By Maggie Lynch
Gender Equality was the fifth SDG proposed by the UN in 2015. Aside from being a human right, gender equality is also importantly intertwined with many of the other United Nations SDGs. This inherent convergence is known as intersectionality and it pervades the UN goals, connecting them on a deeper level. When one is achieved, or any progress is made, the others likely improve as well.
Conversely, in order for any one goal to be accomplished, the others must be advanced because they are so deeply intertwined. In terms of gender equality, empowered women would have a profound impact on economies and societies as a whole, with the most notable differences seen in poverty, hunger, and educational sub levels.
In order to understand the UN’s mission to solve gender inequality, it is important to first understand the woman behind the operations. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Executive Director of UN Women, the organization tasked with aiding women around the globe in their fight towards equality. Mlambo-Ngcuka has an intriguing past characterized by ventures in a variety of different fields, making her a good candidate to fill a role which requires such an intersectional background.
From South Africa, Mlambo-Ngcuka began her career by joining the fight to end apartheid in her country. From there she went on to work in Geneva at the World YMCA, establishing a program for young women. After leaving behind a capable staff in Geneva, she returned to South Africa to serve as a Member of Parliament in their first democratic government, the Deputy Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, the Minister of Minerals and Energy, and the Deputy President of South Africa.
Now in her sixth year as Executive Director of UN Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka works to promote the UN’s gender equality goal from an intersectional standpoint. In her remarks at the 63rd session of of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York City, Mlambo-Ngcuka summarized the current standing of the fifth UN SDG saying “With the Agreed Conclusions you have given us the possibility to take the work forward, to make sure that we address the discrimination that may be suffered by women and girls in every part of the world, whether because they are disabled, because of their sexuality, because they are human rights activists, or because of poverty.”
This statement focuses on women but provides the intersectional landscape on which the UN must work to tackle all of their goals.
Generally, this goal seeks to end public and private violence, eliminate harmful practices, recognize unpaid care and domestic work, and promote equal opportunities for leadership.
1. Ending Public and Private Violence
Violence, including all types of trafficking, exploitation, and abuse, is a leading cause of underdevelopment, psychological disorders, and in extreme cases, death amongst victims. Such acts of violence are often committed at the hands of an intimate partner or loved one and have profound effects on victims.
Based on the staggering results from surveys taken from 2005-2016, the UN concluded that taking action against violence was of utmost importance. These surveys, with data taken from 56 countries, yielded that 20% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who were involved in sexual relationships, had experienced some form of violence carried out by their partner.
Moving forward, the UN hopes to see those numbers drop a significant amount as a result of their programs and initiatives.
2. Eliminating Harmful Practices
Childhood marriage and female genital mutilation are the two leading harmful practices sought to be eliminated by the UN. Both of these acts affect young women in developing nations around the world. Harmful practices have been declining in recent years as a result of UN intervention. However, there is still much to be done to fully eliminate them.
The UN revealed that in 2017, 21% of women reported being married before the age of 18. That is to say that approximately 650 million women today were involved in childhood marriages, many of them forcefully so. Thankfully, rates of childhood marriage have dropped around the world. In South Asia, risk of early marriage has dropped 40% in the past 19 years.
Similarly, female genital mutilation has also declined in recent years. In 2000, nearly one in every two girls from the 30 different countries where this is practiced. Now, the numbers have dropped to one in three. Though still higher than desired, this drop shows the progress made by the UN thus far.
In the future, the UN hopes that both of these numbers will reach zero, but unfortunately that goal is still far-fetched.
3. Recognizing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work
For years, the UN has been studying how women and men compare in household labor. As they imagined, women were responsible for a significantly larger portion of the caretaking duties, which are, of course, unpaid.
The UN collected data from 90 countries and found that, on average, women spend three times as many hours as men working in unpaid domestic roles.
To combat this statistic, the UN has made this goal a top priority and is working to level the playing field. To do so, they plan to set public services, infrastructures, and social protection policies to help these women. In addition, they are working to promote equal responsibility for the household and the family around the world.
4. Promoting Equal Opportunities for Leadership
Finally, the UN’s goal for gender equality seeks to improve female representation in leadership roles. This includes political, economic, and public positions, encompassing all realms of representation.
Since its incorporation into the UN agenda, this goal has already made progress. In 2010, women accounted for 19% of representation in single or lower houses of national parliaments. In 2018, that number was up to 23%.
The Future of Gender Equality
Evidently, progress has been made in each of the four main areas of concern for gender equality. To help accomplish these goals and more, the UN has set additional objectives. Namely, they are working to give women around the world access to information and opportunities.
Importantly, the UN is promoting increased availability of technology. Headed by Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women is using technology to promote women empowerment. In a statement issued on International Women’s Day, Mlambo-Ngcuka proclaimed that “innovation and technology with a gender perspective is crucial. Women and girls must have opportunities to help shape the policies, services, and infrastructures that impact their lives”.
Moreover, the UN is also promoting the availability of sexual and reproductive health and rights; equal rights to economic resources, land, and financial services; and working to establish enforceable legislation for gender equality at all levels.
The UN Women will continue to work to better the lives of women and girls around the world. As Mlambo-Ngcuka expressed, there is a reaffirmed “need to look forward and to leapfrog ahead, ensuring that we constantly add new, bold language that can take us significant steps forward. That balance will always be important.”