Advancing Gender Equality: Leveraging the Sustainable Development Goals as we mark International Human Rights Day 2020

By Aarushi Khanna, Regional Coordinator Equal Measures 2030 and Paula Trujillo, Policy and Advocacy Advisor 2030

Sai Jyothirmai Racherla (Sai) Deputy Executive Director of ARROW, EM2030’s regional partner in Asia — does not see universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing and complementary. On this International Human Rights Day, we spoke to Sai. In this conversation, she tells us about the opportunities and experiences of feminist organizations engaging in international, regional, and national human rights mechanisms and frameworks to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and ensure accountability for women’s and girls’ rights.

According to Sai Jyothirmai Racherla the right to decide if or when to become pregnant — or whether to continue a pregnancy or not — is a fundamental human right which cannot be fulfilled unless duty bearers ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Similarly, preventable maternal deaths are a violation of the right to life, and reduction of maternal mortality ratio is a key SDG indicator

For ARROW, the Agenda 2030 and human rights frameworks are inextricably linked. Achieving the SDG goals will pave the way to fulfilling, defending, and protecting all human rights to ensure the SDC principle of “leaving no one behind” which clearly leans on non-discrimination and equality.

“Despite resistance and difficulties [towards women and girls’ rights in the current political climate] these spaces have upheld gender equality and SRHR through persistent efforts of women, youth and LGBTIQ advocates” she explains.

ARROW — alongside with their partners including youth-led, youth serving, women led, LGBTIQ, and CSOs from across the Asia Pacific region — have engaged with the SDG process prior to its adoption in 2015. Together with other women’s rights organizations, they have worked tirelessly to contribute to the progressive gender equality-focused, sexuality-affirming language of the resolution, the goals, targets, and indicators. Together with partners, they engage at all levels in the SDG processes such as the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the monitoring of the SDG Goal 5 on gender equality progress in 19 Asian countries.

Equally, EM2030’s regional partner in Asia engages regularly and systematically with the Human Rights Council (HRC), where they have seen affirmative responses around gender equality and SRHR. For example, the Violence Against Women (VAW) resolution in June 2015 had progressive SRHR and gender equality language and was the first ever UN resolution incorporating the term “comprehensive sexuality education”. Likewise, Sai notes, the 2018 UN annual resolution on Discrimination Against Women and Girls (DAWG) played an important role in calling for the development and enforcement of policies, good practices, and legal frameworks that respect the right to bodily autonomy “a crucial concept around SRHR, including on abortion, since the Beijing Conference”.

But where do data and evidence play a role in engaging with these mechanisms and processes? For ARROW this role is clear: their key strategy as an advocacy organization is to monitor governmental commitments to women’s health using rights-based and gender-sensitive indicators both in line with the SDGs and the human rights framework. ARROW uses data and evidence to measure progress, gaps and challenges around gender equality and SRHR in their countries of interest. This information helps hold governments accountable for their commitments made in international, regional and national norms, law and policy contexts. For Sai “data and evidence-based advocacy is crucial to the development of laws, policies and programmes [to advance gender equality]”.

So, what do organisations need to effectively use these mechanisms and galvanize the advocacy opportunities they represent?

“We need to establish [for example] formal communication [channels] between the HRC and the SDG annual follow up and review processes. Both processes should link up with each other to ensure human rights are protected, fulfilled, defended and respected for all equally and equitably and development is ensured in all its diversity and inclusiveness” she explains.

Human rights and sustainable development frameworks offer complementarities that can be harnessed. ARROW’s experience shows that these mechanisms are windows of opportunity that are being used by feminist organizations to support their national and regional advocacy strategies for the advancement of gender equality. Data and evidence collected locally and nationally are powerful tools that reflect the living reality of women and girls taking into account all their intersecting identities and therefore influence the design, implementation and monitoring of gender sensitive policies, laws and budgets that guarantee their human rights.

