25/09/2013 09:13 BST | Updated 24/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling of the Millennium Development Goals

The UN General Assembly meets in New York today to call for a major push to accelerate progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs). With less than 1000 days to go, it is an opportunity for national governments, NGOs, civil society and the private sector to review the momentum that has been achieved so far, whilst considering the framework for a sustainable development agenda post-2015.

Of course, it is important to recognise the progress that has been achieved already in reaching some of the targets. Since the beginning of the millennium, the numbers of those living in extreme poverty - under $1.25 a day - has been halved. There have been huge gains in sanitation and access to clean drinking water in the global south. We have seen improvements in the provision of basic health care and education.

But other vital areas of progress have been too narrow in scope and far too slow.

One key aspect holding back progress is the absence of a concrete, ambitious target to increase women's participation and influence in the decisions that affect them. In order to empower women and girls to achieve gender equality, we need to eliminate discrimination against, and increase the participation and influence of, women at all levels in public and political life. Measures of progress must go far beyond the political arena to assess change in other areas of decision making that impact on women's lives. They also need to go beyond representation to consider women's actual influence so that their own experiences, attitudes and recommendations can be captured, and crucially, acted on. Critical to achieving this is for the post-2015 development framework to include a bold and binding standalone goal on gender equality and women's empowerment.

Globally, women and girls are estimated to account for almost two-thirds of the people who live in extreme poverty. Women currently perform two-thirds of the world's work and produce 50 percent of the food, yet earn only ten percent of the income. To add to this injustice, only one in five parliamentarians worldwide is a woman.

UN reports have repeatedly acknowledged how the lack of progress to achieving gender equality and women's empowerment is holding back the achievement of many other goals. A major contributor towards this ongoing gender inequality is that women remain locked out of decision-making in communities, and at the highest level in politics or business.

At VSO, a leading international development charity committed to fighting poverty through the power of volunteering, we believe that people are the best agents of sustainable development. We are passionately committed to bringing people together to share skills, build capabilities and change lives to make the world a fairer place for all. Through our volunteers and local partners at the grassroots level we have consistently seen the ongoing barriers to gender equality and women's empowerment and believe that these barriers must be tackled head on by any post-2015 development framework.

In Tanzania, VSO is working with Women Fund Tanzania (WFT), a national NGO that is coordinating a coalition of women's rights organisations to ensure marginalised women engage with country's constitutional review process with a unified voice. Executive Director of WFT, Mary Rusimbi, sees her role as critical in translating the views of marginalised women into the language of politics. She believes 2013 is a critical year for women in her country:

'Women are the fabric of society, they hold society together', she says, 'they make a major contribution to the national economy and society which goes unnoticed... We need a constitution that is progressive, with gender sensitive clauses, frameworks and strategies implemented with respect for women. When women remain poor, a country cannot grow - that is what needs to be understood at the national and international level'.

Mary's efforts have been supported by VSO in partnership with UN Women volunteer, Louise Jenkins; together they have been organising sessions for women from a range of backgrounds to support them in influencing this national process. Given the right levels of support, she is seeing that at the local level, women are breaking through the glass ceiling and taking action in their community.

If we are to replicate the kind of impact that VSO in partnership with UN Women Volunteers and the WFT are achieving in Tanzania on an international scale, we must work to ensure that women are involved in public and political decision making at all levels of society - from the village committee to global structures such as the United Nations. We are still a long way off from a time when women will make up 50 percent of those at the decision making table. To date, only 35 countries worldwide, of which nine are in Africa, have attained the 30 percent 'critical mass' threshold of women in national parliaments. Worse still, women hold only 17 percent of government ministerial positions. At this rate of change, it will take 120 years before women make up half of world leaders and more than 50 years before women are equally represented in parliaments worldwide.

Earlier this month, VSO published its report Women in Power: Beyond access to influence in a post-2015 world in which we set out how the post-2015 process can be used to address this fundamental and ongoing injustice. Today, we will be taking our message to the world's leaders as they gather at the MDG Review Summit in New York. VSO will be urging them to turn up the volume for women and girls' voices all around the world who are demanding their right to have equal influence over the shape of our world, and so that this shameful glass ceiling can be broken through once and for all.