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The Situation for Women and Girls Around the World? Stark.


Women make up nearly two-thirds of Rwanda’s parliament, one of the highest rates globally. A legislator, above, attending an international parliamentary conference at the UN in August 2015. 

As the United Nations prepares to formally accept the new Sustainable Development Goals at midday at a summit meeting on Friday, here is a close look at one of the main resources that helped inform the long debate on creating the goals — the UN Development Program’s Human Development Report for 2014. What do the numbers in the report prove? That the situation for women and girls is stark and can be fatal.

The SDGs — 17 objectives for 2015 to 2030 that all UN member states agreed on to replace the Millennium Development Goals — will be adopted at the UN meeting, taking place Sept. 25 to 27 in New York, with Pope Francis presiding as the pre-eminent speaker on Friday morning at 10 am.

The statistics presented in the Human Development Report reveal how much progress is needed to realize Goal 5 of the SDGs, to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” one of the biggest laggards among the Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of this year.

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The work ahead for the new goals, which aim to end poverty worldwide, poses a test of will for all countries, rich, poor and in between, as the report shows alarming gender inequalities across a range of conditions, many of them surprising.

Western Europe and North America, for example, need to make far more progress than some sub-Saharan African countries in increasing the representation of women in legislatures; almost two-thirds of Rwanda’s parliament is made up of women while less than a quarter of American and Canadian legislators are women. When women are excluded from politics, they have little chance of influencing important policies affecting their lives. Currently, the best region for female participation in legislatures is Latin America and the Caribbean.

If you are a woman living in Norway, your odds of having the same income as a man are higher than anywhere else on earth, yet Burundi, a tiny landlocked nation in Africa lately embroiled in political strife, is also fair to women on income parity, even if they earn little.

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The best country in which to have a baby and get through the ordeal? Estonia. The worst place to be a girl and try to attend many years of schooling? Chad.

“Human development” is not simply UN jargon; according to the report, it is defined as permanently increasing the number of choices people have, a concept that many governments fail to prioritize in administering to their citizens — not to mention “nonstate” armed groups.

The main threats to women and girls’ human development that the report identifies are economic risks, inequality, health dangers, hunger or poor nutrition, environmental and natural disasters and physical insecurity. All these risks affect women and girls far more than they affect men. Even if these threats vanish or diminish, societies still must commit to eliminating patriarchal attitudes, like selective sex abortions in such countries as India.

Economic risks

The report says that the main barrier holding women back from leading fulfilled lives is unemployment. Jobs help change perceptions of women’s value and encourages investment in their education and health, the report emphasized. Here are some findings:

  • Globally, at the end of 2012, the ratio of women above 15 years old who were employed or unemployed and looking for jobs was 50.6 percent, compared with 76.7 percent of men.
  • Arab states had the lowest participation of women in the labor force at 24.7 percent, compared with 73.2 percent of men. Regionally, the most equal labor force participation rate was in sub-Saharan Africa, where 63.6 percent of women were working or looking for work, compared with 76.3 percent of men. Many salaries in sub-Saharan Africa lead to precarious living, however, as 40 percent of workers there earn less than $1.25 a day.
  • In the US, the labor force participation rate was 56.8 percent for women and 69.3 percent for men, similar to the German rate, at 53.5 percent for women compared with 66.4 percent for men, and the British rate, which was 55.7 percent for women, compared with 68.8 percent for men.


Unequal distribution of income, health, education and decision-making powers make women lose a sense of a shared role in society, which reduces their social and political engagement, the report says.

  • At the end of 2011, women contributed 33 percent to worldwide gross national income. So, across all countries, women were responsible for only a third of production in the economy and income from abroad.
  • The worst region was Arab states, where women contributed only 23 percent to national income, while the most progressive region was sub-Saharan Africa, where women contributed 40 percent to national income.
  • Although Burundi’s gross national income per capita in 2011 was low, at only $1,500, the country had the highest income parity in the world, with women contributing 46 percent to national revenue.
  • Among developed countries, Norway had the highest income equality, with women contributing 45 percent to national income. In the United States, women contributed 40 percent to national income, similar to Canada’s 41 percent and slightly higher than Germany’s 38 percent and Britain’s 39 percent.

