New UN Women, Gates Foundation partnership takes on gender data

By Amy Lieberman 22 September 2016

A woman conducts baseline survey in East Timor. Photo by: Betsy Davis Cosme / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

One year after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, a large number of organizations have learned a similar lesson: the world has to invest in better gender-specific data to track progress toward inclusive development.

A new public-private partnership dedicated to producing and collecting “gender data,” or data disaggregated by sex, received a $11 million boost at its United Nations headquarters kick-off event Wednesday afternoon.

Women and girls are routinely not counted in global and national data collected on health, education, political participation, and human security, according to the U.N. Foundation-led organization Data 2X. These data gaps “limit our ability to track progress” on gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in video remarks at the event, Making Every Woman and Girl Count.

U.N. Women, the U.N. entity for gender equality, is now teaming up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Data2X and the government of Australia to launch a pilot project at national, regional and global levels that will support 12 countries in regularly producing gender statistics. A steering committee of U.N. agencies and civil society partners will determine the 12 partnering countries, but the countries represented at the U.N. event, including Senegal, Mexico, Bangladesh and Uganda, may hint at who gets the early nod.

“When we agreed on that [Sustainable Development Goals] agenda, we confirmed that gender equality is utterly essential to sustain economic growth and development,” Julie Bishop, the Australian minister of foreign affairs, said at the event. “We need this data to track progress ... frankly we do not know what is happening in many countries in terms of empowering women and girls.”

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The U.S. Agency for International Development said it will commit $5 million to the partnership over the next two years, while Australia announced a $6 million commitment. Mexico also announced a new global center for gender statistics.

While work at the global level has already started, the pilot, running from 2016 until 2020, will expand to the regional and national levels next year.

At the Women Deliver conference this past May, the Gates Foundation said it will give $80 million to support gender equality,* and it is likely that the organization will supplement that with funding to this partnership, though no specific amount has been made public.

“If I am going to ask the government for money I have to show them the data — why we are making an investment,” said Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation at the event. “If we want to do what we say we are going to do on the SDGs, we have to get the data, we have to track the data, and then we can make progress.”

Countries’ capacity to collect gender data on households — as is the norm — or on individuals may vary, said Papa Seck, a statistics specialist at U.N. Women who is leading the program’s implementation.

“If you find a country with no capacity, that is where you really have a challenge that is not related to just gender statistics, but statistics in general,” he told Devex. “In some ways that can be easier if you build from the get-go rather than changing the system.”

Initiatives that involve more rigorous forms of data collection and reporting can risk imposing more paperwork and more work on developing countries. But in this case, the initiative’s supporters said, demand for better data is coming from the countries themselves.

“This is what you hear over and over when you talk to countries. None of them says this is not my priority. Across the board this is something people want to do,” Seck said.

* Update, September 22, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify the Gates Foundation’s $80 million pledge to support gender equality.

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About the author

Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.

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