advancing gender equality

In 2022, the United Nations released an updated progress report on the status of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs are a call to action to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Adopted in 2015, this historic agenda targets multiple areas of action for completion by 2030 and commits to prioritize progress for those that are furthest behind.

The SDGs are the result of the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and build on the eight Millennium Development Goals that began in the year 2000 and ended in 2015. The MDGs helped to lift one billion people out of extreme poverty, combat hunger, and allow more girls to attend school. The MDGs also helped to protect the planet by significantly reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances, planting trees to offset deforestation, and increasing land and coastal marine areas worldwide.

Unlike the MDGs, which relied on funding from governments and nonprofit organizations, the SDGs also share responsibility with private industry. The Goals rely on corporations to make financial contributions, and to permanently change unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

There is concern that the SDGs do not have the necessary momentum to be completed by 2030. According to more recent reports, much of the progress that has been made to alleviate extreme poverty was wiped out during the pandemic. COVID-19 also served as a backdrop to other events that created intersecting crises including extreme weather events, increased economic instability, and violent conflicts. All these factors impact vulnerable populations and disproportionately effect women and children.

There are 17 integrated SDGs which recognize that action in one area will impact outcomes in others. And, according to the UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, the bedrock of all the SDGs is goal number five, the pledge to end discrimination against women and girls and advance gender equality.

How Climate Change Impacts Women and Girls

Globally, women and girls contribute significantly to the health and well-being of their communities. Climate change and the ensuing social, political, and economic impacts, has a cascading effect that exacerbates existing gender inequality and threatens the livelihoods, health, and safety of women and girls.

Women often possess local knowledge and experience and, in much of the world, women and girls are vital to managing water resources, collecting fuel for cooking, and providing nutrition through smallholder farms. Agriculture is the most important employment sector for women in low- and lower-middle income countries and when climate change driven events occur, such as flooding or drought, women work harder to secure income and resources for their families. This adds pressure on girls, who often leave school to help their mothers.

According to the UN report, women are also more likely to be injured and less likely to survive when disaster strikes. In the aftermath, women and girls are less able to access relief and assistance, further threatening their livelihoods and well-being, and making them less resilient to future events.

When climate change disasters disrupt critical healthcare services, it increases risks related to maternal and child health. Research indicates that extreme heat increases incidence of stillbirth, and climate change is increasing the spread of vector-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which are linked to poor maternal and fetal outcomes.

As climate change impacts communities and access to resources, it drives conflict and instability. Across the world, women and girls face increased vulnerabilities to all forms of gender based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and other forms of violence.

Gender Equality = Climate Resilience

In Africa, over 70 percent of smallholder farms are managed by women and local agriculture practices have been passed from mother to daughter for centuries. Their knowledge of regenerative practices that return nutrients to soil do not rely on industrial agriculture or petrol-based chemical fertilizers. And according to the UN, if women are given the same access to land and water resources as men, women are more likely to increase agricultural yields by 20-30%, reducing hunger by 12-17%, while advancing localized sustainable farming practices that minimize deforestation and reduce carbon emissions.

Keeping women involved in decision-making is also critical to effective climate action. The UN reports that increasing women’s representation in national level legislation leads to the passage of climate supporting policies that reduce carbon emissions.

At the local level, when women participate in natural resource management, their efforts lead to better resource governance and conservation outcomes. And, when women are actively involved at the political level, they are more responsive to constituent needs, often increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines, delivering sustained peace and prosperity.

In high-income countries where women make up a significant share of the corporate workforce, higher percentages of women in leadership are associated with increased transparency and disclosure of carbon emissions information.

And it turns out women perform well during a crisis too. During the COVID-19 pandemic there were anecdotal stories that women-led countries had better outcomes than those led by men. One study backs up that claim—countries led by women had less cases and less deaths related to COVID-19.

A Long Way to Go

Given all that women contribute, the world is still a long way off from achieving gender equality. As of January 2022, the global share of women in lower and single houses of national parliaments was just 26.2 percent, up slightly from 22.4 percent in 2015. At the local level, women representation is slightly over one third. On the current trajectory, it will take another 40 years for women and men to be represented equally in national parliaments.

To gain inroads, gender–responsive policy-level change is also needed. Currently, close to 40 percent of the world’s economies have at least one legal constraint on women’s rights to property, limiting their ability to own, manage, and inherit land. Thirty-nine countries allow sons to inherit a larger proportion of assets than daughters and thirty-six economies do not have the same inheritance rights for widows as they do for widowers.

The economic stability that land ownership offers has a compounding effect. When women own land it reduces their vulnerability to domestic violence and poverty and provides benefits to their families. The children of women who own property tend to be healthier and more educated.

Women’s Empowerment

Women’s empowerment is critical to achieving gender equality and to the success of the SDGs. When women are empowered, it increases their self-worth, their ability to make their own choices, and their rights to influence social change for themselves and others. The SDGs recognize that women have a profound impact on society. In total, 11 of the Goals contain gender-specific benchmarks, acknowledging the interconnection between women’s empowerment and a better future for all.