A Data-Driven Look at the World Women Live In

This week, Women Deliver 2019 kicks off in Vancouver, Canada, with over 6,000 delegates from different industries, sectors and countries. Equal Measures 2030 shines a light on the hard numbers behind what they’re all there to discuss: the reality facing girls and women living around the world, and how we can improve their lives.

To make progress transparent and accessible to all, they unveiled a powerful tool, launched today: the SDG Gender Index. It reflects a mammoth effort to look at the numbers and measure how countries are really doing at making progress towards achieving gender quality.

Its initial findings were summarized in a 60-page report. The findings were surprising, and will be crucial in setting the agenda for the next decade.

The Sustainable Development Goals

A quick recap: the Sustainable Development Goals are 17 separate benchmarks set by the United Nations. Each has to do with making life more equal, sustainable, healthy and prosperous for citizens.


While they run the gamut from poverty eradication to environmental protection, they work individually and holistically to increase gender equality (which, in turn, strengthens the capacity of each country to achieve their other goals).

Surprising findings

The findings from the SDG Gender Index report show that we can’t rely on stereotypes. Some countries are showing unequal progress, strength in some areas, and weakness in others. Even some of the lower performing countries are well ahead of the highest ranking on certain indicators. For example:

– Rwanda is one of the highest scorers on indicators that capture women’s physical safety, through how safe they feel walking unaccompanied at night.

– Women in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Thailand and Uruguay are more likely have to have successful accessed modern family planning methods than women in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden (although they all ranked well globally.)

– One of the higher rates of women who use digital banking was seen in Kenya.

GDP does not necessarily translate to equality

It is a common misconception that money equals development, and development leads to equality. Yet, the SDG Gender Index report shows that’s not necessarily so.

“Some countries – Finland, Georgia, Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Rwanda, Slovenia, and Viet Nam, among others – perform better than would be expected based on their GDP per capita,” write the authors. “On the other hand, other countries – such as Botswana, Iraq, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States, among others – have lower gender equality scores than might be expected given the countries’ income levels.”

What the numbers don’t show

While the lowest ranking countries have been mired in troubles, and listed on the OECD‘s list of fragile states, some – like Syria and the Central African Republic – were omitted entirely. In the midst of the level of the depths of conflict that these countries have experienced, reliable data is too difficult to gather and analyze.

Lack of data doesn’t mean we should forget these countries or exclude them as we head towards 2030. These populations may be among the most vulnerable.

Even within the countries that were included in the SDG Gender Index report, it’s important to remember that an average number can be a deceiving figure. Even a high ranking country can have populations who desperately need access to care, services or advocates, and lower ranking countries can have ample communities of empowered women ready to mobilize and lead change.

To know more, you can access the full-length SDG Gender Index report here.

Maternal Mortality: When Numbers Speak Volumes

The clinical nature of the term ‘maternal mortality’ makes the importance – and the humanity behind the concept – hard to fully grasp. It evokes images of statistics, of numbers and of distant percentage rankings that seem to have little to do with the women we know and meet. Yet, the issue of maternal health has a direct and powerful impact on the most human and personal aspects of our lives: our mothers and our children.

The fact is that in the world today, despite the availability of modern technology and huge medical advances, pregnancy poses significant health risk for many women living in parts of the globe. While in developed countries, easy access to high quality care before, during and after pregnancy makes the process safe for most mothers, childbirth is a far more painful and risky process elsewhere in the world. Most maternal deaths are painfully avoidable: women die from basic and preventable, but potentially agonizing complications like hemorrhaging after childbirth, infections, eclampsia and pre-eclampsia, and complications from unsafe abortion procedures.

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MDG 5 logo courtesy of the United Nations

The United Nations recognized the importance and gravity of maternal mortality worldwide and made improving maternal health as Goal 5 of their landmark Millennium Development Goals. The effects of maternal deaths are far-reaching. It is not only devastating for the mothers and children who are directly affected, but has profound social and economic impacts. The long term effects on the family are well-documented, including depression, withdrawal, less care for dependents such as the elderly and children, negative effects in patterns of household consumption and a decrease in the quality of health of surviving family members. 

Studies done on the effect of maternal mortality in Africa show a direct link between mortality rates and GDP. Women, even when not directly involved in the labor force, enable the generation of income through providing food, ensuring schooling for children and sharing the domestic workload, thereby boosting worker productivity. The results of a 2006 study done in Africa show that the death of a single person reduced GDP by as much as USD $0.36 per year, making bolstering healthcare for expectant mothers as much as financial issue as a social one.

While maternal mortality rates have dropped since the introduction of the MDGs, they still remain unacceptably high. An estimated 800 women die every day because of a lack of access to proper healthcare. Some eye-opening facts from the World Health Organization reveal the alarming truth of childbearing in 2013:

  • The maternal mortality rate as a result of pregnancy related complications is 240 for every 100,000 live births in the developing world (standing in stark contrast to 16 per 100,000 live births in the developed world.)
  • The probability that a 15 year old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause: 1 in 3800 in developed countries, versus 1 in 150 in developing countries.
  • 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.

