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Survey reveals world policymakers are woefully unaware of progress of women’s rights

As world leaders descend on New York City this week for the United Nations General Assembly, one group has released a report that exposes a frightening lack of government knowledge of how the rights of women are progressing in various countries.  

The report was released by Equal Measures 2030, a private sector partnership formed to track the progress of gender equality-related efforts in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed upon in 2015. The 17 SDGs span a broad range of issues, from poverty to clean water access to education, all of which affect women and girls. Equal Measures researchers assessed policymakers’ awareness of data related to how gender equality has progressed; what needs to change to improve gender equality; what data they need to make those changes; and how confident they are in their understanding of the issues facing girls and women in their countries.  

“I knew it was going to be challenging, but I was surprised at how unconfident [policymakers] were in those issues,” said the group’s director, Alison Holder, who led the study, which was released late Tuesday at the General Assembly.  

As the UNGA kicked off in NYC a study released shows a number of countries are behind on women's rights. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

The survey asked policymakers in Indonesia, Kenya, Senegal, India, and Colombia questions about the above and their found knowledge of data related to gender equality to be problematically scarce.  

(Policymakers in the survey included members of central government and parliament, civil servants, state or local representatives, and “key influencers”—e.g., executives of independent statutory bodies, such as human rights commissions, heads of business associations, media associations, and trade unions. Countries selected were “focus countries” for Equal Measures; places they cite where there are a “high prevalence of the issues facing girls and women throughout the SDGs.”)  

While this may all seem dull on the surface, it is critically important to understanding political priorities. Many of the 109 policymakers surveyed waffled when asked for specific figures related to early marriage rates or how many women were members of their parliaments. Though Holder admits that reciting specific numbers might be a challenge for anyone, she said, “I feel that our policymakers would more easily be able to do that on other issues such as the GDP [Gross Domestic Product] and exports”—a sign that the welfare and power of women and girls are low on the priority list.  

Most policymakers (66 percent) said their country “was more equal in terms of gender now, compared to five years ago,” according to the survey. But that optimism varied among the gender of survey recipients. Eight in 10 men believed that men and women in their country were “more equal now than five years ago,” but only 55 percent of women agreed.  

The survey focused on four key issues: maternal mortality (the number of women dying from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth), girls married before the age of 18, women in the labor force, and women in parliament. Estimates on specific data related to these issues varied wildly. For example, only 6 percent of policymakers came within 20 percent of the most recently available data when asked to estimate the rate of maternal deaths in their country. Most respondents underestimated the maternal mortality rate in their country.  

In spite of some far-flung guesses when it came to the numbers, many policymakers said at least they knew where to find solid data on these issues. Most participants also exhibited a high awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals, according to Holder, which she found reassuring given how ambitious that large slate of objectives is.  

For Holder and her colleagues, the survey was a reminder that everyone—not just those surveyed—could probably use a refresher when it comes to the status of women and girls around the world. 

“This is a call to action for all of us to be using data and evidence to build our understanding of the challenges facing women,” Holder said.

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