This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.
Women and girls represent roughly half the global population, yet are disproportionately excluded in many decision-making processes. At the household level, many women and girls in less advanced countries face different cultural and religious norms and practices that deprive them of autonomy inside and outside the home, limit their access to resources, and restrict their freedom of movement and participation in the public sphere.
In the labour market, women are disproportionately employed in non-decent employment, and largely operate in agricultural and informal sectors. In Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, entrepreneurship is where women are the most active outside of the agricultural sector, yet they generally operate in informal, micro and small business enterprises with low added value. These women entrepreneurs face many constraints in their daily lives, including lack of educational and managerial skills, as well as lack of access to finance and credit: a crucially important aspect for small and newly established firms led by women. Meanwhile, the political arena continues to be dominated by men, especially in less advanced countries, and the number of seats at the national assembly devoted to women remains low.
Closing gender inequality and empowering women and girls have been linked to many desirable development features. For instance, at household level, access to resources and more bargaining power by women has been accompanied by higher investment in health and education and a decline in fertility rates. These are key features for economic development and prosperity. Also, lowering the discrimination faced by women and girls in social institutions (e.g., family code, inheritance, access to land titles etc.) has contributed to the success of several MDGs, from food security to fertility to education.
The final outcome of MDG 3 on gender equality and women’s empowerment can point to a number of positive achievements. The remarkable effort on closing gender inequality in primary schooling deserves to be acknowledged: indeed, a large number of girls in many developing countries have attended primary schools. In some regions, especially Latin America, the gender gap in secondary schools has also presented positive results. Yet in contrast, in many African countries, girls are still disproportionately represented at the secondary level and even more so at the post-secondary level.
A number of successful policies have helped to improve the economic and working conditions of rural women in the agricultural sector. Some of these policies have provided training programmes on innovative activities and funds to empower these women. A number of micro-credit programmes have also been launched in many developing countries: to help women entrepreneurs access loans from the formal financial sectors. Yet despite all this work, there remains persistent gender inequality in many countries.
The international community is currently moving towards the Sustainable Development agenda. Goal 5 aims to close the gender gap in its various forms, while empowering women on the economic, social and political fronts by 2030. Yet the gender gap still exists on various levels and needs to be addressed differently according to the context of the country and the complexity of the issue at hand. Some countries have diverse conditions, reflecting different cultural and religious norms and practices. Some policies may work well for equalising men and women in terms of access to opportunities in some countries, while some other countries may be better served with different policies. The question of why some countries have been successful in achieving gender equality in some areas while others are still left behind remains the key to a positive outcome by 2030.
We should also bear in mind the importance of ‘policy packages’ – and synergies – to avoid addressing some dimensions while neglecting other important dimensions: for example, trying to close the gender gap at secondary schools but neglecting policies against forced and early marriage. It is a sad fact that many girls still drop out of primary and secondary schools because of forced marriage.
From another angle, promoting women’s political empowerment while neglecting the number of girls attending secondary school may not work – because parity requires a certain level of education. And similarly, promoting better access to finance for women entrepreneurs without ensuring their entrepreneurial and managerial ability may end in failure. The lack of good collateral is one of the most important factors that determine gender discrimination in access to formal finance, and gender differences in access to valuable collateral have to be understood in the context of the legal regulations and customary norms.
Overall, SDG 5 is rather ambitious for the short term and will almost certainly need the full timeline to 2030 – and possibly beyond – because progress depends not only on metrics but also on changing individual and systemic beliefs.
This article will appear shortly on the unu.edu/globalgoals hub site.
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