Maternal mortality rates around the world are still unacceptable, especially given the preventability of the conditions which contribute to it. No woman should have to risk her life to bear a child, and no child should be born with such a high likelihood of being raised without their mother. These are basic rights that are being trampled on through a lack of awareness and engagement with the issue of maternal mortality. To learn more, visit the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals page, or the World Health Organization.

Featured image courtesy of Arne Hoel / World Bank

Voters of Dependency

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“Voting has become an empowering act for women. It gives women the feeling that they are independent to do what they want.” The words came from Smita Gupta, deputy editor at The Hindu, right after the five state elections in India 2012. The five states were Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa, and all of them had one thing in common: more women than men had gone to the ballot boxes across all the states. The biggest difference was seen in Goa with 85.97 percent women voting in comparison to 79.67 percent men. As I have mentioned earlier, Goa is on top when it comes to literacy rates and standard of living compared to rest of India. No one was therefore very surprised that they took the lead in voting. I read the statistics some months ago and concluded that “oh, education must be the answer”. Five months later I am not so sure about that any longer.

The political parties in Goa are very effective in the work of setting up self-help groups for women. This might sound creditable and according to the politicians themselves it is an act of empowering the women. Unfortunately, that is not the whole truth. For the time being I am in Goa seeking an answer to the high voting ratio and it seems as if I there is a tragic connection between voting behavior and self-help groups. Self-help groups are not formed for empowerment – they are formed as vote banks. By promises a vote is easily bought by the politicians from the most vulnerable people in society – the poor women. After the elections (when they have brought the whole family to vote for the candidate) they are all left with unfulfilled promises. Voting should therefore not only be seen as a sign of independence, it might instead be a proof for dependency.

votes of dependency 2

Nevertheless, political parties that are exploiting women in an effort to get their votes should not make us critical to self-help groups in general. Last week I was in Karnataka visiting a village on the countryside of Gulbarga. The self-help groups were set up by an NGO some years ago but they had now stopped coming out to the village since the groups were considered to be self-managing. All work was done by the village women, without any vested interests from outside. That is probably the only way to go if we want to make Smita Guptas words about voting real and give women: “…the feeling that they are independent to do what they want.”

Why equal representation?

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In 2011, the global average of women in parliament stood at 19, 5 %. That means not even one out of five is a woman. Only 9 of the world’s 194 states in the world have more than 40 % female parliamentarians. Today’s representation in parliament is a clear sign that the work for a more gender balanced world is still being neglected. And with few women in the legislative bodies the situation is likely to persist since these are the institutions where policy directions are set. Policy directions that will shape the economic, social and political future.

Without a balanced representation between the sexes, the concerns and interests that come from women’s experiences will not be given equal attention in a parliament. Studies have shown that when the presence of women increases, both substance and shape of politics change.

Rwanda, known for the horrific genocide that took place between April and May 1994 has today’s biggest representation of women in the whole world – 56, 3 %.

This started as a consequence of the genocide, where approximately 800 000 Tutsi Rwandans were killed by Hutu militias and government forces. Right after the horrific event the population consisted of about 70 % women. Girls and women were not at all protected from the brutal violence, but it was mostly men and boys who were the primary targets for extermination.

The result of this situation was that women took on new traditionally “male” roles in society to fill the gaps, including the political work in the country. Even though the male population has recovered today – the women have kept their prominent role in politics.

After the entry of the women, the social climate has changed in the political bodies, and gender issues have started to be prominent on the political agenda. Many laws of great significance to women have been passed, for example laws on gender-based violence and on rights for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers in the workplace.

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Including more women in the parliament would increase the possibilities to make the whole society more equal and just. If politicians, who throughout history have been expected to function as role models for people, are not working for gender equality at their own work place, it is not possible to expect that this is something that will be done anywhere else either. The underrepresentation of women leads to a preservation of the way various categories of people are constructed in our minds. If all power positions in society are occupied by men this is something that will be reproduced by future generations as well. If people continue to only see photos of men in suits in newspapers when they are writing about politics, our minds will unconsciously tell us that this is not an area for women. With more women in parliament the political woman would be a normal concept just as the political man.

States with the highest rate of female representation in their legislative assemblies:
Rwanda (56,3%)
Andorra (50 %)
Cuba (45,2%)
Sweden (44,7%)
Seychelles (43,8%)
Senegal (42,7%)
Finland (42,5%)
South Africa (42,3 %)
Nicaragua (40,2%)
Source: Interparliamentary Union

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Photo sources:
The photo Rose Mukantabana: Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda is copyright (c) 2010 Third World Conference of Speakers of Parliament and
made available by a Creative Commons license.
The photo The importance of the girl child is copyright (c) 2012 UN Women Asia & The Pacific /Gaganjit Singh Chandok and made available by a creative commons license