Explainer: Sustainable Development Goal 5
In 2015, recognizing the global nature of challenges like poverty, inequality and climate change, UN Member states universally adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Resolving to meet these matters head on, the international community set forth an ambitious vision for the future.
The Agenda encompasses three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. Together, these interconnected principles form the basis of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide a blueprint for progress across all areas of life.
Gender is woven throughout the SDGs as it sits at the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues. It has its own Goal, SDG 5—with the ambition of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls—and is mentioned explicitly in 10 of the other Goals.
Each SDG contains specific objectives that can be measured and tracked over time. Like a global checklist, these objectives allow us to check our progress as we approach the 2030 deadline. There are nine objectives within SDG 5, which UN Women and UNDESA take annual stock of in our Gender Snapshot report.
Learn more about these nine objectives, and find out how near—or far—we are from reaching them in 2022.
Gender-based discrimination has long kept women and girls subordinate to men in the workplace, in politics and at home. In some countries such discrimination persists in the law—legally barring women, for example, from certain professions—while in others economic barriers like the gender pay gap prevent women from experiencing full equality. Ending gender-based discrimination will require laws and frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality across all areas of life.
This means equal access to employment and economic benefits, including both laws against workplace discrimination and systems in place to address violations. It means laws on violence against women—legislation specifically addressing sexual harassment, for example, or criminalizing rape within marriage. It encompasses equal rights and protections within marriage and the family, such as the right to initiate a divorce or be recognized as head of household, as well as dedicated family courts to protect such rights. And it includes equality in overarching legal frameworks like constitutions, as well as the equal right to run for and hold public office.
Though there has been notable progress in this area, the pace of legal reform is far too slow. At current rates of change, the report estimates we are 21 years from universal laws banning violence against women and a whopping 286 years from gender equality in legal frameworks.
Violence against women and girls, already a pervasive problem before 2020, surged in the wake of COVID-19. Many women report feeling more unsafe since the start of the pandemic: nearly 7 in 10 women (68 per cent) say that verbal or physical abuse by a partner has become more common, and 1 in 4 women describes more frequent household conflicts.
Over the past year, nearly 1 in 10 women aged 15+ (9.9 per cent) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner; for women between the ages of 15 and 49, that figure jumps to 12.5 per cent. On global average, a woman or girl is killed by someone in her own family every 11 minutes.
In total, it’s estimated that 736 million women have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. And given limitations in data collection, the scope of the problem is likely even larger.
End harmful practices
Practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) deprive women and girls of their agency, both reflecting and cementing their subordinate status. Marriage robs girls of their childhood, forcing them to take on the responsibilities of adult womanhood too early. It limits their futures, often preventing them from completing school. And it harms their health, putting them at heightened risk of adolescent pregnancy and its accompanying complications, as well as of domestic violence. Female genital mutilation, most often performed on children, also has serious health consequences in both the short and long term.
Child marriage remains a pervasive practice which COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate. As of 2021, nearly 1 in 5 women (19.5 per cent) aged 20-24 was married before turning 18—down from more than 1 in 4 (25.8 per cent) in 2001 but still alarmingly high. To end child marriage by 2030, the rate of change must increase by 17 times.
Progress on FGM, already too slow, also risks reversal in the face of the pandemic. Encouragingly, however, opposition to the practice appears to be gaining momentum. 2021 saw 4,475 communities make public commitments to its elimination—a 48 per cent increase from the year before.
Recognize and value unpaid work
From laundry to cooking to caring for children or the elderly, maintaining a household requires an exhaustive list of daily tasks and chores—labour that’s typically done free of charge by women and girls. This work, though essential to day-to-day life as well as to the global economy, remains largely unrecognized and unvalued.
Before 2020, women did roughly three times as much unpaid work as men on global average. Then came COVID-19, during which lockdowns drove a massive increase in the daily load of household chores and care work. School and preschool closures created an additional 672 billion hours of unpaid childcare in 2020—512 billion of which would have been shouldered by women, assuming the same division of household labour. Governments offered little support: 60 per cent of countries and territories did not take any action to ameliorate this strain.
