Tackling hidden inequalities
G20 Summit

Tackling hidden inequalities

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women, says governments must commit to investing in social protection and public services for women and girls – and that there is no room for half measures


In 2019, G20 members have the opportunity to take life-changing action for women and girls by addressing the remaining gaps that constrain their equal access to social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure, as agreed by the largest United Nations gathering on gender equality, the Commission on the Status of Women, in March this year.

Many countries have already made significant progress. More girls are in school today than ever before and more countries have achieved gender parity in school enrollment. Access to essential health services has improved, with global rates of childbirth with a skilled health professional present up from 61% in 2000 to 79% in 2016. Over the past decade, 131 countries have adopted 274 reforms to laws and regulations supporting gender equality. In low- and middle-income countries 80% of women now use or access a mobile phone, and 48% of women in those countries now use mobile internet.

But these gains are fragile, and we are seeing them reverse. The gender digital divide persists, even as opportunities for women to own digital assets increases. There are 390 million women in low- and middle-income countries who remain unconnected, and 184 million fewer women than men own a mobile. There are 2.1 billion people without safe water at home, and 132 million girls worldwide between ages six and 17 who are out of school. On average, globally, women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of men. More than one billion have no recourse against violence or are restricted in their education or employment – what is now being called ‘economic violence’.

The deficits are an opportunity drain. They reflect deep remaining inequalities – and cost lives. Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; 99% of them are women in developing countries. Their deaths link inextricably to poverty and lack of services and infrastructure.

This picture reinforces the integral connection between gender equality and progress – and underlines the inverse cost of the status quo. We must focus on making transformative change that lasts, and that can withstand political climates that may be unconducive to human rights and women’s rights. Well-coordinated and integrated public services, infrastructure and social protection that reach deep into the population, especially finding the poorest, the young and old and the most in need, can give us that leap ahead – and keep us ahead.

Universal social protection has already been endorsed by all G20 members as an integral aspect of the 2030 Agenda and a component of several of the Sustainable Development Goals. But currently 71% of the world’s population has only partial or no access to its transformative benefits. This is an obvious and essential gap to close.

As well as investment in gender-responsive social protection, we know that public services and sustainable infrastructure are critical to free up women’s time, support their mobility, strengthen their resilience to shocks, and enhance their access to economic opportunities and outcomes in the world of work. These public goods are what so many women want and need.

For example, in G20 countries, a recent survey of more than 9,500 women at work found nearly half (44%) identified work-life balance as the top priority, with many women noting the toll taken by jobs that require flexibility and long hours. Of these women, 40% see the gender pay gap as a critical issue.

In 2018, G20 leaders reaffirmed their 2014 commitment to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation rates by 25% by 2025. Globally, women continue to do 71% of unpaid care and domestic work. Work-life balance must be addressed through such measures as access to quality and affordable care infrastructure and parental leave.

G20 leaders have also committed to reducing the gender pay gap; ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls; developing women and girls’ digital skills and increasing their participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and promoting women in leadership and decision-making positions.

The governments of the G20, as rotating members of the Commission on the Status of Women, have recently agreed on the many ways in which dramatic progress can be achieved. I urge G20 leaders not only to recommit to these, but also to fund and carry out their commitments to these practical steps, engaging women in the development of the solutions, so that we can prevent the exacerbation of inequality, and fast-track inclusive economic growth and fair and sustainable development for all.