The report highlights poor reproductive health services for women as a major contributor to persistent gender inequality, since lack of access to these services leads many women to die during childbirth.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa was the worst regional performer on this measure, with 474 deaths per 100,000 live births at the end of 2011.
  • Europe and Central Asia (considered one region in the report) had the lowest maternal mortality ratio among all regions, at 31 deaths per 100,000 live births.
  • The US had an even lower proportion than Europe and Central Asia, at 21 deaths per 100,000 live births, but this rate was higher than in Estonia, which had the lowest number at 2 deaths per 100,000 live births, followed closely by Greece and Singapore, which each had 3 deaths per 100,000 live births.

The report states that education enables women to live up to their potential and helps to equalize their opportunities and status when compared with men, while also increasing women’s ability to cope with shocks. But many countries lack gender parity in education.

  • Across the world, at the end of 2012, women received an average of six years of schooling compared with 7.4 years of schooling for men. At the end of 2012, 54.1 percent of women globally had received a high-school education compared with 64.2 percent of men.
  • Women in South Asia got the least amount of education, having received an average of 3.5 years of schooling, compared with 5.8 years of schooling for men.
  • The region with the highest education results for women was Europe and Central Asia, where women had received 8.8 years of schooling, compared with 9.8 years of schooling for men.
  • Women in Chad received the least amount of schooling worldwide, attending school for an average of 0.6 years. Chad was followed closely by Guinea, Mozambique and Niger, where women in these countries attended school for an average of 0.8 years. All the countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The US had the best education results for women worldwide, with women receiving an average of 13 years of schooling. The US was followed by Britain, Norway, Germany and Israel, where women received 12.8, 12.7 and 12.6 years of schooling on average, respectively, with Germany and Israel tied.

In most countries, women have limited ability to shape public policies that affect their lives.

  • At the end of 2013, women held 21.1 percent of seats in legislatures worldwide.
  • The worst representation of women was found in Arab states, where women held 13.8 percent of seats in legislatures at the end of 2013.
  • The best region for women’s representation in politics when the report was published was Latin America and the Caribbean, where women held 25.3 percent of parliamentary seats.
  • Currently, some of the best representation of women in politics is actually in poorer countries, with 63.8 percent of Rwanda’s parliament consisting of women, and the proportion for Bolivia’s and Cuba’s legislatures being 53.1 percent and 48.9 percent, respectively.
  • Women comprise disproportionately small parts of legislatures in rich countries, however; currently, 20 percent of US senators and 19.3 percent of members in the House of Representatives are women. Women have similar representation in Britain, comprising 29.4 percent of Parliament; in Canada, they make up 25.3 percent of Parliament; and in Australia, they form 27 percent of that body. Women make up 36.5 percent of Germany’s Bundestag.

Health risks and food insecurity

Pandemics, hunger and malnutrition are the primary health risks that undermine women’s livelihoods, the report finds, acknowledging that human development across the world has improved in recent years mostly through gains in health, but gender inequality in health results remains a problem.

Health pandemics disproportionately affect women because they tend to be the predominant nurses and caregivers in developing countries, the regions most affected by disease outbreaks.

  • At the height of the Ebola epidemic in August 2014, for example, Liberia’s Ministry of Health said that 75 percent of the deaths it was recording were women.
  • Unicef statistics in August 2014 found that women accounted for up to 60 percent of Ebola deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the countries most affected by the disease during the outbreak last year.

Women are more likely to be adversely affected by hunger when compared with men because they have less money and other resources they need to have enough to eat.

  • The US Department of Agriculture has published statistics that show that at the end of 2013, 34 percent of US households headed by single women did not have consistent, dependable access to healthy food. In comparison, 23 percent of US households headed by single men and 14.3 percent of all US households were “food insecure.”
  • Globally, the World Food Program and the UN’s Economic and Social Council estimate that 60 percent of the world’s hungry are women and girls. This is because female-headed households are disproportionally among the poorest households; women’s access to aid is often undermined by gender-based discrimination; and women and girls are not favored in allocation of food at home, according to the UN.

Malnutrition is the largest contributor to disease worldwide.

