We can’t get ahead if we leave half the population behind. We need to break down the legal, economic and social barriers holding girls and women back. Nowhere on earth do girls and women have the same opportunities as boys and men — and in the poorest countries, they face even more obstacles. Simply put, poverty is sexist.
Research tells us that empowering girls and women not only ensures they don’t get left behind — it will also make sure we end extreme poverty faster! That’s because when women rise out of poverty, they are more likely to invest in the health and education of their children, taking their families, communities, and even whole countries with them.
From a young age, girls in the world’s poorest countries are put at a disadvantage. They’re often expected to perform more than their fair share of chores – fetching water and firewood, preparing meals, and caring for siblings – which make them less likely to be able to pursue their education. At times, they face pressures to marry and have children while they’re still children themselves, face increased risks of gender-based violence, and face limitations on their agency and decision making.
These forms of gender discrimination hurt women and girls themselves, as well as the next generation. A woman without access to basic health services, education, quality job opportunities, and a voice within her family and community is less able to give her children the opportunities they need to succeed. This holds whole communities and countries back, limiting economic growth, stability, and security.
Empowering women and girls offers benefits that range from improvements in global health to economic growth. As just a few examples:
- In developing countries alone, closing the gender gap in education could yield between $112 and $152 billion every year.
- Universal primary education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa could reduce maternal mortality by 70%.
- Ensuring that all students in low-income countries, including girls, leave school with basic reading skills could cut extreme poverty by as much as 12%.
- Providing female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100–150 million.
- Closing the gender gaps in society and the economy could boost the global GDP by up to $28 trillion by 2025.
- Globally, human capital wealth could increase by 22%, and total wealth by 14%, if women earned as much as men.
Common sense – backed up by a growing, rigorous evidence base – dictates that global economic growth, peace, stability and security are impossible if we leave half the world’s population behind. Empowering women and girls is proven to lead to beneficial development outcomes, from improved health and education for families, to increased job opportunities for communities, to national, regional and international stability and security.
But it is impossible to achieve these outcomes if we proceed with business as usual.
By and large, the systems and structures that surround us – from global value chains to energy and water infrastructure – have not been designed in a way that is gender neutral. That means they are often not set up to address – and may in fact exacerbate – the gender-specific constraints of women and girls. As a result, increased barriers face girls who seek to complete secondary education and enter the workforce. Additional barriers face women when they make efforts to advance within the workforce, access capital to start or grow a business, or seek a position of political leadership.
We made some notable progress for gender equality under the Millennium Development Goals. MDG 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) focused primarily on eliminating gender gaps in primary and secondary education, as well as literacy, employment and government decision making. However, though more girls worldwide are now in school, especially at the primary level, there is still significant work to be done to narrow gender gaps at the secondary level and to ensure that all children are learning while in school. Improvements in women’s labor force participation and leadership have been slower. Over the last two decades, the gap between male and female employment rates has closed by only 0.6 percent, and very few countries have achieved gender parity in parliamentary representation. Women’s share of parliamentary seats rose to 23 percent in 2016, representing an increase of 6 percent over a decade.
SDG 5 encompasses a broader range of obstacles facing women and girls, including those related to gender-based violence, unpaid care work and limitations on economic resources and technology.
Violence against women and girls can take many forms, including harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation/cutting, intimate partner violence and human trafficking. Incidents of violence violate their fundamental rights, safety and security, as well as impose external costs as women and girls are often forced to miss out on school, work and other responsibilities as a result.
In general, women spend 19 percent of their time in unpaid activities (including housework, child and elder care) versus just 8 percent for men. Unpaid care work limits women and girls’ ability to complete their education, learn valuable skills and pursue income-generating opportunities. Reducing care work burdens through investments in technology and infrastructure as well as redistributing care work burdens so that men bear a more equal share of responsibilities will require financial commitments by policymakers and interventions that work to transform social norms, but will ultimately have dramatic payoffs leading to more productive, equitable societies.
Women face increased barriers to accessing economic resources and opportunities. Legal and social discrimination may make it more difficult for a woman to own property, take out a loan or open a business. Women and girls are also less likely to have access to the Internet and have the information and communication technology (ICT) skills needed to compete in the global economy. Due to cultural, social and economic barriers, women living in the world’s least developed countries are 31 percent less likely than their male counterparts to have Internet access.
Addressing a more comprehensive set of constraints – including those discussed here – will help to ensure that progress toward gender equality moves faster. In order to eliminate gender inequalities, policymakers and decision makers will need to consciously examine gender-specific barriers facing women and girls and integrate this awareness into their approach to improving development outcomes. Only then will Goal 5, along with SDGs related to poverty, hunger, health, education and inclusive growth be achieved.