Op-ed: Partnerships, Financing and Data

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women


Current trajectories towards gender equality will not get us the world we want. Estimates of  another 50 years to achieve gender parity in politics; 118 years for parity in women’s participation in the economy; and 95 years to reach parity in girls’ lower secondary education for the poorest 20 per cent are out of sync with the urgency of change. No-one can wait that long.

To get the acceleration we need, we will have to break the status quo. We can’t do that alone. Key to a new pace of change are the wide-ranging partnerships that are now forming, a sharper, better informed focus on the break points for change, and ensuring adequate levels of financing. At the heart of these is the increased clarity and integrity of planning and action that comes from hard facts. 

On any given day, it is estimated that globally we produce 2.5 quadrillion bytes of data. Yet, when it comes to measuring gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, in both developing and developed countries, we are “data-poor”. Increased investments in evidence generation are crucial, particularly on gender data. For example, there are gaping holes in data for some of the most rudimentary information about women’s and girls’ lives. These range from a complete lack of hard facts on how many women and girls live in poverty to biased measures of women’s engagement in economic activities that are based on sexist assumptions about women’s roles in the household. Not only do we lack the statistics, those we have obscure the view ahead with their partial lens. This deficiency is both a symptom of gender inequality and contributes further to it.

Whether as governments or as individuals, to make sound decisions we need precise and reliable information. As citizens, we need data on service delivery and government spending to be able to hold our leaders accountable for progress. Currently, the data gap is so wide that there is adequate information for less than one quarter of the key performance indicators selected to monitor the gender-specific elements of the new Sustainable Development Goals.

When it comes to gender data, the traditional North-South, Developed-Developing and public-private divides no longer hold: very few developed or developing countries can truly claim to have good enough information systems. This has a direct impact on our ability to quantify an issue and make the right decisions on solutions. For example, we need time-use data in order to understand the extent of women’s paid and unpaid work and the challenges they face in balancing the two. Unpaid care work is a key barrier to women earning a decent living and moving out of a repeating cycle of poverty. Yet only about half of developed countries have any time-use data since 2000, despite their relatively well-resourced statistical systems.

The cost and complexity of collecting data on these issues is often given as a reason for failure. Yet, in a world where sufficient data and resources are available to achieve self-driving cars, it seems hard to see why we can’t afford navigational aids for society. Ample evidence exists for the gains to be made from improving gender equality: a McKinsey Global Institute report last year indicated that $12 trillion could be added to global growth by advancing women’s equality.

Today, building on commitments made in May this year at the Women Deliver Conference, in Copenhagen, Denmark, UN Women is launching a new public-private partnership called “Making Every Woman and Girl Count” during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly. This 5-year, $65 million Initiative is to close the gender data gaps for SDG monitoring and accountability and build an integrated evidence base that can inform more effective and targeted decision-making. It is co-organized with the Government of Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Data2X initiative of the UN Foundation. It brings together developed and developing countries, multilateral agencies, private foundations and civil society organizations under a new, issue-based “Flagship programme”, which provides a collaborative and fund-raising framework. Today’s launch is the first of these programmes, and is directed at a radical shift in the production, availability, accessibility and use of quality data and statistics on key aspects of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

We know that what gets measured gets done; but we cannot do it alone. By working together to get the right facts, find innovative solutions and mobilize targeted funding, we can locate those who are furthest behind and create meaningful and lasting changes in the lives of women and girls everywhere.

This op-ed was originally published by Women Deliver.