Gender inequality continues to be a persistent phenomenon worldwide. It has come to be recognised as one of the most significant forces that perpetuate poverty; it also increasingly excludes women from the development process. In this context, the recent high level consultation by the World Bank in conjunction with the U.N. agencies and some member nations on the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment across different regions assumes significance. It was noted that many targets set for 2005 under the Millennium Development Goals to correct gender imbalances have been missed. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG), to which 198 nations are signatories, set concrete objectives for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health as well as combating HIV/AIDS. Specifically, the targets set for 2005 to correct gender imbalances in primary and secondary education have not been achieved. For instance, worldwide, six million girls will still not be enrolled in school by 2015, even though gender gaps in schooling are narrowing in certain parts of the world. The situation is worst in Sub-Saharan Africa followed by some countries in South Asia. The failure to meet the 2005 school enrolment targets is evidenced by the fact that even though schooling levels are rising, only about half the countries have achieved gender parity in primary education and about 30 per cent in secondary education. Even more disconcerting is that studies suggest some of the parity at the primary school level in developing countries is because boys' enrolment has dropped.
School education is also not the only indicator specified by the MDG road map for gender equality. Other criteria are labour market opportunities for women, literacy rates, and their participation in the political process. Progress in these areas too has been insufficient. In South Asia, countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have made creditable progress. For instance, in Bangladeshi schools, the elimination of school fees for girls, as well as the provision of toilets and safe drinking water, has dramatically increased enrolment and attendance. In India, while progress has been made in the numbers going to school, the gender gap persists. The difference in the enrolment rates of boys and girls is close to six percentage points whereas it is around three in Bangladeshi schools. Other related areas of concern in India include inadequate improvement in maternal and child mortality rates as well as low levels of female literacy compared to men. Investing in innovative approaches to girls' education would automatically impact on women's well-being and contribute to their empowerment, income growth, and productivity. Policy approaches and programmes need to build in gender sensitivity (such as gender budgeting) at all levels. Mainstreaming of gender is critical if crucial human development goals are to be met and acute disparities addressed.