Stand Up Against Poverty

(WOMENSENEWS)–Seven years into the United Nations’ 15-year effort to implement global antipoverty goals activists are urging worldwide governments to keep their promises and recommit to the eradication of poverty.

As part of this, millions on Oct. 17 are expected to join an annual day of global demonstrations spearheaded by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, an alliance of international trade unions, nongovernmental organizations and other groups.

In a Netherlands stadium performers will sing a "poverty requiem." In New Jersey, students from a charter school will recite an antipoverty pledge. In Bangladesh, people will rally on the steps of parliament and Nigerian fans will stand for a moment of solidarity during a soccer match.

Organizers hope that when taken together the demonstrators will surpass last year, when they made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people to stand up for a single cause on a single day: 23.5 million.

The day of demonstrations, which began last year, includes an emphasis on women’s rights, on the premise that poverty is not combatable until females–who U.N. agencies agree represent 70 percent of the world’s poor–are tapped as part of the solution. In the United States, nearly 60 percent of the people living below the poverty line are women, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2006.

The female aspect of poverty will be dramatized with a series of women’s tribunals in countries such as Egypt, India, Malta and the United States where women will testify about the effects of poverty on their lives.

"What is going to happen is that stories will be told, but also the root of those stories is going to be analyzed: what is the cause, what can be transformed and what political measures need to be taken," says Ana Agostino, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty’s co-chair and a coordinator of the group’s Feminist Task Force.

Not Equal in Opportunity

Chris Grumm, president of the San-Francisco-based Women’s Funding Network, which has teamed up with the United Nations Development Fund for Women to spearhead the project, says that "women are a huge part of the economic engine, but often not an equal part of economic opportunities."

UNIFEM and the Women’s Funding Network are running on Oct. 17 online campaign, featuring an e-card that they are asking people to distribute as widely as possible, to feed into the worldwide Stand Up tally for the Guinness world record. Organizers will also be tallying the online results for themselves so that they can later leverage the total to raise the volume of women’s voices within the wider antipoverty movement.

"All the work being done in terms of poverty, it’s very exciting work, but there has to be a place for women at the table," says Grumm.

"If you take measures to improve the lives of women, it improves the world as a whole," adds Agostino, reiterating the increasingly popular view that the most effective way to end poverty is to invest in the education of women. AIDS spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls than among those who have schooling, and educated mothers are significantly more likely to immunize, properly care for and educate their own children, increasing their survival rate and living standard.

Agostino notes that the Oct. 17 events illustrate this trend: "All these schools that are participating in Stand Up, the teachers are mobilizing them. The teachers are primarily women. At the end of the day you really come down to the mobilization of women."

New Motto, New Urgency

The Global Campaign Against Poverty changed this year’s motto from "Stand Up" to "Stand Up and Speak Out," emphasizing a new level of urgency about ending the silence on poverty. The pursuit of a new record is more gimmick than goal: a way of generating attention and infusing spirit into a sometimes overwhelming cause.

"Poverty is endemic, whether in the U.S. or whether in the developing world," says Joan Libby Hawk, public affairs specialist at UNIFEM. "It’s hard to see if you’re not looking. The Stand Up campaign has shone the light on the issue in a very dramatic way."

The United Nations General Assembly declared Oct. 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in 1993.

The Stand Up campaign uses the date to apply implementation pressure on the United Nations’ millennium development goals: eight targets set by world leaders in 2000 to end global poverty by 2015. The goals, or "MDGs" as they’re discussed in development-policy circles, include ending hunger, empowering women worldwide, combating disease, fostering environmental sustainability and reducing infant and child mortality.

In the years since the goals were announced, activists have mounted efforts to end women’s poverty, and awareness of women’s lynchpin status has grown. On Oct. 3 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "the empowerment of women is a fundamental condition if we are to make progress."

Off Pace for Meeting Goals

Despite these strides, at the halfway mark the millennium goals are in grave danger of falling off course.

The U.N.’s July 2007 report on the millennium goals indicates that immense effort is needed to meet them: the results so far, the report said, "are predictably uneven." Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is lagging.

In April, economist Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor to the U.N. Millennium Project, wrote in a widely circulated newspaper editorial that "despite endless words about increasing aid to poor countries, the rich G-8 countries are reneging on their part of the bargain."

Last week the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund and the World Bank issued a joint report finding that the rate of decline in maternal mortality is too slow to meet the 2015 target.

Participants in Stand Up events, many of whom are affected by poverty themselves, testify to the human cost of potential political failure.

Of 300 million children suffering from hunger worldwide, less than 10 percent suffer because of natural disasters or famine, according to the Millennium Project. The rest are malnourished because the world’s surplus doesn’t reach them. Many activists say that change will come from prosperous governments to cancel the debt of developing countries, lobbying the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to distribute aid money to those most in need of it and helping governments receiving aid use it for economic growth.

"It’s about implementing social programs for the population as whole," says Agostino. "It’s about enabling people to find work, be trained and have access to education, so that society will not need to have special programs for the poor."

"In addition to ending property discrimination, countries need to budget for women’s health, and law enforcement that protects women and start-up loans for women’s business," says Libby Hawk.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York and the editorial intern at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Global Call to Action Against Poverty:

Women’s E-card to Fight Poverty:

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