Women’s Participation and Leadership are Critical to Achieving the 2030 Agenda

At the end of this month, government leaders from around the world will gather in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda—the most comprehensive framework for global sustainable development ever designed. The Agenda includes a set of 17 goals and 169 targets—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—that all countries will commit to working toward.

When it comes to women’s political participation, Rwanda is the world’s leader: At 64 percent, it has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians of any country. It reached these levels in 2013—far surpassing the 30 percent quota established in 2003—showing that once women have an opportunity to lead, they meet and exceed expectations and are able to compete and win in general elections.

The increase of women in parliament in Rwanda has resulted in the passage of landmark legislation on ending gender violence and discrimination and investments in the health sector, including significant investments in women’s  and adolescents sexual and reproductive health. The country has also made concerted efforts to expand opportunities for women at all levels. These investments include granting property rights to women and facilitating their entry into the workforce—contributing to some of the highest rates of economic growth in Africa.

Women’s full and effective participation in political, economic, and public life is essential to achieving gender equality; the 2030 Agenda holds great promise to achieve this goal. Target 5.5 is linked to the other targets under Goal 5 on gender equality, recognizing that the full and effective participation of women in decision-making positions will not be achieved without also ending the widespread discrimination, violence, and economic and structural barriers that women face. Through important and strategic investments in the economy, the health of the country, and women’s rights, Rwandan women leaders exemplify the power and potential that increased women’s leadership can bring.

The World Bank finds that women’s leadership results in increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines and that “female parliamentarians are more likely to prioritize social issues such as child care, equal pay, parental leave, and pensions; physical concerns such as reproductive rights, physical safety, and gender-based violence; and development matters such as poverty reduction and service delivery.”

This is certainly the case in Rwanda, but the rest of the world has some catching up to do.

Despite overwhelming international support for increasing women’s participation (through agreements like CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the International Parliamentary Union), women still do not participate in political, economic, and public life at nearly the same rates as men. Today, women make up only 22 percent of parliamentarians worldwide and just 5 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Only  44 countries have met an international goal that women make up at least 30 percent of national legislatures. Women are vastly underrepresented in leadership and decision-making roles—in both developing and developed countries. In the  United States, women make up only 19 percent of the House of Representatives and 20 percent of the Senate.

At the same time, there is evidence that just having more women in decision-making and leadership positions will not necessarily translate into positive change for women and girls. Latin America is an example of how when it comes to gender equality, a rising tide does not lift all boats. The number of women parliamentarians and heads of state in Latin America has increased substantially; the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Chile are all women. This has led to impressive gains in women’s education and livelihoods, yet they still face high rates of violence and discrimination and limited protections for their sexual and reproductive rights. Their achievements in governance have not changed gender-biased policies and attitudes.

There is no one approach to increasing women’s participation in decision-making, but what is clear—looking to Rwanda as the model—is increased participation of women and measures to advance gender equality and women’s human rights can lead to more equitable societies and economies. Expanding the opportunities and potential for women as leaders and decision-makers are key to achieving the comprehensive aims of the 2030 Agenda and a more equal world overall.

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