While the world has achieved progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (including equal access to primary education between girls and boys), women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and violence in every part of the world.
The nexus between gender equality and sustainable development is important for several reasons. First, it is a moral and ethical imperative: achieving gender equality and realizing the rights, dignity, and capabilities of women is a central requirement of a just and sustainable world. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15-49 have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period and 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence (UN Women). Progress is occurring regarding harmful practices such as child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which has declined by 30% in the past decade, but there is still much work to be done to completely eliminate such demeaning practices.
Secondly, it is critical to set right the disproportionate economic, social and environmental shocks and stresses on women and girls, which undermine the enjoyment of their human rights and their vital roles in sustaining their families and communities. In African countries, for example, climate change has tremendous social, economic and environmental consequences. Its effects are being manifested through floods, droughts, and erratic weather patterns. Women and girls are among the most affected, given the precariousness of their livelihoods, and because they bear the burden of securing shelter, food, water, and fuel, while facing constraints on their access to land and natural resources. These women continue to face social barriers and inequities that prevent them from realizing their full economic potential, which is adversely affecting a country’s economic growth and development.
Third, and most significantly, it is important to build up women’s agency and capabilities to create better synergies between gender equality and sustainable development outcomes. For example, when women have greater voice and participation in public administration, public resources are more likely to be allocated towards investments in human development priorities, including child health, nutrition and access to employment.
Women’s knowledge, agency and collective action are central to finding and building more sustainable economic pathways to manage local landscapes, produce and access food, secure sustainable water, sanitation and energy services. But while much progress has been made in the intervening decades, much more remains to be done to ensure that women and children are guaranteed healthy lives, education, and full social inclusion.
Providing women and girls with equal access to education will fuel sustainable economies and future development. Studies focusing on developing countries have found girls education particularly important for the welfare of the family and future development. Many empirical studies conclude that there is also a strong positive correlation between a country’s growth rate (GDP level) and gender equality, measured, for instance, by the ratio of female to male education.
Also, representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large. According to the MDGs Report (2015), Rwanda made the biggest gains in women’s representation during the last 20 years, with an increase of 60 percentage points. However, women in governance and politics still face disparate and harsher treatment and judgment relative to their male counterparts—though this is not unique to Africa. Dollar, Fisman, and Gatti (1999) have shown that a higher rate of female participation in government is associated with lower levels of corruption in a cross-section of countries. If women’s presence in decision making bodies is associated with reduced corruption, this would certainly be a factor worth considering if we are pursuing growth and development.
Given the current status, there is optimism that African governments are headed in the right direction. This optimism will only be justified if efforts are sustained in countries where most progress has been made and intensified in countries that are lagging behind. Therefore, governments must work in partnership with communities and must allocate the necessary financial and human resources and tools for successful implementation, including gender-sensitive data collection and reporting tools. Notably, African governments can learn from each other about what works and what does not work in the region.