Our Perspectives

Can there be sustainable development without gender equality?


 primary healthcare for women in MyanmarYoung mothers get health care education at a UNDP-sponsored clinic in Hakha Township, Chin State, Myanmar. Photo: Tom Cheatham for UNDP

Whenever we analyze a development strategy, the inevitable question arises:  Should the approach to gender equality be comprehensive across all sectors or should it be a separate issue and agenda?

Experience tells us that both approaches are desirable: A concrete goal for gender equality as well as fundamental indicators and targets that require creation of gender policies. These policies should contain specific measures to address half of the population's need for education, health care, access to land and energy, etc.

To date, this has been the most common approach across various UN groups, reaffirming the idea that a comprehensive and transformative approach is urgently needed in order to address structural barriers to gender equality and to lay a solid foundation for the future.

The key now is to draw lessons learned from the experience of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and strengthen the tools that advanced gender equality in the desired areas.

But what has been achieved by the MDGs with regard to gender equality? The answer is mixed:

  • Gender parity has been achieved in primary education, but only 2 of 130 countries have achieved this goal at all levels of education.
  • Progress has been made in access to employment. Globally, 40 percent of paid jobs in sectors other than agriculture are held by women.
  • Progress has been made in access to public sector. And yet, as of 31 January 2013, the average percentage of women members of parliament in the world was just over 20 per cent.

The MDGs have failed to address key issues such as violence against women, unpaid care work, women’s control over assets and property, wage and sex discrimination, health and reproductive rights, and unequal participation in public and private decision-making at all levels. They also failed to make sufficient progress in the reduction of maternal mortality.

Here are the challenges we need to address in the new post-2015 agenda:

  • Comprehensive approach: Set specific gender equality targets for each of the goals;
  • Implementation: Transform the goals into public policies with sufficient resources to address inclusion and empowerment of women in all spheres;
  • Measurement and accountability: Build a set of gender-related indicators that will allow us to assess the situation in real time and focus on what works.

In sum, if we are to achieve true sustainable development, we must focus on addressing the structural factors underlying gender-based inequality, including social norms and attitudes that discriminate against women.

The challenge now is not only to be effective and move forward, but also to remember that we cannot afford a single step backwards. In the last century, we have seen many walls fall down. Let’s hope that the 21st century will bring down the walls of inequality once and for all.

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