VSO urges world leaders to adopt targets and indicators for gender equality

A view of the Women in Power reception at the Irish Embassy in London. The event was organized by the U.N. Women and Voluntary Services Overseas International. Photo by: VSO

A standalone goal around gender equality and the rights of women should be included in the sustainable development goals — and gender equality should be mainstreamed across all other goals.

That is according to Voluntary Services Overseas International, which has also joined with U.N. Women in calling for clear targets to increase levels of female political participation and women’s influence in decision-making processes at all levels, underpinned by indicators to measure progress on both fronts.

The call was made at a high-profile Women in Power reception last week, organized by VSO and U.N. Women at the Irish Embassy in London. The event was jointly hosted by the Irish and Kenyan governments, which have been appointed to lead negotiations at the U.N. around the post-2015 framework.

Baroness Northover, U.K. parliamentary undersecretary of state for international development, told the gathering that 2015 “presents some unique opportunities for advancing gender equality and changing the lives of girls and women.”

“Whilst women make up more than half the world’s population, they represent only 21 percent of members of parliament in the world,” she said.

Angela Salt, U.K. director for VSO, said research the charity conducted as part of its Women in Power campaign has shown the number of female parliamentarians worldwide rose by just 8 percent between 2000 and 2013.

“[At that rate] it will take until 2118 for women to have equal influence as world leaders,” she said.

Strengthening political participation

Firm targets — coupled with indicators to measure progress — are crucial to speed things up, Priya Nath, VSO’s global policy and advocacy adviser, told Devex. She gave the Millennium Development Goals as an example, which included an indicator to measure the number of women in parliaments.

“This has allowed us to not only monitor progress but also use the data to demonstrate that the rate of increase has been unreasonably slow,” Nath said.

For VSO, U.N. Women and other stakeholders, “actually increasing women’s role in decision-making should be made a target, so that it propels political will and action.”

Salt meanwhile told Devex that enabling women to enter government goes beyond giving them “a seat at the table.”

“One of the important things we’ve recognized through our work is that it’s having a voice at that table that matters,” the VSO director said. “Quite often women are included in a discussion but they’re not allowed to speak, and if they do speak, their contribution is sometimes discounted.”

Greater influence

That causes problems for entire communities, Salt said, as “women have a different perspective on decisions.”

In the communities VSO works in, for instance, women carry water “so they know that building a well near the village is important. Because they do most of the old age and sick care, they know that having a budget for health care is important.”

Nath said VSO research has found that when women enter government, it can help break down prejudice and barriers to equality for other women.

“But they need to be allowed into positions of actual decision-making power so they can prioritize things that matter to them, like girls’ education,” she said.

A VSO study of women elected in Odisha in rural India has found that when women entered politics, they built confidence to challenge male authority both at home and in the community. Crucially, they then launched public discussions around infant disease and mortality, malaria, malnourishment, sexually transmitted diseases, and the trafficking of women and children.

Similar results were found in Kenya, for example, where women head education committees and are involved in decisions around secondary school places.

“Many of the women [who have taken up public official roles such as] chairs and secretaries have successfully reversed old patterns of only boys being offered school places when men were leading exclusively,” Nath said. “Now it’s more like 50-50.”

Will the sustainable development goals include a standalone goal on gender equality and the rights of women? How would this impact the work of development implementers in the field? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Corinne Podger

    Corinne Podger is a media development practitioner with more than 20 years' experience reporting for high-profile news outlets including the BBC World Service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Economist. She works part time for BBC Media Action, the international charity of the BBC. Separately, as an independent consultant, she runs media skills training for a range of clients in her areas of expertise — social and multimedia, international news, science, health, climate change and religion.