We have seen significant progress in closing gender gaps over the last two decades, especially in education and health. Most countries have reduced disparities between girls and boys in enrollment and completion of primary school, and in transition to secondary school. And both women and men are living longer and healthier lives. But critical gaps persist: Women have limited access to economic opportunities, and their ability to make decisions about their lives and act on them—their agency —is restricted in many ways.
Hurdles to gender equality
These gaps are related to entrenched social norms and biases that constrain women and girls and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. In many economies, women face legal provisions that restrict their capacity to access opportunities—these include requirements that they obtain a husband’s permission or produce additional documentation to open a bank account in their own name. Persistent gender-based violence is pervasive and reflects the imbalance of power relations in the household and society more generally. Women’s responsibility for family care and household chores, which is necessary for social reproduction, restricts the time they can spend on paid work and disadvantages men.
Sustainable Development Goal 5 seeks to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” and represents an opportunity to tackle structural constraints and shift social norms, which would potentially enable permanent pathways out of poverty and achieve the gender equality targets of the 2030 agenda.
Shifting entrenched norms isn’t easy. A key step in this process is to create an enabling environment by changing legal frameworks. Countries have taken important steps in enacting laws to protect women from harmful practices: In 2016,. On the other hand, many economies still have legal differences affecting women’s economic opportunities. Almost 60 percent of the 188 countries for which data are available lack legal frameworks that mandate equal opportunities in hiring practices, equal pay for equal work, or allow women to perform the same jobs as men.
Changes in the legislative or regulatory environment are an important first step, but these do not guarantee enforcement or uptake. Eliminating violence against women—one of the targets under SDG 5—provides a good example. Many countries have adopted laws against domestic violence, but it is estimated that, with wide variation across countries. Moreover, 14 out of the 21 economies with the highest prevalence of intimate partner violence have enacted laws against domestic violence, yet these have not fully translated into practice.
Eliminating child marriage is another target of the 2030 agenda. Despite national laws prohibiting it in many economies, child marriage remains a threat to the lives of children, especially girls. In one-third of the countries that have enacted laws prohibiting child marriage and for which data are available, more than 30 percent of girls are married by age 18. Child marriage correlates with lower levels of schooling, lower rates of contraceptive use, and higher fertility. Girls who marry early have little decision-making power within households, lower labor force participation, and less control over productive assets.
Source: Demographic and Health Surveys; UN Population Division 2015, World Population Prospects. Note: Most recent year available between 2005 and 2014.
The SDGs emphasize women’s access to economic opportunities
Increasing women’s participation in the labor force and improving their income-earning opportunities are associated with reduced poverty and faster growth. Income, employment, and assets empower women—and that benefits society as a whole. Yet a large number of countries lack an enabling legislative framework and women lag behind in most measures of economic opportunity.
Women are more likely than men to be unpaid family workers, and to work in low-productivity activities and informal employment. Women—by choice, absence alternatives, or gender norms—tend to work in jobs that offer flexible hours, allowing them to balance work and household responsibilities. These jobs are often insecure, do not provide any contractual security or benefits, and offer limited opportunities for career advancement and higher wages. Moreover, these gaps are more entrenched in poorer countries, with women and girls in poorer households and countries facing substantially worse working conditions than their richer counterparts.
Marked differences between men and women’s entrepreneurship also persist. Worldwide, females participate in 34 percent of firms’ ownership and Yet women face more difficulties in accessing finance. Again, non-financial barriers such as restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks also pose a challenge., with wide variation across countries. In general, access to finance—another vehicle for economic empowerment—is a key constraint for entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Source: World Development Indicators
The ambitious scope of the Sustainable Development Goals represents a new window of opportunity. Gender equality and women’s economic empowerment are at the center of the 2030 agenda. They cut across all issues but are goals in their own right, which represents an opportunity to tackle structural constraints such as entrenched social norms and inequality in the distribution of unpaid care and domestic work. In order to measure how well these commitments are translated into meaningful actions, we need to address challenges in collecting gender specific data, especially in “data poor” areas such as economic empowerment and voice and agency, and explore new ways of including all members of society in survey and data collection exercises.