As SDGs Loom, Where Do We Stand Now on Gender Equality?

Of the 3,000 people employed by this ADB-supported textile factory in Turkmenistan, 95% are women.
Of the 3,000 people employed by this ADB-supported textile factory in Turkmenistan, 95% are women.

By Laurence Levaque

Improving the lives of women and girls was part of the MDGs when they were adopted in 2000. Since then, much progress has been made—particularly on education—but that progress has been uneven and insufficient in many countries.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka often reminds us that “progress for women is progress for all”.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to expire on 31 December, 2015, and world leaders will soon meet at the UN General Assembly in New York to agree on the final list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace the MDGs in the new post-2015 development agenda.

Improving the lives of women and girls was part of the MDGs when they were adopted in 2000. MDG 3 called to “promote gender equality and empower women.” However, the target under that goal was limited to achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2005 and in all levels of education by 2015.

Since 2000, much progress has been made, particularly on education, but that progress has been uneven and insufficient in many countries.

The 2015 MDG Progress Report shows that the world’s developing regions as a whole have managed to eliminate gender disparity in primary, secondary and tertiary education. In Asia and the Pacific, gender parity in primary and secondary level enrollment has generally been achieved. For instance in South Asia now 103 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys in primary school compared to just 74 in 1990. Nevertheless, South Asia is not reducing the incidence of drop out and is not expected to achieve gender parity in secondary and tertiary education.

Women now account for 41% of global non-agricultural paid employees, compared to 35% in 1990, and the proportion of women in vulnerable employment across the world has declined from 59% to 46% in the same period. This is also true for the majority of the developing economies in Asia and the Pacific, except in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where the proportion of women in non-farm paid employment is below 20%.

Despite progress in access to paid employment, women are still discriminated against in many countries when it comes to access to work and economic assets such as owning land or obtaining a bank loan. Men still dominate the global labor market, as three-quarters of working-age men are formally employed compared to less than half of working-age women. Female participation in the labor force remains especially low in South and West Asia where women’s participation rate is one quarter to one third of men’s rate. Globally, women on average earn 24% less than their male counterparts, even if they have similar levels of education. The highest level of gender pay gap in the world (33%) is in South Asia.

Today 90% of countries around the world have more female parliamentarians than in 2000, and the average global proportion of women lawmakers in parliaments has nearly doubled, although still only 1 out of every 5 parliamentarians is a woman. In the Pacific, for instance, women account for just 4.4% of seats in parliament, with barely any progress in the past 15 years.  Timor-Leste is the exception in the region with the highest proportion of parliamentary seats held by women at almost 40%. East Asia has 22% of women in parliament, very close to the 26% average in developed nations.

A global review of progress on gender equality shows that at the current pace of change, it will take more than 80 years to achieve gender parity in economic participation around the world, and 50 years to reach parity in parliamentary representation.

These figures show that yes, progress has been made, but no, it’s definitely not enough and it is too slow, and we need to do more for women in the post-2015 agenda. Many gaps remain, particularly in areas that were not addressed in the MDGs such as violence against women and girls and the unequal division of unpaid care work. In India, the total value of unpaid care and domestic work has been estimated to be 39% of GDP.

On the 20th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, in the run-up to the 2015 MDG deadline many women’s groups have constantly argued that the MDGs failed to do more for women precisely because they did not live up to the grand ambition of the Beijing Platform for Action, which envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life.

In the post-2015 framework, SDG 5 is a standalone goal dedicated to gender that aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” and gender has been integrated in many of the other 16 goals. This demonstrates that there is a strong consensus that gender equality is a pre-condition for development, as no one can now deny that empowering women and girls not only makes them more likely to become employed, find a decent job, stay healthy and actively participate in society, but also impacts on the wellbeing of their children and contributes to stable population growth, when women finally occupy their rightful place as equal productive members of society alongside men.

There is thus no doubt that gender equality and women’s empowerment have a ripple effect on meeting other development goals. Or as Mlambo-Ngcuka herself said this week during a visit to ADB headquarters in Manila, gender equality or a Planet 50:50 by 2030 “promises to usher in a better world for the next generation” and “means transformative change that is irreversible, sustainable and substantive.”