Lightening the unpaid burden on women and girls will require two kinds of change. Traditional gender roles must give way to a redistribution of household labour, with men and boys taking responsibility for an equal share. At the same time, it’s on governments to provide better public services and social protections—such as expanded care systems and requirements for paid parental leave—that help to reduce the load on individuals.
Ensure full participation in public life
Women’s equal representation in leadership matters—not only for achieving gender equality, but for making sound decisions in politics, the workplace, and every area of public life. Equal leadership ensures that diverse perspectives and voices make it to decision-making forums, a need recently underscored by COVID-19 task forces, where women’s vast underrepresentation led to crucial gaps in response and recovery plans.
This was not an aberration: women’s representation across political and economic leadership remains far from equal. At the national level, women hold just 26.4 per cent of parliamentary seats globally—and under 10 per cent of seats in 23 countries. In the economic sector, as of 2020, they hold 28.3 per cent of managerial positions, up only 0.3 per cent from 2019.
Without an increase in the rate of progress, gender parity in national parliamentary bodies won’t be reached until 2062. In the workplace things are even worse, with gender parity in management remaining 140 years away.
The outlook is better in local politics, where women hold a little over one third of seats (34.3 per cent) in local decision-making bodies. Parity here is within reach, but it will depend on the widespread implementation of gender quotas to meet the 2030 deadline.
Ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights
Restricting women’s bodily autonomy is a pervasive form of patriarchal control, both at the government level and within the family. Women’s empowerment depends on the protection of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to health care and education and the right to make their own informed decisions about their bodies.
As of 2022, 76 per cent of laws needed to guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health care—including maternity care, abortion, contraception, sexual education, HPV vaccination, and HIV testing, counseling and treatment—are in place across 115 countries.
As of 2021, just over half (57 per cent) of the world’s women were able to make their own informed decisions about sex and reproduction. This means the freedom to make choices about health care and the use of contraceptives as well as to say no to sex with a husband or partner. The backslide on women’s rights currently underway threatens to reduce this number further.
Ensure equal economic resources
Control over economic resources is a crucial driver of women’s empowerment, providing increased security and independence and improving standards of living. Land ownership in particular helps to reduce women’s reliance on male partners or relatives and increases their access to credit.
Ensuring equal land rights, including equal inheritance rights and shared land rights within couples, is essential for the realization of the 2030 Agenda. But despite women’s relatively equal representation in agriculture—they make up roughly half of the agricultural labour force in developing countries—their equal right to land ownership is guaranteed in only four of 52 countries with data for 2019–2021.
Promote women’s empowerment through technology
Technology plays an ever-increasing role in the ways we learn, work and communicate, and cellphones have gone from a luxury to an essential means of connecting with the world. But for many of the world’s women, such technology—as well as the access and independence it confers—remain out of reach: based on data for 2017-2021, women are less likely than men to own a phone in 50 of 82 countries.
Sound policies and legislation
Gender equality is not going to happen on its own. We need enforceable policies and legislation at all levels of government to promote the empowerment of women and girls. Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, whose socioeconomic impacts overwhelmingly hit women harder than men, gender-sensitive policies are essential for narrowing persistent gender gaps.
This requires dedicated resources. By tracking—and making public—budget allocations toward gender equality, governments can ensure adequate financing, as well as increasing transparency and accountability. But according to data from 2018–2021, only 26 per cent of countries have comprehensive systems in place to track such allocations, and 15 per cent have no system at all.
The time to act is now
Across its nine objectives, the latest data on SDG 5 underscores just how far we are from achieving it. Despite progress on some issues, recent backslide in other areas—such as on reproductive rights and women’s economic empowerment—has put gender equality further out of reach.
Without seriously increased investments and commitments, including to gender data availability and use, SDG 5 will not be achieved by 2030 and may not be achieved at all. The time to come together as a global community and demand better—better laws and protections, better access to resources and services, and better funding—is now.
Women and girls can’t afford to wait any longer.