to the paper, while more than three quarters of countries in the region are on track in narrowing gender gaps in educational enrollment, none are making equal progress on all of the indicators for Goal 3.
Several countries in Southeast Asia are doing well in terms of gender parity in education, but this has not translated into equal participation in economic and political affairs. On the other hand, while girls' enrollment levels remain high in Central Asian countries, wage employment and political participation have fallen sharply.
Several countries also report much slower rates of progress in rural areas, among ethnic minorities and disadvantaged castes, and among displaced people and migrants. Beyond the scope of Goal 3's indicators, countries also report issues such as the persistence of gender-based stereotypes and discriminatory practices and pervasive patterns of violence against women.
With regard to Goal 5, despite substantial investments in health interventions, women in many countries across the region continue to suffer high rates of death or disability associated with childbirth, respiratory and waterborne diseases, malnutrition and anemia, and increasing rates of HIV infection.
In the Mekong and South Asian subregions, countries are working to improve basic health services and reduce their once high levels of maternal deaths. Central Asian countries, however, are seeing their maternal mortality rates climb as the quality of rural health services deteriorate over time due to limited health budgets.
Apart from Goals 3 and 5, however, none of the other MDGs expressly address gender issues, with only two other goals - Goal 2 on education and Goal 6 on HIV/AIDS - having gender-specific and/or gender-disaggregated indicators.
As the gender specific goals and indicators in the MDGs do not comprehensively address all gender issues, there is widespread agreement that these need to be broadly interpreted within the frameworks of other agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. This broader view was also endorsed by the World Summit of September 2005.
MDG progress reports and studies from across the region, though, confirm the interrelationships between the gender-specific MDGs and all of the other goals, as well the as importance of a gender perspective in any strategy to achieve these goals.
"The recent World Summit confirmed the importance of pursuing gender equality and women's empowerment as a fundamental development goal in its own right, as well as an essential part of any strategy to reduce poverty and hunger, improve access to basic services, prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and promote sustainable development," the paper says.
The paper provides examples of promising initiatives and supportive institutions, and recommends a number of actions for key stakeholders to take, to help achieve gender equality.
"However," it adds, "meaningful progress will not be made without strong political commitment at all levels and changes in prevailing social norms and attitudes."