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Finding True Power for Women and Girls: The UN Goals’ Toughest Task


Girls and women may have a large focus in the UN's new development goals, but they also have a long way to go toward equality. Here, a girl in Agadez, Niger. JOE PENNEY
Girls and women may have won a big focus in the UN’s new development goals, but they have far to go to grasping full equality. Here, a girl in Nouakchott, Mauritania. JOE PENNEY

Challenged by the staggering agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to abolish most of the world’s ills within 15 years, research organizations, advocacy groups and objective demographers had begun to do the math well before the goals were adopted globally in September 2015. Success or failure rests on complex equations with interlinked or competing issues to be considered. Underlying almost all the new 17 goals, however, is the crucial but mostly unstated or undervalued roles of women.

Population numbers and trends can be predicted within ranges, but valid projections are not easy to make when cultural and social factors are involved. Furthermore, the new development goals, while advertised as being universal, are not really framed to be global, although all countries will be monitored.

“We recognize that each country has primary responsibility for its own economic and social development,” the declaration that  prefaces the goals emphasizes, opening loopholes. Women are not doing too well now under that operating principle, so a question lingers over how much faster they can progress given the relaxed approach to the SDGs allowed to national governments or social and cultural institutions.

The United Nations’ SDGs, like the Millennium Development Goals they supplant, have a stand-alone goal to support gender equality and the empowerment of women. The MDGs, however, with their data based on 1990 statistics — despite not going into effect until 2000-2001 — had, in effect, 25 years to demonstrate progress. The SDGs kick in by early 2016 with a 15-year life span as well as backlog from the MDGs still in need of attention. Indicators for measuring the 17 goals and their 169 targets will not be decided until next year.

Goal 5 — achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls — has as its ambitious targets ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere; the elimination of all forms of violence against women in private and public life; the elimination of harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; the recognition of unpaid caregiving and domestic work and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate; [italics added]

The targets also include full participation in leadership in political, economic and public life, universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, equal rights to economic resources as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws. [italics added] Finally, Goal 5 calls for using communications technology to assist women’s empowerment and “the adoption of laws and policies for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”

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Maternal mortality and education rights appear in separate goals.

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages subsumes maternal mortality in a generic health goal. It calls for lowering maternal mortality to fewer than 70 deaths in 100,000 live births. (The ratio in 2013 was 210 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, down from 380 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990. The United Nations Population Fund reports that the maternal mortality rate was 14 times higher in the developing world than in developed regions in the 2013 data. About 800 women were dying of mostly preventable pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths, with 500 of those deaths in sub-Saharan Africa and 190 in South Asia, most in India.) The ability to get information on family planning is also mentioned in the health goal, and not under Goal 5, yet the World Health Organization estimates that at least 225 million women in developing nations lack even access to contraception, and lists one cause as “gender based barriers.”

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all includes a call to ensure that by 2030, “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”

One effort to look into the future of educational attainment has been published in a recent research paper by Mohamed Nagdy and Max Roser, titled “Projections of Future Education.” Using mostly data from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna and supported by the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University and the Nuffield Foundation, the authors suggest that education levels are rising globally and that by 2050 “only five countries are predicted to have a rate of no education above 20%: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali and Niger.” These are countries with high fertility and poverty rates and are all located in sub-Saharan Africa.

When indicators for measuring the SDGs and their targets emerge next year, after the submission of national plans, which is a reporting requirement for every country, more predictions may begin to appear. Meanwhile, a recent report from the statistical division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs offers a daunting account of what still needs to be done if the SDGs are to succeed. The report, “The World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics,” acknowledges that gains have been made but paints a bleak picture of existing challenges and setbacks. It notes that:

  • Almost half of women aged 20 to 24 in South Asia (statistically dominated by India) and two-fifths of women in sub-Saharan Africa were married before age 18, many much earlier. These women lose out on opportunities for education or occupational training and are tied down by pregnancies early in life. Their freedom of choices and rights, including use of contraception, are severely limited.
  • The world’s total fertility rate, at 2.5 children per woman in 2010–2015, had declined by only 0.5 points from three children in 1990-1995. (Population remains an infrequently discussed or confronted issue in many countries, among them the world’s poorest, where resources are already scarce and hunger and poverty stalk large families.)
  • In developing regions, early pregnancy and childbirth, as well as sexually transmitted infections, are conditions that kill large numbers of adolescents. “This is due not only to underdeveloped health systems that are unable to address women’s needs, but also to gender issues,” the report said. Despite a decline in maternal deaths globally, in sub-Saharan Africa only half of pregnant women of all ages are receiving receive adequate care during pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Although the MDGs claim to have found that primary education is now universal and gender-balanced, 58 million children of primary-school age are not in school worldwide. More than half of these are girls and nearly three quarters live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Gender disparities widen at the secondary level of schooling.
  • Of the estimated 781 million people aged 15 and over who are illiterate, nearly two-thirds are women, “a proportion that has remained unchanged for two decades,” the report said. The vast majority of older people in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are illiterate, and while younger people are gaining literacy and numeracy, a persistent dearth of adult education keeps their elders from reading, writing and calculating numerically.
  • Women are more likely than men to be unemployed or working within the family, which usually implies they have no access to monetary income.
  • Inequality between women and men tends to be severe in power and decision-making in numerous areas of life.
  • Women are often reluctant to seek help when they are abused. This reluctance, the report said, “may be linked to the widespread acceptability of violence against women. In many countries, both women and men believe that wife-beating is justified.”
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation, with a prevalence rate of more than 80 percent in Africa and the Middle East.
  • In developing countries, statutory and customary laws still restrict women’s access to land and other assets, and women’s control over household economic resources is limited. In nearly a third of developing countries, laws do not guarantee the same inheritance rights for women and men.

The UN statistical report, released after the adoption of the SDGs, cautions that going forward in defining and measuring the goals, the relative unreliability of much of the data to be collected and analyzed may be called into question.

“Despite improvements over time, gender statistics are still far from satisfactory and many gaps exist in terms of data availability, quality, comparability and timeliness, even for basic indicators,” the UN report said. “For example, according to the latest data reporting at the international level, only 46 countries were able to provide reliable statistics on deaths disaggregated by sex, based on civil registration systems, at least once for the period 2011–2014. Less than half of all developing countries have information disaggregated by sex on labor force participation, unemployment, status in employment and employment by occupation for at least two points over the period 2005–2014. The comparability of gender statistics at national and international levels is also problematic, mostly due to differences in sources, definitions, concepts and methods used to obtain the data.”

Joseph Chamie, a demographer and former head of the UN Population Division and an analyst on global population data and trends, said that the variations in the reliability or even existence of population data in many countries has made demographers shy away from making predictions based on a wide variety of national statistics, which will provide the basis of measuring the SDGs. In an email exchange, Chamie was scornful of efforts to create a global picture from too many disparate pieces of evidence.

“My conclusion is it’s close to impossible,” he said. “The terms are fuzzy. Most of the targets are difficult to quantify, measure or estimate. In contrast, increasing life expectancy at birth to 75 years is explicit and measurable. Without such explicit, clear indicators for these targets, it will be impossible to measure progress — perhaps the ultimate goal of political leaders.

“For example, does gender equality refer to ‘within’ country or ‘across’ countries?” he said. “Are we really aiming for women and men to be equal in Niger or women and men in Niger to be equal to women and men in Norway? It’s not only Goal 5 that has such problems.”


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Finding True Power for Women and Girls: The UN Goals’ Toughest Task
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