How to make the SDGs walk the talk about gender equality and women’s empowerment

By Keiko Nowacka, Gender coordinator at the OECD Development Centre

This September, the world will adopt a new development framework: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to “transform our world by 2030.”  Gender equality and women’s empowerment feature as a stand-alone goal (SDG5) and are integrated through many of the other goals (e.g. SDG1, 3, 5, 10, 11). By 2030, the SDGs aim to ensure that “every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality” (paragraph 15) through ambitious and comprehensive targets missed in the Millennium Development Goals. Focus now includes unpaid care, violence against women, early marriage and women’s political participation. It is no exaggeration to say that the SDGs boast unprecedented potential for dramatically challenging and changing the status quo of gender equality.

The inclusion of social norms throughout the proposed SDG5 targets represents a promising point for change and leverage within the new development framework, recognizing the impact on gender equality and development. Social norms are the values, attitudes and practices that shape behaviour, expectations and ways of living. They are reflected in the formal and informal laws that govern a country as well as community practices. As the only cross-country measure of discriminatory social norms, the OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) provides valuable evidence of how such norms seriously hinder women’s empowerment and adversely impact a broad range of development outcomes, including migration, employment and life expectancy. SIGI’s variables look at the discrimination within formal and informal laws, practices and attitudes and how they shape women’s voice, rights and decision-making power within their families and societies, and thus, their empowerment pathways. Including a social norms approach within the post-2015 agenda is, as the SIGI’s data demonstrates, among the most effective means therefore to accelerate progress in this critical area.

Economic empowerment of women features strongly under SDG5, reflecting global recognition of its multiplier effect for development: the G20 and the African Union, for example, have also prioritized it in their development agendas for 2015. Economic empowerment entails women’s ability to make informed choices, take advantage of and fully benefit from economic opportunities and control their income and assets.  Today, this remains a distant reality for many women worldwide. Globally, the female share of the labour force hovers around 40%, barely changing over the past two decades. Only 52% of women are active in the labour force and are concentrated in part-time or vulnerable employment. In the Middle East and North Africa region, this falls to 25%. Gender wage gaps remain stubbornly at 20% worldwide, and female entrepreneurship remains low. Only 25% of business owners with employees in OECD economies are women.

So, what would the world look like in 2030 if the SDG5 targets focusing on women’s economic empowerment are met, and how can a social norms approach be a catalyst for change?

First, SDG5calls for reforms to women’s access to economic resources. So, by 2030, women would be empowered economic actors, contributing to the dynamism of their economies.

Today’s reality, however, is far different. The SIGI highlights how the discrimination women face now when it comes to land and property rights as well as financial inclusion is a serious brake on their economic empowerment. Growing evidence shows that tackling the discriminatory social norms that restrict women’s access to productive and economic resources would have significant gains for women as well as their economies. Discrimination against women comes with measurable economic costs: 2015 IMF estimates suggest that gender gaps in the labour market cost 27% of GDP in the Middle East and North Africa, 23% in South Asia and 15% worldwide. Yet, in around 100 countries covered by the SIGI, women continue to face discrimination in law or practice in accessing land, property or opening a bank account: 18% of land titles are owned by women. 107 countries discriminate against daughters and/or widows in terms of inheritance rights either in the legal framework or in practice. Only 8% of women in Albania, like in many other countries, report having a say in their own income.

Second, SDG5 calls for the equal division of unpaid care work within the household to relieve women of the “double burden” of paid and unpaid work. So, by 2030, caregiving activities would be equally shared between women and men.

A lot, however, remains to be done to achieve this goal. Women spend on average three times more on unpaid care work than men — 2 times in the United States and up to 10 times in Pakistan and India. Traditional norms and expectations of women as primary caregivers within the family are not innocuous for their economic empowerment. OECD Development Centre research on unpaid care work shows correlations between unequal levels of unpaid care work and levels of female vulnerable employment and gender wage gaps. For instance, in countries where women spend twice as much time on unpaid care activities as men, they earn 63% of male wages. This decreases to 40% of male wages, however, when women spend five times more time on unpaid care work than men. Policies that recognize unpaid care’s socio-economic value, aim to reduce the time and “burden,” and redistribute the responsibilities within the household – through  parental and not only maternal leave – and with public services – for childcare, transportation, infrastructure – would offer women more opportunities to engage actively in economic activities.

What can we conclude then?

The SDGs offers a strategic and timely moment to advance the economic empowerment of women. However, acting on this agenda requires a political and cultural seachange to overcome the systemic discrimination women face to achieve economic autonomy and empowerment. To walk the talk of the SDGs, we must pursue an action plan that accounts for underlying social norms.

First, it must work to eliminate discrimination in labour laws and inheritance laws.

Secondly, action means investing in data and technical capacity to measure and track progress on social norm change. The SIGI’s results prove that discriminatory social norms can be transformed with positive policy interventions. Such data is vital for informing policies and better understanding what works to enable women’s economic empowerment.

Finally, bold action calls for real accountability in the commitments made to women, though appropriate budgets and strengthened national gender networks, for example, involving multiple actors from community leaders and civil society to governments and the private sector.

Fuelled by the SDGs, this action plan is our best bet for turning the world’s promises about ‌gender equality and women’s empowerment into reality by 2030.

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