Women’s rights are not unique to one aspect of global development. They intersect all aspects of society, from agriculture and health to economic development and human rights. But when the United Nations formed its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, it devoted one goal–Goal 3–specifically to gender equality and female empowerment in the developing world, but chose to mostly narrowly target its focus on improving girls’ education.
Goal 3 set out to eliminate the gender disparity in education at all levels by 2015. Educating women is important for its own sake, but the goal was also deemed worthy because development experts have learned that girls’ education has a ripple effect on the societies in which they live. Women who have schooling more actively contribute to the well-being of their families and communities and are also more likely to educate their own daughters.
The focus on education did exclude countless other women’s equality issues, such as violence against women, reproductive rights, and equal pay (to name a few). Marsha Freeman, director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch and an adjunct law professor at the University of Minnesota, notes that education is also a politically “safe” subject for aid. The target dovetailed with Goal 2, which was to make primary education universal. “No one is going to quarrel with it,” Freeman says.
To achieve this target, governments were encouraged to use development assistance to invest in girls’ education, through scholarships, school programs, and local policies that challenged traditional views that kept girls out of the classroom. There are many success stories in individual countries. For example, in Mexico, a conditional cash transfer program increased secondary school enrollment rates by 20% for girls in rural areas.
Progress toward the goal was measured by three key indicators: the gender ratio in primary and secondary education, the percentage of women in the nonagricultural workforce, and the representation of women in parliament. Generally, the world has made good progress in some of these indicators, but deep disparities remain in others. Here’s where each indicator stands:
For primary education, this was one of the most successful goals across all MDGs. Today, all developing countries are at parity or close to parity, having made significant progress since 2000. Take South Asia: In 1990, only 74 girls went to primary school for every 100 boys. Today, the ratio is 103 girls for every 100 boys. But there are still some barriers to girls attending school. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 93 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys.
The story is different at higher levels of education. Despite some gains, there are still large gender gaps in secondary education and university in almost every country. Often, poverty is the main cause, since girls are usually the first to be taken out of school to assist in household or farm work. Child marriage and pregnancy as well as violence against women are also specific barriers in some places. At the college level, only 77 girls are enrolled per 100 boys in South Asia. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gender gap in college has even increased.
This goal was moderately successful. Globally, about three-quarters of working-age men participate in the labor force, compared to half of working-age women. In 1990, women made up only 35% of the paid workforce outside of agriculture, and by 2015, that number had increased to 41%. But there are big regional differences: In Latin America and the Caribbean, women hold 45 out of every 100 wage-earning jobs, the highest in all developing regions. Yet in Western Asia, North Africa, and South Asia, this percentage is still under 20%.
Women are making gains in representation in government in most countries, but progress is slow. Although the average proportion of women in global parliaments has doubled in the last 20 years, still only 20% of parliament members worldwide are women. Several Sub-Saharan African countries (often through controversial quota systems) fall in the top 10 for this category, with Rwanda, where women hold the majority of parliament seats, leading the way. Latin America and the Caribbean is the region that does the best as a whole, with 27% of parliamentary seats going to women in 2015–beating all other regions of the developing (and the developed) world.
Overall, these goals did a lot to help some women, but Freeman notes there now needs to be a better focus on what they didn’t include: “They are collectively a blunt instrument. None of those three is highly indicative of real progress in equality without a lot of nuance added.” For example, a girl showing up at school doesn’t matter much if her teachers are interested only in teaching her how to be a better wife. Similarly, increased parliamentary representation doesn’t matter much if female leaders aren’t pushing hard for women’s issues (which isn’t always the case). Having more women in the workforce is good, but the quality of jobs that women hold compared to men is still extremely low.
As the U.N. sets to work on the new Global Goals, which will guide the world’s development agenda to 2030, the focus on women’s equality will be more comprehensive. Goal 5 pertains to gender equality and women’s empowerment, but this time a much broader and strongly worded list of targets addresses violence against women, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, equal access to sexual and reproductive health, land ownership rights, and a host of other objectives. In addition, there are many mentions of women’s empowerment throughout other goals as well.
Advocates generally consider the Global Goals a step up for women on the global development scene. Yet there is danger in the Global Goals trying to do too much, and, as a result, not accomplishing much at all. In either case, the key will be ensuring more accountability that both developed and developing nations are following through.