Three Takeaways from Why No Country Will Achieve Gender Equality by 2030

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 08. June 2019

Women across Switzerland are set to go on a strike for their rights on 14 June 2019. They’re demanding “more time, more money, more respect”.

June also marks the release of the first global index to measure progress against a set of internationally agreed targets – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Gender Index. The summary of the report that came last week gave a “poor” global score for gender equality. A score of 100 reflects the achievement of gender equality in relation to the targets set for each 14 indicators. The lobal average score is 65.7/100 which is described by the report as “barely a passing grade”.  

While there’re pockets of progress, the numbers tell the situation is alarming: only 8% of the world’s population of girls and women live in countries that received “good” gender equality score. How about the rest? They live in countries ranked “poor” or “very poor”, including 40% or 1.4 billion people in countries failing on gender equality.

With the risk of oversimplification, here’re three takeaways from the report.

Good performance doesn’t always connect with the level of economic development

Denmark scored 89.3, making it the highest-ranked country on the Index. Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Sweden are the other top-ranking countries. Strong public services and social safety nets have contributed to the achievement.

Yet, economies can present a distorted view of equality. Issues such as gender-based violence, gender pay gaps and equal representation in powerful positions are still a concern in those and other high-performing countries. Of 189 economies assessed in 2018, 104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, 59 economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

As a case in point, the percentage of women having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in Australia, the US and Denmark respectively is 57%, 55% and 50%. Switzerland’s gender pay gap (17%) is bigger than Italy’s (5.3%), Luxembourg’s (5.5%) and Belgium’s (6.1%). Women struggle in balancing child care and work. Almost a quarter of women work less than 50%, compared with 7% of men.

Limited resources aren’t a reason to fail women and girls. Here’re some examples from the SDG Gender Index:

  • Women representation: Senegal (42%) is closer to achieving gender parity in its parliament than Denmark (37%), even though its GDP is 56 times lower.
  • Digital financial inclusion: Kenya outshines more than three-quarters of the world’s countries for enabling women in digital banking.
  • Social assistance: Colombia provides better social assistance coverage to its poorest people than the US, the number one economy in the world.
  • Physical safety: Rwanda is one of the highest scorers on indicators that capture women’s physical safety, through how safe women feel walking unaccompanied at night.

Fragility matters and needs to be taken seriously

The lowest scoring countries are all fragile states: Niger, Yemen, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. Institutional capacity or legitimacy describes best a fragile context. Governments often cannot support citizens to realise the security and stability needed for human life.

The World Bank estimates that two billion people live in countries where fragility affects development outcomes through conflict and violence. Two main features of gender equality in fragile contexts are important to note.

First, women and girls are often disproportionately affected compared to men and boys. Risks, including gender-based violence, increase as political and social fabric breaks down in a fragile context.

Second, gender roles and relations are crucial to understanding opportunities and obstacles to state building. In fragile contexts, gender equality is an issue of power relations. Pre‑existing power relations and participation of women during post-conflict state building are critical.

More relevant data for shining light on neglected issues

Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030 that leads on the Gender Index, argues that increased access to data, analysis and tools will lead to real changes in gender equality laws, policies and budget allocations.

We wrote an article in the Journal of Gender & Development by asking “do the figures tell us enough about women’s empowerment?” Using experiences of Helvetas from Nepal, Bangladesh and Kosovo, we showed how date hides or reveals important aspects of gender equality: personal endowments (capacities); economic assets (income); and voice or agency. Beyond the lack of data, what’s worrying is inherent gender bias that skews who is asking the questions, who is interviewed and how the questions are worded.

Many women remain at risk of being invisible. Established methods aren’t always enough to ensure understanding and taking measures on issues such as unpaid work, intra-household income and resource allocation and access to education. The methods often fail to capture women’s perspectives, their needs and priorities. The implications are huge – limitation to inform policy interventions, and track and evaluate progress.  

So, what?

“This is a man's world

This is a man's world

But it wouldn't be nothing

Nothing without a woman or a girl.”

This was what James Brown sang five decades ago.

A lot has been achieved since then even though it’s (still) a man’s world. As things stand, achieving gender equality may be an even more remote goal by 2030 than previously imagined.  

If I build on the above three takeaways, fulfilling bold global promises to achieve gender equality and leave no one behind will need fundamental changes in the following areas.

1. Economic performance is more than statistics (GDP)

There’s compelling evidence that gender equality boosts economic growth. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Thus, economic growth should go beyond measuring the expansion of goods and services produced during a given period.

I believe wellbeing is an important factor in gender equality. Even though wellbeing can be subjective and difficult to measure, it simply means the happiness or satisfaction of citizens – quality of life.

We should therefore be concerned about how women are satisfied with control over economic resources, education, earnings, mortality, access to employment, pay, time use, safety, and power in the public and the private sphere. Simply adding women who succeed in finding employment to national statistics is misleading. Typically, women are hired into low-skilled, low-productivity positions, often in the informal sector. They spend more hours in unpaid work and find it harder to reach the top of the career ladder or start their own business.

2. Better understanding of and coordination on fragility

It’s encouraging that fragility has been taken as “the issue of our time”. More than 80% of the world’s poorest will be living in fragile contexts by 2030. And women are close or more than 50% of the world’s poor.

What’s glaringly missing in the gender equality discussion is fragility due to climate change. Factors such as extreme weather events and disasters, local resource competition, livelihood insecurity and migration, transboundary water management and sea level rise and coastal degradation are sources of fragility.

It’s also praiseworthy that fragility has received increased development cooperation support. Perhaps what needs improvement is addressing underlying social norms and gender relations in fragile situations, and supporting women’s role as active agents in peacebuilding and state building. Working more with religious authorities, local officials, central or local level political party leaders is also critical.  

3. Measuring and monitoring what matters

Quality data and its usage is important in exposing new challenges and increasing accountability. More and better data is about sorting data by age and sex, and most importantly taking women as active participants – not just using them as a source of information. This requires “context-specific” factors and indicators, as well as necessary conditions (budget, time, and skills) to set-up and manage a “tailor-made” monitoring and evaluation systems.

The 2019 World Development Report admits the shocking lack of capacities in the world to even monitor the most basic information. However, it’s encouraging to see organisations like UN Women are working to addressing pressing issues of data quality through strengthening of basic statistical activities and programmes; mobilising resources and coordinating efforts for capacity building; and better data dissemination and use.

We cannot achieve meaningful progress when half the population cannot reach their full potential….

Additional sources:

Cover photo: @HELVETAS

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies