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Margarida Luis Sitoe works as a manual de-miner in Mozambique. Photo: Olaf Juergensen/ UNDP

Equality between women and men is a fundamental tenet of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG target 8.5 aims high: "By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value."

But a recent article from The Economist points out how far we are from that goal, pointing to the systematic exclusion of women from labour markets across the world. Citing World Bank data, it notes:

"Women are barred from certain jobs in 104 countries... Some countries publish lists of jobs deemed too dangerous for women. Others stop women from working in entire sectors, at night or in “morally inappropriate” jobs. In four countries women cannot register a business. In 18 a husband can stop his wife working."

Such blanket provisions are often based on obsolete notions of needing to protect a weaker category (typically women and children) from jobs seen as physically demanding, unsafe, or those that harm the capacity to bear children.

Why not let women decide what they're up for? Meet Margarida Luis Sitoe, who works as a manual de-miner in Mozambique. Is it a dangerous job? Sure. But take a look what she has to say in a message on International Women's Day. (Her employer APOPO does fascinating work training scent detection rats for addressing challenges of mines and tuberculosis. But, I digress.)

“It’s hard work but I enjoy it, and as an African woman I feel empowered in such a position... Some were surprised at first to see women on the minefield, but now they treat us like equals! The team has become my family... It is very intense. I am a single mother, but through my job I can support my two children and my mother, and I can also invest in the family vegetable business... I think the best thing of all about my job is seeing the land given back to the people who live there, watching their children playing safely and see how happy people are that they can once again farm the land without fear."


Female deminers in Tajikistan earn US$350 per month, more than three times what a teacher earns. Photos: Olaf Juergensen/UNDP


Women like Margarida have worked alongside men to contribute to the remarkable success story of demining in Mozambique, where what was initially expected to take over 100 years was accomplished in less than 30 - the country has been declared free of known minefields. Today hundreds of Mozambican de-miners work all over the world - from Iraq and Turkey, to Angola and Southeast Asia. UNDP is proud to support such work, and sees this as critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Similarly, my UNDP colleague Olaf Juergensen shares his photos (featured here) of female deminers in Tajikistan earning US$350 per month - in contrast to $100/month for teachers - where they work as team leaders and in mixed teams. That's huge economic and cultural impact on their families, society and community. 

Women are definitely ready to step up. But while changing laws are a necessary first step, so much more is required. For instance, in the area of peacekeeping, women are less than 4 percent of soldiers and 10 percent of police deployed in UN missions, although it is increasingly clear that that "not only can women perform the same roles as men, they can also deliver results that their male counterparts cannot." So the UN is now investing in an active campaign to recruit and retain female peacekeepers.

These women know that the solution is not to bar women from certain fields but rather to take measures to make them as safe for women as for men. And so should governments and legislatures. In India, for instance, a lack of safe workplaces and the danger of reaching them by public transport is keeping more educated women out of the labour force, hurting the economy and leaving women vulnerable, according to a 2017 World Bank Report: "Nearly two thirds of Indian women with college degrees are without jobs. India’s economy could achieve double-digit growth if the government drives ahead with reforms to increase women’s participation in the workforce." Now let's take that to scale. If 2.7 billion women had access to the same jobs as men, what would that do to the global economy? To society?

So let's celebrate and do whatever is needed to make possible the women pioneers who wish to step up alongside men to clear countries of mines, keep the peace, work underwater or with certain hammers, drive trains or buses with more than 14 seats, work at night to generate electricity or in gasworks.

If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


Women are definitely ready to step up; let's celebrate and do whatever is needed to make it possible. Photo: Ruhani Kaur