Gender Equality in the New Development Agenda

Gender Equality in the New Development Agenda


With some 6,000 participants, Women Deliver’s recent conference was the largest gathering on the health and rights of girls and women in the last decade

With some 6,000 participants, Women Deliver’s recent conference was the largest gathering on the health and rights of girls and women in the last decade and one of the most important since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The conference, which took place in Copenhagen at the end of May, is a forum for dialogue that brings together actors from many different spheres: government, philanthropic organisations, research, civil society, the private sector and the United Nations. The focus of the event is on sharing solutions and raising the visibility of women’s issues in order to inject fresh energy into the efforts seeking to achieve gender equality in the knowledge that the road is long and progress is slow, particularly in the places where the situation is worst.

This underlying inequality is further exacerbated by armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, climate change and health emergencies

Let us not forget that the situation here in our country is the exception to the rule. Except for a few areas in Europe and North America—and with all the qualifications that must accompany any such assertion—the situation of women and girls in the world today represents a permanent and silent humanitarian crisis. From the moment they are born, women are second-class citizens prohibited from making their own decisions on most of the important aspects of their lives, or very limited in this respect. They have little or no say in decisions relating to their intimate lives (who they wish to associate with and whether or not to marry or have children, for example) or in decisions that might enable them to achieve a degree of independence or change their personal circumstances (studying, access to financial services, working, using or managing their own assets, and participating in the political life of their community and country). This underlying inequality is further exacerbated by armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, climate change and health emergencies.

Some statistics that draw a picture of today’s world:

  • 300,000 women die every year due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, most of which are preventable
  • Poor nutrition among mothers results in the deaths of 800,000 newborn babies every year.
  • 225 million women have no access to effective contraception
  • Girls account for two-thirds of new cases of HIV infection in adolescents
  • 2 out of every 3 illiterate adults are women
  • Only one-third of countries have achieved education gender parity at the upper secondary level
  • 1 in every 3 women experiences physical or sexual violence during her life time
  • 37,000 girls aged under 18 years are forced into marriage every day
  • $10 trillion is the estimated annual value of unpaid work carried out by women (13% of global GDP)
  • 50% of working women are in precarious employment  
  • Only 22% of the members of the world's parliaments and 17% of government ministers were women in 2015
  • Between 1992 and 2011, women accounted for less than 10% of the delegates in peace negotiations
  • Women and children spend up to 5 hours a day gathering fuel and fetching water for household needs
  • Less than 20% of the world’s agricultural land is held by women
  • Only 2% of the aid allocated to economic development in 2012 and 2013 prioritised gender equality

Source: The Investment Case for Girls and Women (

300,000 women die every year due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, most of which are preventable

There are no magical solutions to the problem of how to ensure that the issue of gender inequality, which affects half the world’s population, is prioritised in the new development agenda—the global policy manifest for the next 15 years. However, the following are some of the proposals made during the Women Deliver conference:

  • More and better data to close the gender gap. Generating new and better data is a precondition for progress. Good data is still lacking in many spheres; we need quality data—disaggregated by sex, income level, etc.—on births and deaths and on topics such as informal work, gender violence, etc.  This data would allow us to monitor progress (what point have we reached?) and also to formulate policies that will better meet the needs identified (because progress is not achieved by data alone). One of the most neglected groups in this respect is young adolescents (10-14 years), an age cohort about which there is almost no information available. Gathering data on young adolescents is a indispensable precondition to positioning this group as a priority in the new agenda.  
  • Breaking down the silos—or compartments—in which we work. Problems do not belong to a specific “sector” and the very configuration of the SDGs demands a different way of working and real coordination between sectors. There are 8 SDGs directly related to gender equality: SDG 1 No poverty, SDG 2 Zero hunger, SDG 3 Good health and well-being, SDG 4 Quality education, SDG 5 Gender equality, SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, SDG 10 Reduced inequalities, and SDG 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions. New alliances and more joint actions involving different sectors and issues are needed to increase the impact of initiatives targeting women and girls. Addressing the problem of child marriage, for example, is a question of educating communities to provide them with information and options, but also an issue involving health and sexual and reproductive rights as well as  economic development and justice. This may seem patently obvious, but it is still far from the perspective from which many issues are being approached.
  • Education for equality. This is not a new issue, but rather one that has, until now, been treated very marginally. A number of interventions are needed to accelerate change: education at the community level, mainstreaming initiatives designed to change behaviours, creating new notions of masculinities. It is essential to involve men and boys in the process of change, recognising that their contribution is indispensable and that they can no longer be marginalised or labelled solely as "perpetrators”.
  • In a multicultural, multireligious, and multilingual world we need a new style of leadership, a disruptive, uncomfortable one that questions the established order and the conventional orthodoxies that hamper progress on gender issues. Such leadership is essential if we seek alternatives to resignation or to more conservative positions that may bring about change but at a very slow rate. In particular, the question of religious fundamentalism—one of the greatest obstacles to development and the reduction of gender inequality—has yet to be addressed.

As a starting point, it should be recognised that, despite growing consensus on the concept of gender inequality and its effects on development, no common strategies have yet been developed to address the challenges posed by this issue in this new era of the SDGs.

Jim Yong Kim, the current president of the World Bank—an optimist as one might expect of the son of South Korean refugees who has achieved the American dream—believes that the evidence demonstrating the return on investment from interventions targeting women is so overwhelming that sooner or later the economic argument, going beyond moral imperatives, will win the day.  So far, citing the ethical argument that women are entitled to a role in decision-making processes and equal access to education, health and work and the argument that gender equality is a question of justice has not been enough to promote change.

However, citing only the economic argument, the question that remains is how many more decadesor centuries according to some estimates—will it take to achieve equality with the kind of incrementalist approach being used today. And perhaps the most important question is  whether at the present conjuncture—characterised by growing inequality, economic crises, political instability, and technological change as well as other global challenges, such as the limits placed upon us by the environment and current energy policies—humanity can continue to be viable if we take into account the opportunity cost of wasting the potential productive work, political participation, vision and value of half of the world’s population.