UN Women Report on Gender Equality and the SDGs Reveals Troubling Reality

“Mind blowing and heart breaking,” said leading academic and activist, Gita Sen, capturing the essence of UN Women’s long-awaited flagship report on gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This groundbreaking report, launched yesterday, provides us with a comprehensive snapshot of where women and girls stand globally as implementation of the SDGs gets underway, lays bare how discrimination drives deprivation, and presents a bold vision for future action.

The report, Turning Promises into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, exposes the major gaps in current data about what works for women and girls, particularly those who are most marginalized. While the SDG indicator framework includes indicators with a specific focus on women and girls across the SDGs, we have less than a third of the data needed to even create a baseline of where women and girls stand, let alone measure change. As Ginette Azcona, one of the authors of this report, recently told me, if we are going to achieve these goals, “we need a revolution in gender statistics and democratic accountability.”

That said, one of the most exciting aspects of this report is how it unpacks the data currently available to show a vivid picture about the realities of women and girls lives and how gender-based discrimination threatens to undermine progress towards the SDGs in every country.

For example, until this report, there was no reliable global estimate of how many women versus men were living in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.90 day. We now know that 4.4 million more women than men live in extreme poverty globally; women age 25-34 are more vulnerable to poverty because of the struggles of combining child care and other unpaid work with earning an income. In all countries, single mothers are more likely to live in poverty than others. The gap is most stark in the United States, where 44 percent of all single-mother households have an income that is less than 50 percent of the median. Brazil, South Africa, Luxembourg, and Italy are not far behind, showing that not only is this a global problem, but that a country’s income level does little to address gender-based inequality and deprivation.

UN Women’s report also shows how women’s autonomy and their ability to make and act upon decisions about the most fundamental aspects of their lives—like whether or not to marry, use contraception, or access sexual and reproductive health care—impacts their overall health and well-being. According to data from 45 countries, only 52 percent of women who are married or in a union report that they can freely make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or access health services. Every year, 15 million girls under the age of 18 are still forced into marriage. One in 5 women and girls age 15-49 globally report that within the last 12 months, they experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. This dramatic reality shows that until women and girls can make fundamental choices about their lives, free from violence, then gender equality will be elusive.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this report is its clear demonstration of how discrimination and inequalities, within and between countries, interact to rob specific groups of women and girls of opportunities, agency, and their ability to reach their dreams. Access to education, health and decent work, and the ability to make choices are starkly limited for marginalized women and girls, who end up paying a high price for this inequality. A girl living in rural India from a poor household is more than 4 times more likely than her rich, urban counterpart to be married before the age of 18, the report shows. The same girl is almost 40 times more likely to have never attended school; more than 5 times more likely to become an adolescent mother; and significantly more likely to have no access to money for her own use or say in how household money is spent.

The combination of racial and gender inequality, for example, or migration status and gender inequality, often leads to acute forms of deprivation that impact almost every aspect of women’s and girls’ lives. The detailed case studies from Pakistan, Nigeria, Colombia and the United States, drive home this point by showing how on almost every measure of well-being specific groups of marginalized women and girls are being left behind. The report makes clear that while governments must make public services and social protection universal, they must also differentiate strategies to ensure that systematically marginalized groups of women and girls can actually use and benefit from them.

There is so much more to this report, but here are four takeaways from my initial reading.

1. Put women and girls at the center.

Women and girls must be at the center of implementation of the SDGs and specific strategies must be put in place to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized groups of women and girls can benefit from SDG implementation. When we were designing the SDGs we were clear that gender equality could not be siloed in just one goal, but that it had to be integrated throughout the agenda. As we gather more data about who is being left behind, it is even more clear that gender equality and women’s human rights and the intersectional approach woven into the SDGs are critical for achieving every one of the 17 goals.

2. Prioritize gender data.

Governments, researchers, NGOs, and others must improve gender data collection and analysis on an ongoing basis. Data is essential for driving policy decisions and informing how to allocate resources, but at the moment governments are essentially flying gender blind. And we need to broaden our acceptance of what counts as data. Data from national statistical offices are key, but so are the data that women and women’s organizations and academic institutions produce.

3. Governments must back commitments to gender equality with political will and resources.

The report makes clear that if we are serious about making progress, we need governments that are going to make women and girls a political priority and allocate the necessary resources. As UN Women points out, lack of money and resources should not be an issue: we live in a moment of unprecedented wealth but also gross inequalities, where those who most need resources are the least likely to be able to access them. The fact that the richest 1 percent of the world’s population controlled 82 percent of the wealth generated in 2017, while the bottom 50 percent saw no increase in wealth illustrates this point vividly. But instead of raising revenues by increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing illicit funding flows, governments everywhere are cutting their budgets, dismantling social safety nets and reducing public services on which so many women and girls depend. This has to change.

4. Invest in women’s movements to increase accountability.

As IWHC’s own experience has shown, strong, autonomous women’s movements are essential to ensure that governments live up to their commitments to end discrimination and achieve gender equality over the long term. As UN Women points out, “[s]upporting their efforts to monitor progress and hold governments accountable for the implementation of the gender-responsive laws and policies is critical to turn the promises of the 2030 Agenda into action.”

Photo: IWHC / Adil Hussain

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