What’s Data Got to Do With It?

Suddenly, it seems that everyone is talking about data. The saying “what gets measured gets done” is a consistent refrain in conversations on the Sustainable Development Goals. Data is widely touted as the way we will evaluate which initiatives are effective, and how the global community will benchmark progress toward the goals. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared “reliable and timely statistics and indicators are more important than ever.”

It’s not just the UN that is looking to gather better data. In May, Melinda Gates used her keynote speech at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen to announce a three-year, $80 million investment in closing gender gaps in our collective knowledge. Other large initiatives, such as Data 2x, are working to improve the quality and availability of information disaggregated by sex as well as data on issues that primarily or exclusively affect women and girls. Broader efforts like the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data are bringing together governments, UN agencies, civil society, and private sector actors to “harness the data revolution.” Everywhere you look, projects are turning a spotlight on the role and value of data.

We know how important this is. We need reliable figures to track global progress on the 17 development goals that make up the 2030 Agenda. Such data has the power to show where we’re living up to our commitments and where we’re falling short. It can help create a more complete picture, while incomplete numbers may leave the most vulnerable groups in the shadows.

But for all the talk about data, it’s not the whole answer. It can help us measure progress towards fulfilling the promise of the 2030 Agenda, but it can’t—and shouldn’t—drive the agenda itself. Even as the international community looks to strengthen the collection, availability, and analysis of these statistics, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we already know what works for the world’s women and girls. Organizations like IWHC have this knowledge because we talk to them every day.

Through IWHC’s partnerships with community-based organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, we maintain close, working relationships with women who can tell the stories beyond the numbers. In the field of contraception, for example, statistics can tell us the percentages of women who say they want to avoid becoming pregnant but are currently not using modern methods to do so, but they can’t necessarily paint a picture of these women’s lives and why they’re not utilizing birth control. Conversations with women and girls unearth the “why” long before research studies can be designed to collect new data sets.

The statistics we have now on women’s health and well-being are limited and do not tell the whole story. Most of the information collected right now leaves out significant populations, namely girls below age 14 and women older than 49. Because our data views women through a lens of reproduction, women and girls who are not of reproductive age are simply invisible.

Yet we know that all women have sexual and reproductive rights and health needs. In recent years, U.S. retirement homes have been in the headlines for having increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections, similar to adults in the 20-24 year-old age demographic. Likewise, young adolescents are excluded from many national surveys, despite the fact that, in many places, large percentages of girls are married before age 14 (and, presumably, having sex). These age gaps are a symptom of the way we view and count women and girls, and any effort at closing the “gender gap” must emphasize the need to look at the entire lives of women, not just their so-called reproductive years.

These conversations must be part of the “data revolution” if it is to be truly impactful on the lives of women and girls. The voices of women in affected communities must be included in the design of research studies and initiatives. Data gathering shouldn’t just back up what we already know, it should build upon the stories and experiences of these women to expand our understanding.

There’s an immense value to data: it’s a powerful indication of progress, or a scathing indictment of shortcomings. However, it can only do these things if researchers are asking the right questions, measuring the right things, and including all segments of society. Initiatives that maintain this partnership with women and girls, take their voices into consideration, and work to create a more complete picture of the lives of more women and girls will play an important role in realizing the true potential of the 2030 Agenda.

Everything else is just numbers.

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