Unseen: 52% of women without access to the internet

By Anne Connell, Senior Data Advisor, Equal Measures 2030

29 October is Internet Day: access to the internet is skewed in favour of men.

Globally, 58% of men have access to internet, compared to 48% of women. Some women and girls simply lack internet at home, in their schools, or in their places of work — in part because of women’s overrepresentation in the informal economy, care work, and home-based work. For many, including in Europe and North America access is too expensive or service provision is severely limited in rural or underserved areas. Cultural factors also influence the gender gap in uptake of new technologies: for example, in Asia and the Middle East gender norms may mean that men have greater mobility in public and access to internet cafés, or can use the internet at work, while women only have access within the home.

Internet access and use is a critical cross-sectoral issue. It’s not only about technology — about the newest hardware or cutting-edge app. The internet is increasingly playing a central role in society, and some suggest that the digital revolution may hold promise for “leapfrogging” access to economic and social change in African countries, such as Kenya with the launch of mobile money technologies like M-Pesa. Yet it may also reinforce — or even deepen — existing disparities if we aren’t careful.

Though the cost of this digital gender divide is high, it can go largely unseen. Lack of connectivity and skills for the digital age are not issues that are typically prioritized by gender advocates, or even thought of as “gender equality issues.” A 2018 Advocates Survey that EM2030 conducted with over 600 advocates around the world highlighted priority issues such as violence against women and girls, reproductive health and health care, education, and women’s economic empowerment. Women and girls’ access to technologies did not emerge as a priority.

This even though the internet is increasingly linked to “core” gender equality issues. Internet is a crucial way for women and girls to learn, enter markets and earn income, and access critical information and services. This is particularly true today in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Take a timely example: the connections between internet and gender equality in education have been laid bare by the pandemic. Internet can improve the quality of education, opening doors to information and opportunities for learning, both in and outside the classroom. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved many aspects of education online in countries around the world, lack of connectivity is not only an inconvenience, it is a crisis. There currently isn’t nearly complete enough data to fully understand the effects of COVID-19 on education or the well-being of girls — but early evidence suggests that there may be educational losses and widening gaps between girls and boys, affluent and less affluent students, and rural and urban communities.

Internet access and use is linked to other areas that gender advocates prioritize, too.

The internet — and the skills to use new technologies — make it easier to connect with other business owners, start new businesses, seek out financing, sell products to new markets, and find better-paying jobs. As online commerce and mobile money continue to expand, over 900 million women remain unbanked and excluded from the digital economy, in large part because of lack of internet access.

Internet access is even linked to the issues that top the list of advocates’ priorities: violence against women and girls, and women’s health. The digital gender gap can preclude women and girls’ ability to get health information (e.g. on sexual and reproductive health) or information regarding important social services (e.g. services for victims of domestic violence). And as tight lockdown restrictions are creating what UN Women calls a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence, internet technology — including encrypted web-based mobile messaging services and apps providing information to survivors — can even prove to be lifesaving.

These links between connectivity and gender equality build up equitable access to the internet for women and girls is a roadmap to cross-sectoral growth. How can governments and the private sector better support the globally untapped 52% of women and girls currently not online?

Governments and the private sector must engage with women’s rights organisations in the creation of technology policies and national broadband strategies. For one, including more voices around the table would expand the base of stakeholders with ownership over technology issues, and build consensus around technology principles. Private sector actors — especially mobile network operators, who play a central role in enabling access in low-income countries — should also see the real value in tapping into new markets through technologies and content tailored to women and girls.

For civil society organisations — and women’s rights organisations, in particular — policy discussions around internet and communications technologies could be leveraged to draw connections across issues and advance gender equality. Internet advocacy organisations that already push for expanded access to the internet (for example, for lower data bundle costs, waiving data usage fees, or zero-rating websites with educational content) should partner with women’s rights organisations to strengthen advocacy. Direct input from gender advocates could ensure that the rollout of new technologies takes into account different population groups’ specific needs and use patterns so that technologies reflect the real challenges facing women and girls in their daily lives.

