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Here is why the battle for gender equality is more urgent than ever

Image: Junior Reis/Unsplash

Antra Bhatt
Statistics Specialist, UN Women
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

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  • 1 in every 7 countries is very far from target or far from target in at least a quarter of the SDG 5 indicators.
  • Close to half of the data necessary to monitor SDG 5 are currently available.
  • New projections reveal that 383 million women and girls will live in extreme poverty in 2022.

“Building back better” seems to be the resident buzz phrase these days as countries scramble to recover from the adverse impacts of the pandemic. But have we succeeded? Do we find ourselves in a better position now than we were pre-pandemic? To answer these questions accurately, we need to cumulate robust evidence and data. More importantly, if we are to answer these questions with the well-being of women and girls in mind, we need comprehensive gender data.

The World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) predicts that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to reach full parity - a blaring message for policymakers on the urgency necessary to achieve gender equality. However, according to the UN, it may take up to 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws and up to 140 years to achieve parity in women’s representation in managerial positions in the workplace.

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A disturbing picture

The UN Women’s SDG 5 tracker, published as part of the annual Gender Snapshot Report, puts a spotlight on all the targets and indicators under SDG 5 to tell a story of the progress to date based on country, regional, and global data. The lack of data for some indicators is a story in and of itself, and indicative of the low priority given to these areas. As the adage goes, “That which is measured, is treasured”.

The SDG 5 tracker not only calls attention to the enormity of that which remains unknown but to the sheer extent of the gender data gap and the implications for policy discussions. Visualizing what we do not know yet, and the implications this holds for channelling the requisite capital and resources is equally as necessary as visualizing what we already know.

The following image was created in a distinctly human way - through colours, informed by real data - to communicate the urgency with which gender equality must be accelerated.

The blurred and blended effects illustrate the incomplete picture of our current progress for SDG 5. Behind these digital effects, there are millions of women facing real-life challenges and diverse experiences. A blue stroke in the visual indicates that the target “has been met or almost met”, while green suggests that the areas are “close to target”. Similarly, the warmer red and orange tones represent areas “far from target”, with the darkest red indicating those “very far from target”.

Analogous to a heat map, the cool blue and green hues illustrate a hopeful shift towards equality, whilst the warmer tones show ominous signs of a global goal far from its end objective.

Global progress on SDG 5
Global progress on SDG 5 Image: UN Women

The glaring data gaps

Unfortunately, the yellow, orange, and red colours that dominate this diagram, only confirm that the world is lagging in its commitment to achieving the stipulated SDGs by 2030.

1 in every 7 countries is very far from target or far from target in at least a quarter of the SDG 5 indicators. In the three most critical areas to women’s empowerment, including time spent on unpaid care and domestic work, decision-making regarding sexual and reproductive health, and the provision of systems to track the funding for GE, the world is far or very far from the target.

Have you read?
  • Global Gender Gap Report 2022

Only one indicator on the global level, namely women in local government, is close to the target - and even in this area, the situation varies widely by country. In other areas, such as eliminating discriminatory laws and ending harmful practices, progress has been moderate but still insufficient if we aim to achieve SDG 5 by 2030.

Another visual from the same tracker opens the curtain to glaring data gaps. Once the previously overlooked SDG 5 indicator values are incorporated into the canvas, the grey brush strokes overwhelm the image.

Only 48% of the data necessary to monitor SDG 5 are currently available, rendering the realities of many women and girls invisible.
Only 48% of the data necessary to monitor SDG 5 are currently available, rendering the realities of many women and girls invisible. Image: UN Women

A global effort to alleviate the burden

The status of SDG 5, as illustrated through this simple and accessible format, underscores the arduous journey ahead. Many of the social norms that exist today still stifle the control women have over both their bodies and their societal roles, and the issue is only exacerbated by the pandemic.

Here are two concrete examples:

  • For decades, women’s work participation has been much lower than men's. And yet, in 2020, school closures, abrupt job losses in female-dominated sectors, and women’s primary roles as caregivers meant that their workforce participation dropped even further. About 113 million women aged 25–54, with partners and small children, were out of the workforce in 2020.
  • Women and girls were already more likely than men to live in poverty before the pandemic. New projections by UN Women, UNDP and the Pardee Centre for International Futures that consider the effect of the pandemic to some extent reveal that, globally, 383 million women and girls will be living in extreme poverty in 2022 (compared to 368 million men and boys). In a “high-damage” scenario, which includes higher malnutrition levels, drops in education enrolment and quality, increasing wage gaps between men and women, and disproportionate impacts on women’s employment, this number could swell to 446 million (427 million for men and boys).

The challenges we face are gigantic but not insurmountable, even if complicated by COVID-19. Every national recovery plan should include significant investments into the care economy and infrastructure. This will alleviate the burden of unpaid care work, enabling women to join the labour force while creating sustainable and green jobs. An integrated policy approach that, for example, includes more spending on social protection, investments in the green economy, and better infrastructure and education could potentially lift close to 150 million women and girls out of poverty globally by 2030.

The SDGs are a collective commitment. Unless progress is accelerated by the entire global community, we will fail to achieve Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. A unified and bold commitment to action is vital, and the time to invest in women is now.

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