Data-driven gen­der equality


One of the biggest im­ped­i­ments is a dearth of good data on is­sues that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect women and girls, such as land rights, ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health care.

Akey agenda item at this year’s an­nual meet­ing of the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly, un­der­way this week, will be to as­sess global progress on the Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), the UN’s con­sen­sus roadmap for solv­ing the world’s biggest chal­lenges by 2030. I was part of the UN team that helped create the Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals (MDGs), which pre­ceded the SDGs. By the time the MDGs con­cluded in 2015, they had fu­eled some of the fastest and most ex­ten­sive gains in global health and devel­op­ment the world has ever seen. The MDGs paved the way for the SDGs, and I have been en­cour­aged by the com­mit­ment the global com­mu­nity has shown to sus­tain­ing the post-2015 devel­op­ment agenda.

But it has also be­come clear to me and others that without a more de­lib­er­ate, data-driven fo­cus on the needs of women and girls in par­tic­u­lar, progress to­ward a wide range of ob­jec­tives will suf­fer. If we fail to achieve uni­ver­sal gen­der equality, we will fall short of many other goals, from end­ing poverty to en­sur­ing good health.

One of my per­sonal frus­tra­tions with the MDGs was that gen­der equality was more a matter of rhetoric than of ac­tion. De­spite their prom­ise of em­pow­er­ment, the MDGs did not ad­e­quately tar­get many of the biggest chal­lenges that women and girls face, such as gen­der-based vi­o­lence and eco­nomic dis­crim­i­na­tion. These gaps have per­sisted, be­cause in the 1990s, when the MDGs were be­ing for­mu­lated, most peo­ple, in­clud­ing me, did not ad­e­quately un­der­stand the scale or com­plex­ity of the prob­lem.

We must avoid a sim­i­lar fate with the SDGs. Achiev­ing gen­der equality is more than a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion op­por­tu­nity; it is also the best way to make progress on nearly all of the SDGs, and to build a world where ev­ery­one can thrive. As Bill and Melinda Gates will dis­cuss at a gath­er­ing of world lead­ers next week in New York, and show in a new report, col­lec­tive ac­tion is needed to ad­dress the var­i­ous di­men­sions of gen­der in­equal­ity and drive progress.

One of the biggest im­ped­i­ments is a dearth of good data on is­sues that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect women and girls, such as land rights, ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health care. Data is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing what is work­ing and how to track progress. Yet up-to-date data ex­ist for only a small frac­tion of the in­di­ca­tors that were de­vel­oped to as­sess progress on the 17 SDGs — in­clud­ing the more than 40 that di­rectly re­late to gen­der equality. Of the 14 in­di­ca­tors of progress as­so­ci­ated with the pri­mary gen­der eq­uity goal, SDG 5, most coun­tries are mea­sur­ing just three.

To help fill these crit­i­cal gaps, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion has cre­ated a three-year, $80 mil­lion ini­tia­tive to gen­er­ate more re­li­able data that can im­prove the de­sign and tar­get­ing of pro­grams and pol­icy in­ter­ven­tions. As part of that ef­fort, the foun­da­tion re­cently launched a $10 mil­lion part­ner­ship with UN Women to help coun­tries im­prove the qual­ity of the gen­der-spe­cific data they col­lect. The foun­da­tion is also sup­port­ing Equal Mea­sures 2030, an ini­tia­tive to em­power ad­vo­cates and civil-so­ci­ety groups with easy-to-use ev­i­dence to as­sess progress to­ward tar­gets and keep the SDGs for women and girls on track.

These and other ef­forts will pro­vide gen­der-equality ad­vo­cates and de­ci­sion­mak­ers with bet­ter in­for­ma­tion about the na­ture and scale of the so­cial and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers hold­ing women and girls back, and help iden­tify who is fall­ing through the cracks.

We know from ex­ist­ing ev­i­dence that em­pow­er­ing women and girls can ac­cel­er­ate progress. For ex­am­ple, when girls at­tend se­condary school (SDG 4), they are up to six times less likely to be mar­ried as a child. And higher lit­er­acy rates among ado­les­cent girls are as­so­ci­ated with lower ado­les­cent birth rates and im­proved health (SDG 3). Like­wise, women are much more likely than men to in­vest sur­plus in­come in ways that im­prove the lives of their chil­dren.

The ben­e­fits of gen­der eq­uity are also ap­par­ent when women have ac­cess to ba­sic fi­nan­cial ser­vices, like credit and sav­ings ac­counts, which en­able them to start busi­nesses and save money for fam­ily es­sen­tials.

Clos­ing the gen­der gap in agri­cul­ture, mean­while, could have an even more pro­found im­pact on fam­i­lies and pro­duc­tiv­ity in the de­vel­op­ing world. To­day, for ex­am­ple, women make up nearly half of the agri­cul­tural work­force in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Yet they typ­i­cally work smaller, less pro­duc­tive plots of land than men, and of­ten lack ac­cess to the best seeds, fer­til­izer, credit and train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Stud­ies show that giv­ing women more de­ci­sion-mak­ing power over pro­duc­tive as­sets has the po­ten­tial to in­crease farm yields by more than 20 per­cent, which is es­sen­tial to “end poverty in all its forms ev­ery­where” by 2030 (SDG 1).

When we re­move the bar­ri­ers con­fronting the most vul­ner­a­ble in so­ci­ety, the ef­fects are trans­for­ma­tional. But to do that, donors, devel­op­ment part­ners, govern­ments and the pri­vate sec­tor must in­vest in more and bet­ter data that are sorted by age and sex. Do­ing so will al­low pro­grams to be tai­lored to the needs of women and girls ev­ery­where.

Our chal­lenge — and op­por­tu­nity — is to over­come the deeply en­trenched bar­ri­ers that im­pede progress for women and girls. The SDGs are a huge step in that di­rec­tion. But goals without ac­tion­able strate­gies are just good in­ten­tions. The SDGs pro­vide the roadmap to end­ing poverty and cre­at­ing a bet­ter, health­ier, more se­cure world for ev­ery­one. En­sur­ing that we have qual­ity data is the best way to en­sure that no one gets lost along the way.

QMark Suzman is chief strat­egy of­fi­cer and pres­i­dent of global pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion. © Project Syn­di­cate

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