  • Globally, 60 percent of undernourished people are women or girls, said the UN Economic and Social Council.
  • A form of malnutrition unique to women is anemia; according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 42 percent of pregnant women worldwide suffer from anemia because of iron deficiency. The highest rates are found in Africa, where the World Health Organization statistics reveal that 57.1 percent of pregnant women and 47.5 percent of nonpregnant women are anemic.

Environmental and natural disasters

Women face greater barriers in dealing with natural disasters than men.

  • Worldwide, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men, according to studies done by Kristina Peterson, a former senior researcher at the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology. Research by Oxfam International suggests that the reasons for this inequity are social, including restrictions on women’s movement, expectations that women prioritize the care of the elderly and children over their own lives and traditions in certain areas that restrict women’s ability to participate in such lifesaving exercises as swimming.
  • The gendered impact of natural disasters in areas where women and men are not equal is also exemplified in research by two British researchers, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper, which shows that in 141 countries, disasters cause the same number of deaths in women and men in societies where both sexes enjoy equal rights.

Physical insecurity

Women feel less safe than men in every country, and violence negatively affects women’s freedom of movement, emotional well-being and even their capacity for imagination and thought.

  • Worldwide, a third of women experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, usually from an intimate partner, according to the report.
  • The International Labor Organization reports that women make up 98 percent of the estimated 4.5 million people who are forced into sexual exploitation each year.
  • The European Commission says that 40 to 50 percent of women in Europe have experienced unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
  • In the US, 56 percent of female students in grades 7 to 12 and 62 percent of female college students report having been sexually harassed, says the American Association of University Women, a group advocating for the rights of women and girls.

To rectify global disparities for the rights of girls and women, the report says that governments should change policies and start campaigns to change social norms so that gender gaps can be reduced. Nevertheless, the report also emphasizes that national steps to ensure equal rights for women are more easily enacted when global commitments are instituted and global financial support is available.

Will the Sustainable Development Goals be a set of empty promises or inviolable vows? The answer will be clear in 15 years.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Originally from Zimbabwe, Tendai Musakwa is a journalist who has written for China Offshore, Invest In, ChinaFile, the China Africa Project and other publications. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and Chinese from Vassar College and a master’s degree in Chinese studies from Oxford University. He reports on development, finance and international relations and lives in Shanghai.

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The Situation for Women and Girls Around the World? Stark.
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Mohammad Baig
Mohammad Baig
8 years ago

All issues related to human development are conditional to have access to justice as the equal gender with equal right and respect in the society.The more we give justice to the people the more we resolve the issues.

Tezira Jamwa
Tezira Jamwa
8 years ago

After reading the report, I feel so depressed because some gains that we had made as women and now going right down the drain! I thought the countries in the Northern Hemisphere were doing well compared to the countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Why the unexpected disparity between these countries. Is it the patriarchal attitude towards women that is blocking the realization of gender equality or simply there is no political will to liberate women from oppression, gender inequalities and imbalances or what? UN used to come up with strategies to liberate women, for instance, the UN Fourth Women World Conference that crafted the Beijing Platform for Action 12 critical areas of concern on women. I wonder if the 17 SDGs will be achieved really.

8 years ago
Reply to  Tezira Jamwa

Don’t get too depressed, not all the facts are actually true. For example I believe that “women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men, according to studies done by Kristina Peterson,” was actually made up (she does not quote any data at all).

In conflicts many more men die than women, as they are targeted and also tend not to go to refugee camps. In floods more women tend to get killed – but floods rarely kill many people, with the 2001 tsunami being a huge exception. Famines are also said to kill more men, but I don’t have figures for that.

Of course the most vulnerable in any disaster will be babies and children, so combining women with children to make a gender issue is illogical (I was going to say bonkers, but that is a bit rude).

Despite all the dangers women face, Tonga is the only country in the world where they actually have a lower life expectancy than men – even including all the countries with such low life expectancies that the genetic longevity of women is not relevant.

I don’t want to downplay the issue of domestic violence or lack of opportunity and discrimination in village power structures. But the issue is often poverty rather than gender

8 years ago
Reply to  Pete

What is your source for the Tonga reference?

7 years ago
Reply to  Tezira Jamwa

Overall, women in this country have made huge gains over women in other countries. Try to think about them and the horrors they are still going through the next time you think that life is so cruel. Be thankful you live here.

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