“There is No Tool for Development More Effective Than the Empowerment of Women”

To achieve Gender Equality, we must change our present trajectories.

In 2015, World Leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The 17 SDGs call for action by all countries to promote prosperity while maintaining peace, protecting the planet, the people and building partnerships. With only ten years remaining to achieve these goals, countries are accelerating steps towards ending poverty, fighting inequalities, tackling climate change, and ensuring that no one is left behind.  Every month, the United Nations places one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the spotlight, highlighting its purpose, targets, and criticality in advancing Agenda 2030. This month’s focus is SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

 

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has “a woman’s face”. This is undeniable.

Indeed, women continue to play a disproportionate role in responding to the virus, eitheras frontline healthcare workers or as care-takers at home. In this regard, women’s unpaid care work has increased significantly as a result of school closures and the increased parental responsibilities women discharge, in addition to caring for the elderly. Women are also harder hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19, as they disproportionately work in insecure labour markets. Nearly 60 per cent of women work in the informal economy, which puts them at greater risk of falling into poverty.

In Africa, rural women in particular are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it is estimated that the pandemic will likely push 47 million more women into poverty, reversing decades of progress.

The pandemic has also led to a steep increase in violence against women and girls. With lockdown measures in place, many women were trapped at home or in their communities with their abusers, struggling to access services affected by cuts and restrictions. Data is already showing that, since the outbreak of the pandemic, violence against women and girls – and particularly domestic violence – has very significantly intensified.During the pandemic, calls to helplines increased five-fold, reporting cases of intimate partner violence.

In Eswatini, even as we celebrated the International Women’s Day on 8 March, there have been shocking headlines of domestic and intimate partner violence where, sadly, the lives of women and girls have been lost.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights over the last few decades since the Beijing Declaration. 

Clearly, the coronavirus outbreak is exacerbating existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere, from health and the economy to security and social protection.

Over the last decades, we have witnessed positive progress on Gender Equality. As we speak, globally, there are more girls in school than in previous decades. There are fewer girls forced into early marriage; more and more women are serving in Parliament and in positions of leadership, and laws are being reformed to advance gender equality.

Despite these gains, many challenges remain: discriminatory laws and social norms remain pervasive; women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership; and 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period.

After the lockdowns, one million girls are expected never to return to school due to early teenage pregnancy.

In Eswatini, 87 of every 1,000 girls are falling pregnant and losing their education, as are many losing their lives to pregnancy and birth complications. One girl losing her life to early teenage pregnancy is one too many.

The physical and psychological consequences of violence against women are devastating: not only does violence undermine the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims, but it happens in a culture of silence. Less than 10 percent of women report incidences of violence to the police. We cannot afford to remain silent a moment longer.

Gender-based violence knows no boundaries and can affect anyone, anywhere and at any time. However, particular groups of women and girls are extremely vulnerable to violence, including young girls and older women; women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex; migrants and refugees; indigenous women and ethnic minorities; as well as women living with HIV or disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises.

Girls and women account for 72 percent of trafficking victims, of whom most are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Despite the many obstacles girls and women face, they continue to show incredible strength and resilience as they fight on the frontlines in many ways: not only as mothers, caretakers and bread-winners at home; community leaders; peacekeepers in war zones and soldiers, but also as nurses, doctors, healthcare and essential workers during COVID-19.

Preliminary studies show that women account for over 70 percent of COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers, a testament to  their share in the total healthcare workforce. Yet, they account for less than a third of all deaths among healthcare workers. These statistics are only a few that  demonstrate the courage and resilience of women.  

We have also witnessed the phenomenal leadership of female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. Their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have proved effective, inclusive and people-oriented; making significant strides to ensuring that nobody is left behind in their recoveries from COVID-19.

Only 23 countries today have an elected female Head of State or Government, while 119 countries have never had a female leader. Africa remains exceptionally behind in women leadership, as only four women have ever held positions as Head of State or Head of Government.

In Eswatini, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the exceptional leadership of brave women such as the Honourable Minister of Health and other female Cabinet Ministers, Honourable female members of the Parliament and the many others – wives, businesswomen, women farmers, teachers, big sisters to orphans, grandmothers and the alike – who have led their families and their communities throughout the pandemic. The vision, the innovative thinking, the humanity and the leadership of female Captains of Industry and sisters such as the ones involved in the Vukani BoMake project have helped to transform the lives of so many others across this beautiful nation. All of them have demonstrated incredible resilience in the face of the several adversities they have faced, and turned challenges into opportunities, and opportunities into success.

Despite those inspiring examples, the 2018 UN Human Development Report ranked Eswatini 137 out of 159 countries for gender inequality, for unemployment remains higher for young women than men, at 50 percent and 44 percent respectively.

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

Worldwide, it is estimated that gender parity, at the current rate in which it is moving, will not be reached in national Parliaments before 2063, and in ministerial positions before 2077.

As we seek to recover from COVID-19, we are presented with a unique opportunity to recover better whilst recognising the powerful roles that women and girls have played throughout the pandemic.

The United Nations’ response to COVID-19 is therefore founded on the principles of protecting the people and the planet, preserving the gains of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and achieving Agenda 2030.

In line with SDG 5, the UN is continuing to invest in life-changing initiatives for millions of women and girls worldwide through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. This Fund focuses on preventing violence, implementing laws and policies, and improving access to vital services for survivors. With more than 460 programmes in 139 countries and territories over the past two decades, the United Nations will not stop until every girl and woman is given equal access to rights and opportunities.

The United Nations continues to stand in solidarity with the Government and the people of Eswatini as, altogether, we continue to pursue a just, prosperous and resilient Eswatini in which nobody is left behind.

We need local solutions to local problems and a recovery that places women and girls at the centre. In the powerful words of the late Kofi Annan: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” It is in solidarity that we will achieve gender equality, a gain that will benefit the entirety of our nation and world.

 

SDG 5 Targets:

  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation
  • Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate
  • Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life
  • Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences
  • Undertake reforms to give women 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
  • Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women
  • Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels

 

Written by
Author
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
Resident Coordinator
RCO
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
UN entities involved in this initiative
FAO
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
IOM
International Organization for Migration
RCO
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office
UNAIDS
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
UNESCO
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNFPA
United Nations Population Fund
UNICEF
United Nations Children’s Fund
WFP
World Food Programme
WHO
World Health Organization