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Empowering women to achieve the global goals

If you wonder why gender equality is so important, just try to think of any part of the world, or even any business, where it’s possible to say that we’ve already achieved it. Whether you consider equal pay for women when they do the same job as a man; a balanced group of decision makers bringing their experience to bear on an issue in boardrooms or parliaments; or women’s full engagement in peace processes; in every case there are gaps that are holding us back from achieving the 2030 Agenda vision of an end to poverty and a peaceful, sustainable world. Those gaps are the spaces where women – and girls – are missing.

These days we’re also seeing mass gatherings of women and girls mobilizing to make their voices heard, in the global marches and online movements such as #MeToo, TimesUp, NiUnaMenos and #TotalShutdown that continue to grow around the world. Most recently, striking schoolchildren in several countries across Europe and elsewhere have been calling out for climate justice and action by policy makers. Their vibrant impatience is the hallmark of new generations of young activists whose engagement is a critical part of the road to 2030.

They are right to be impatient: progress has been made but it’s still too slow. Despite advances in girls’ enrolment in primary education, 15 million girls of primary-school age are not getting the chance to learn to read or write compared to about 10 million boys. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18.  Violence against women and girls remains a global pandemic, with one in three women and girls experiencing physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Today, women hold 24 per cent of parliamentary seats globally – still only half way to parity – and the global gender pay gap stands at 23 per cent.

A good education can boost quality of life and open doors to decent work opportunities. It can give women and girls the life skills they need in order to know and claim their rights, to stand up against discrimination and violence, to become fully engaged citizens and to make decisions about their health care, including their sexual and reproductive health. It also benefits children, families and societies more broadly through poverty reduction and enhanced economic growth.

We need men and women working side by side to dismantle the barriers to gender equality. One of the biggest problems is the unequal division of household work to care for the home and family members. Women spend on average 18 per cent of their day on this unpaid work, versus 7 per cent for men. In some countries that gap is much wider. Whether it is a young girl who is pulled out of school to fetch water or a woman who works full-time and then comes home to a “second shift”, when men step up and do their fair share, women are enabled to pursue paid employment, leadership and leisure activities.

Governments and private sector leaders can play a critical role in making these choices easier, by implementing policies that support paid parental leave, affordable child care and flexible work arrangements. We can also do a great deal to change mindsets through working with partners on changing the stereotypes of men and women that appear in advertising, marketing and many forms of media and entertainment. Something as simple as changing the numbers of women who are depicted in advertising as professionals, rather than only as carers, can make an important contribution to changing what we regard as normal – and to shape a more ambitious future.

Sport can also be one of the great drivers of gender equality by teaching women and girls the values of teamwork, self-reliance and resilience. It can provide girls with social connections and a refuge from violence in their homes and communities, and help them to understand their bodies and build confidence and the ability to speak up. This is particularly important during adolescence, when many girls abandon sport, whether under pressure to conform to traditionally “feminine” stereotypes, or because of early motherhood faced by young women like Dayane Santos in Brazil, whose life was turned around by the ‘One Win Leads to Another’ programme. Similar pressures to conform to pre-set educational stereotypes can stifle girls’ engagement in the learning they need to equip them for the future.

We need to ensure that women and girls are learning the right skills for the changing world of work. Rapid technological and digital advances, including automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are leading to a loss of jobs, and raising the potential for heightened inequality, especially gender inequality. Collaborative initiatives like the African Girls Can CODE programme are combatting this challenges and building equality, through equipping participants like 15-year-old Eno Ekanem, from Abuja, Nigeria with the digital literacy and personal development skills they need to pursue education and careers in ICT and coding.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development envisages for us a world where no one is left behind, where every woman, man, girl and boy is able to live up to their full potential. Eno and Dayane show us just how important equality is to bringing lasting change, and how those changes go hand in hand with improvements for us all.

SDG Blog for UN DESA Voice by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women

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