Governments, the private sector, and gender advocates alike can and should be more ambitious in thinking about internet connectivity to inclusion and opportunity. Women and girls need access to technologies — and the skills to use them — so that they are not left behind in an increasingly digital world.

Where’s the “real-time” data on gender equality?

By Alison Holder, Director, Equal Measures 2030

It’s the first Global Goals Day of Factivism; a chance to embrace the facts that help us understand the state of our world as it is today. With Equal Measures 2030’s (EM2030) mission of connecting data and evidence with advocacy and action on gender equality, Factivism is why we exist.

Good Factivism requires good data, and this includes timely data. The partners behind today’s day of action (including TRENDSGPSDD and Project Everyone) have shared an important up to date fact about the state of gender equality to remind us that men dominate positions of political power, holding 75% of Parliamentary seats globally. This fact resonates with the findings of EM2030’s SDG Gender Index: no country has yet reached gender equality and half of countries — home to 2.1 billion girls and women — won’t meet a set of the most important gender equality targets by 2030 if the current pace continues.

Lack of progress on gender equality threatens the whole of the Global Goals agenda: 22% of the indicators for the 17 SDGs are gender specific, and many more of the SDG indicators aren’t gender specific but should be in order to reflect the uneven progress on key issues for girls and women.

But up-to-date data is particularly hard to come by for gender equality. EM2030 knows this first-hand. In building our SDG Gender Index — the most comprehensive tool available to monitor gender equality aligned to the SDGs — we combed gender data sources across the world and across sectors to compile data measuring 51 gender issues across 129 countries.

Despite the massive data compilation effort, we undertook with our global, cross-sector partnership, our Index (like others) is heavily reliant on population Census, household survey and administrative data. But censuses are conducted only every ten years, internationally standardized household-level surveys tend to be updated every 3–5 years, and administrative data (data generated through birth registration, education and health systems, for example) are collected on an ongoing basis but only compiled and reported several years later.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure for timely data on gender equality. Many groups, including EM2030 and its partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and FEMNET, have raised the alarm that COVID-19 could set gender equality back by decades. But at a global level, there is insufficient up-to-date data to systematically prove this point. Even worse, there is a real risk that COVID-19 leads to even less timely gender data, with lockdowns and strained public budgets threatening data gathering efforts.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the pressures, but the need for more up to date gender data is not new. Lack of timely gender data was raised by policymakers and gender equality advocates alike in stakeholder surveys conducted by EM2030 in 2017 and 2018.

In 2018, we worked with Ipsos to survey 625 gender equality advocates around the world. Just 19% of gender advocates considered gender data “up to date.” 86% of advocates described gender data as “somewhat” or “mostly” incomplete. 9 in 10 advocates attributed gender data gaps to governments not prioritizing the collection of data about issues affecting women and girls.

Similar concerns about timeliness of gender data came directly from policymakers themselves. In 2017 EM2030 and Ipsos surveyed 109 policymakers in five countries (Indonesia, India, Kenya, Senegal and Colombia). When asked about the “quality” of gender data in their countries, two thirds of policymakers were dissatisfied with data timeliness:

On the inaugural Global Goals Day of Factivism we need to celebrate the power of facts to capture attention, expose injustice, and drive accountability. But we must also recognize that when it comes to gender equality, up to date data is hard to come by. These gender data gaps must be filled, especially through cross sector and systemic investments in national statistics systems . Data2X estimates that the gap in financing for gender data systems in lower-income countries is between $170M-$240M a year. With COVID-19 in mind, we also need to prioritize real-time monitoring of critical gender issues that we know respond quickly to shocks, such as income, access to education and health services, rates of violence and unpaid care burden.We know that setbacks in progress on gender equality threaten the whole of the 2030 agenda, but we’re “flying blind” without sufficient data to understand the real-time global impact of shocks like COVID-19 on women and girls. Even before COVID-19, more than a third of countries were moving slowly — or even in the wrong direction — on key gender issues. To ensure Factivists have what they need to keep gender equality progress on track, their demands for more timely gender data must be met.