Expert’s take: SDGs monitoring for women and girls—are we ready for the ride?


By: Ginette Azcona

About the author

Ginette Azcona is a Policy Specialist with UN Women’s Research and Data Team. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Ginette Azcona is a Policy Specialist with UN Women’s Research and Data Team. She joined UN Women in 2010 to work on its flagship report Progress of the World’s Women. Before that, she was part of the research and writing team for UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Report: Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development. She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Imagine going on an ambitious road trip: you’ve got the map, you know where you’re starting from and where you want to go but you’re missing crucial information. Your map, as it turns out, is only an aerial view, lacking key details such as the distance between your start and end point. You have no real sense of the quality of roads and no idea if you’ll be able to find pit stops when you need to refuel. These information gaps create blind spots. Without the right tools, maps and instruments to monitor progress, the journey is likely to falter even before it has begun.

On 25 September 2015, governments from around the world agreed to embark on a 15-year journey together, which if successful would result in a far better world. A world where poverty and hunger in all their forms and dimensions are eradicated, where our planet is healed and protected, where gender equality is achieved and where all human beings can enjoy safe and prosperous lives. The destination envisioned by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is clear, ambitious and desirable. But how do we get there?

What details are missing from our roadmap? Do we have a starting point for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets? What instruments do we have at our disposal to gauge progress? And more importantly, what new instruments must we develop to uncover blind spots that will hinder success? The instruments we use to guide us will determine the path we choose to take and, ultimately, the fate of the journey.

The Inter-agency and Expert Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (IAEG-SDG) was established to answer these very questions. Following months of open discussion and consultation, it presented the list of indicators for global monitoring of the 2030 Agenda to the UN Statistical Commission. In March 2016, at its 47th session, the United Nations Statistical Commission agreed with the IAEG-SDG on a list of 230 unique indicators as a ‘practical starting point’ for global monitoring of the SDGs.

That decision is significant—it means that in addition to the roadmap, we now have a dashboard, equipped with all sorts of dials, gages and instruments to guide us on our journey. It also means we have tools at our disposal to hold policy-makers accountable for any detours.

In addition, the report of the IAEG-SDGs calls for data disaggregation to effectively track progress among different groups and sub-groups of the population. This is a welcome departure from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on averages to track progress. Women and girls from poor and rural households saw the least progress in key MDG-related outcomes, such as health and education, for example. But, too often, these inequalities in outcomes were masked by a focus on national averages. The emphasis this time around on ‘leaving no one behind’ means capturing the most vulnerable—often those facing multiple forms of discrimination—and is of utmost importance.

In terms of gender equality, the SDGs represent a significant step forward from the MDGs, covering for the first time core areas of the feminist agenda, including a commitment to eliminate violence against women and girls, eradicate discriminatory laws and constraints on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work, and increase women’s participation in decision-making, among others. 

While these new commitments are welcome and long overdue, the challenges of effectively monitoring them from a gender perspective cannot be overstated. Out of the 14 proposed indicators to monitor SDG 5, on gender equality, there are only three for which data are regularly collected by most countries. For five of the remaining 11 indicators, capacity to monitor is lacking across many countries; and for the last six, including on women’s rights to land, not only does comparable data not exist for most countries, but as an international community we currently lack agreed standards for measurement.

What this means is that for a large number of the SDG 5 indicators, we know where we want to go, but the information we need to establish a starting point and to track progress simply doesn’t exist. This is not surprising given that statistics used to reflect differences and inequalities in the situation of women and men (what we refer to as gender statistics) are rarely prioritized in data collection efforts.

So we’re left with a situation in which we have a shiny new dashboard to track progress but many of its features are not yet functional! If these data gaps persist, we’ll have no way of knowing if our efforts are working—are we on track five or 10 years down the line? Or running around in circles?

The meetings that have taken place over the last few weeks, including the meeting last week of the IAEG-SDGs in Mexico City and others at the national and regional level, signal an interest in identifying and addressing the gaps in measurement, including in data disaggregation. The outcomes of the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women―which called for strengthening statistical capacity, including enhanced standards and methodologies, to improve gender statistics―is another example of the political will being generated in this area. Rarely have gender statistics received this level of commitment and enthusiasm from senior policy-makers.

The challenge moving forward will be how to translate this enthusiasm into tangible improvements in gender statistics and how to use them to guide our actions. Only when gender equality advocates have the data and evidence they need to influence decision-makers and inform policies will we see the desired outcomes and achievements.

UN Women is committed to supporting all actors in this endeavour—we are in this journey together—and while developing instruments to track progress is one of many tasks ahead, it is crucially important. Let’s make sure we have the tools we need to stay on course and reach our destination, leaving no woman, girl, man or boy behind.