The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are at risk from Covid-19, not only as global political attention remains fixed on solving the immediate problems of the pandemic, but as the pandemic re-entrenches many of the factors that we were on our way to overcome. A lot has been said about the hoped-for green economic recovery, but is this focus on environment disguising challenges of the wider sustainability agenda? I worry it is, not least when it comes to achieving gender equality and empowerment for women and girls – the fifth global goal.
The SDGs need to be approached holistically if we are to make this a true decade of change. Gender Equality is critical to achieving so many of the goals and bridge the gulf between where we are now and where the international community has said it would like to be in 2030. If we fail to get SDG 5 right, if we fail to make marked and long-lasting progress in achieving gender equality, then the whole of the endeavour is at risk.
The impact of Covid-19 on women's equality has been stark. In November, UN Women suggested the entire equality agenda has been set back 25 years, as women take on disproportionately more chores and family care responsibilities.
In a Global North context, gender equality is often discussed through the prism of work and pay, and though this is a vital pillar, its wider meaning is often missed. The aim is to ensure full and effective participation of women at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. Why is this so important? In my view this is critical if we are to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere. This means eliminating violence against women and girls, including trafficking and exploitation, sexual or otherwise. It includes ending harmful practices such a child, early and forced marriage, as well as female genital mutilation. Equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources. And of course, recognising and valuing unpaid care and domestic work, still too often falling disproportionately to women.
Including women in the decision-making process is key to changing our polices and legislation and ensure they are designed to promote fair and equal societies. We perhaps take it for granted that all girls are entitled to the same education as boys, that child marriage is forbidden, that discrimination based on gender is a crime. But in many countries, this is not yet the case. 250 million women alive today were married before the age of 15. In Saudi Arabia women were only granted the right to drive in 2018 and in the Middle East women have the right to marry and retain custody of their children after divorce – but only with the permission of a man.
These are all things that should be a given, but for too many women they are not. But I suggest that if there were an equal number of women to men involved in making these decisions then these laws simply would not exist.
Clearly given the vastly different challenges facing countries and communities around the world – be they political, economic, cultural or historic – there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all policy that will achieve the aims of SDG5, and neither will it be achieved by one government, one NGO or one company. But by elevating women within our business, we can create a ripple effect to wider society and champion meaningful progress for women and girls all over the world.