The missing SDG indicators: Accelerating gender equality and empowerment

Women leaders in India, where the constitution dictates that one third of seats in local entities are reserved for women. Photo by: Gangajit Singh Chandok / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

To achieve a world “in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all legal, social, and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed,” will require political action — leadership, commitment and accountability. The U.N.’s “Transforming Our World” sustainable development framework, which will be adopted by the General Assembly in the coming days, is the latest call to action. We will all be judged on what we do over the next 15 years to make that ambition into an empowered reality for women and girls.

Sustainable development goal 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” expands significantly on the Millennium Development Goals by detailing in a single goal a full range of issues and actions that will drive success. However, in the proposed indicators, which anchor accountability for the new global framework, critical metrics for women’s participation in political life and public decision-making are missing.

A number of the other goals in the post-2015 framework complement and reinforce SDG 5. For example, SDG 1, to end poverty everywhere; SDG 10, to reduce inequality within and among countries; and SDG 16, to promote good and inclusive governance. This consistency across goals mirrors what we at the National Democratic Institute have long acknowledged: gender equality and women’s empowerment is central to both how democracy is structured and what democratic governance is supposed to deliver, namely improving the well-being of citizens.  

SDG 16 also hosts a target relevant to gender equality, namely to “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030. In our modern states, the vulnerability of the undocumented person is acute. The status of undocumented women is tantamount to invisibility before the state and/or the law, and pushes them to the edges of our societies and economies, depriving them of access to a range of civil and political rights and essential services, the ability to conduct some financial transactions, and making them prey for the unscrupulous and criminal.

The Data2X Project suggests that closing the gap on sex-disaggregated birth registrations at the national level and, concomitantly, providing national identity documentation would have the most significance for the civil and political participation of women and girls.  

Despite the development advances made under the MDGs by women and girls and the potential promised in the SDG framework, the pace of change for political equality is much too slow.

The U.N. Women Leaders’ “call to action” from Chile earlier this year stated that at the current pace, reaching gender parity in decision-making would take more than 30 years — double the life of the SDG framework. But women — as individual representatives or advocates, but also using collective action through women’s movements — must be included as equal and active participants in the decision-making that will go into the policy, planning and delivery of the SDGs themselves.

Take SDG 11, on making cities inclusive and safe. In the next 30 years, the number of the world’s population living in cities will rise from the present 50 percent to two-thirds. The majority of migrants to cities are women, and yet globally women make up only 5.1 percent of capital city mayors, 6.1 percent of mayors in cities with over 1 million inhabitants, and only 20 percent of city councilors worldwide. Gender-sensitive and inclusive urban governance — including gender-aware urban planning and design — will make cities better habitats for everyone.    

Three critical indicators are missing from the new global framework, which would focus attention on the action needed to achieve the participation target (SDG 5.5):

First, the representation of women at national or local government level in the target lacks even an aspirational percentage. Over the years, both practice and theory have found that numerical targets such as quotas are important elements in accelerating women’s representation in parliaments, local government and in other areas of public life, including corporate boards.  When well-designed, taking into account the socio-political environment, and honestly implemented, quotas ensure women’s entry into decision-making positions and forums.  

Second, there are no metrics at all to measure women’s levels of influence or power. A U.S. Agency for International Development multicountry pilot study suggested that women’s political leadership had made significant inroads in a couple of  government sectors (including the judiciary) while being underrepresented or excluded altogether in others (for example, the security sector); and women are better represented in committee leadership at higher levels than in national legislatures overall, and at the lowest levels among party leaders. All these findings need to change.

Finally, as SDG 5 reflects, we need to provide women with the tools, skills and capacity to be effective in their leadership roles. This requires a continuing focus on ensuring that the institutions of and environment in which politics take place are inclusive, empowering and, ultimately, transform gender relations to the benefit of us all.

We should support country-level advocacy by women’s movements to create and monitor their own set of indicators to underpin SDG 5, addressing the three gaps mentioned above and pushing for action that is relevant to their context. As Madeleine Albright, chair of NDI’s board of directors, has said: “Success without democracy is improbable. Democracy without women is impossible.”

Moving beyond next week’s adoption of the SDGs to implementation, the development of these indicators will help women and girls hold their societies and the world accountable for delivering on the commitment to achieving gender equality and their empowerment, which is at the heart of the post-2015 framework.

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About the author

  • Sandrapepera

    Sandra Pepera

    Sandra Pepera is a career diplomat and international development professional. Before joining the National Democratic Institute as its director for gender, women and democracy, she spent 13 years as a senior officer at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, and led programs in the Caribbean, Rwanda-Burundi and Sudan.