Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

© UNICEF/Chulho Hyun

The world is a better place for women today than it was in the past. Fewer girls are forced into early marriage; more women are serving in parliament and positions of leadership; and laws are being reformed to advance gender equality. Despite these gains, discriminatory laws and social norms remain pervasive, along with harmful practices and other forms of violence against women and girls. Women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership. Across the globe, women and girls perform a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic work. Moreover, they continue to face barriers with respect to their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including legal restrictions and lack of autonomy in decision-making. Among the most disadvantaged are women and girls who face the compounded effects of gender and other forms of discrimination. Achieving gender equality will require bold and sustainable actions that address the structural impediments and root causes of discrimination against women. Equally important, it will require laws and policies that advance gender equality, backed by adequate resources, as well as stronger accountability for commitments made to women's rights.

Women and girls continue to be subjected to harmful practices that profoundly affect their lives

Women and girls around the world continue to experience violence and cruel practices that strip them of their dignity and erode their well-being. Intimate partner violence affects women of all ages and ethnicities, regardless of their socioeconomic status and educational level, in all countries. According to the latest available data from 106 countries, 18 per cent of ever-partnered women and girls 15 to 49 years old experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a deeply troubling human-rights violation that affects at least 200 million women in the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated (half of them in West Africa). On average, the prevalence of FGM has declined by one quarter since around 2000. Still, on average, about one in three girls 15 to 19 years old in those countries have been subjected to FGM, compared to nearly one in two in 2000.

Child marriage—another harmful practice—has continued to decline around the world, largely driven by progress in Southern Asia. There, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood has decreased by over 40 per cent since 2000. Increasingly, the global burden of child marriage is shifting from Southern Asia to sub-Saharan Africa, where levels of child marriage have declined at a more modest rate.

Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 to 49 years subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, latest available data, 2005–2017 (percentage)
Note: Only regions where available data cover at least 50 per cent of the population are displayed in this figure.

Women and girls perform a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work

On average, women spend roughly triple the amount of time that men do each day in unpaid care and domestic work, according to the latest available data from around 90 countries. That work includes a variety of unpaid activities, such as taking care of children and the elderly, and domestic chores. Data also suggest that the gender gap widens when women are most likely to have young children at home.

Inadequate cookstoves, water, sanitation and transportation increase women’s burdens, as do the lack of early childhood education and care, long-term care and access to social protection and services. That burden is compounded by traditional notions of women’s roles in society. When women are engaged in caregiving and domestic chores, they have less time for paid work, education and leisure, further reinforcing their socioeconomic disadvantage.

At home, at work and in political life, women are too often denied decision-making power

As of 1 January 2019, women’s representation in national parliaments ranged from 0 to 61.3 per cent, averaging 24.3 per cent. This is an increase of 5 percentage points since 2010. In 103 countries and areas with relevant data, women’s representation in elected local deliberative bodies varied from less than 1 per cent to close to parity, at 50 per cent, with a median of 26 per cent. Women’s representation in local government is 40 per cent or higher in only 15 countries and areas. When legislated gender quotas are adopted, significantly higher proportions of women are elected at both national and local levels. Countries with higher representation of women in local government tend to have higher representation in parliament.

In the economic sphere, the world has seen an upward trend in the proportion of women in managerial positions. Since 2000, that share has increased in all regions and country groupings, except in least developed countries. However, it remains disproportionately low. Women comprised 39 per cent of the workforce in 2018, but held only 27 per cent of managerial positions.

That lack of decision-making power is reflected in the home as well. According to data from 51 countries, only 57 per cent of women 15 to 49 years old who are married or in a union make their own decisions about sexual relations and the use of contraceptives and reproductive health services. Women’s and girls’ capacity to make those crucial decisions for themselves—and to be able to act on them—is essential to their empowerment and the full exercise of their reproductive rights.

Proportion of women in managerial positions, 2018 (percentage)
* Excluding Australia and New Zealand.

In too many countries, gaps in legal frameworks are failing to protect women’s rights

Over the past 25 years, progress has been made in gender equality through the creation of new legislation and the reform of existing laws. Still, troublesome gaps remain. This was the conclusion of a study of data collected in 2018 and covering four areas of law in 53 countries. In almost one third of the countries studied, gaps were found in overarching legal frameworks and areas of public life. For example, nearly two thirds of those countries lacked laws that covered both direct and indirect discrimination against women. In the area of violence against women, legal gaps were found in over one quarter of the countries studied. Of those countries, 68 per cent lacked rape laws based on the principle of consent. In the areas of employment and economic benefits, and of marriage and family, 29 per cent and 24 per cent of countries, respectively, had legal gaps. For example, in more than half of the countries, no laws were in place to mandate equal pay for work of equal value. Less than one third of the countries had laws stipulating 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for women and men, with no exceptions.

Financing gaps limit implementation of laws and policies on gender equality

Gender budgeting aims to link policy and legal requirements for gender equality with resource allocation. Although progress has been made in implementing gender budgeting globally, significant gaps remain. For example, many countries have yet to establish a comprehensive system to track allocations for gender equality and to make data publicly available. An analysis of 2018 data from 69 countries and areas found that 13 countries (19 per cent) fully met those criteria, and 41 countries (59 per cent) approached the requirements. More often, countries issue directives on gender budgeting, use sex-disaggregated data to inform budget decisions, and conduct ex-post-impact assessments. The data also revealed a gap in policy implementation. Among the same set of countries, 90 per cent had policies and programmes in place to address gender gaps, but only 43 per cent reported adequate resource allocations to implement them.

Proportion of countries with systems to track gender equality budgeting allocations, by level of compliance, 2018 (percentage)
* Excluding Australia and New Zealand.
Note: Numbers in parentheses reflect the number of countries for which data are available.