2. Global goals in gender equality

Anna Bruce
Jenny Hedman
Alejandra Meneses
Hyeshin Park

Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are universal goals, as set out by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Addressing gender inequalities can enhance the growth, competitiveness and sustainability of economies and increase the effectiveness and sustainability of development co-operation policies and programmes designed to leave no one behind. Gender equality is not only a matter of intrinsic value and a moral imperative, but also a valuable socio-economic strategy for countries.

Yet, women around the world continue to have fewer opportunities, earn less, face more barriers, and endure more violence and harassment than men. Such risks and vulnerabilities are heightened in low- and middle-income countries (UN Women, 2020[2]; Jayachandran, 2015[3]).

The extensive socio-economic impacts caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic widened pre-existing gender gaps and reinforced gender inequalities within and between countries (McKinsey Global Institute, 2020[4]; UN Women, 2022[5]; 2020[6]). They disproportionately affected women in developing countries and risked reversing years of progress towards gender equality. Yet, in many settings, women and girls led recovery efforts and resilience initiatives, worked at the front lines and advocated for change at community, country and international levels. Post-COVID recovery efforts have reinforced the idea that, in order to build back in a stronger, greener, more sustainable and more gender-equal way, women must be included in all decision-making processes and the knowledge and experiences of women and girls must underscore future recovery efforts of all kinds.

It is no longer sufficient to work within existing structures and systems. Achieving SDG 5 on gender equality – as well as the rest of the SDGs – requires collective action and transformative change by addressing the unequal power dynamics, systemic barriers and discrimination embedded in laws, norms and practices. In addition to OECD DAC members, other development actors such as multilateral organisations, regional development banks, development finance institutions, philanthropic organisations and private actors have a critical role to play in supporting governments.

The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) measures the degree of discrimination against women in social institutions. It takes into consideration how laws, social norms and practices can be underlying drivers of gender inequality across 179 countries. The fifth edition of the SIGI launched in March 2023 reveals that the number of countries committing to ending gender-based discrimination is on the rise and developing countries are leading the charge. Between 2019 and 2023, the number of countries in which levels of discrimination are low or very low has increased by 10, to reach 85 countries worldwide. Progress has occurred across all regions of the world and developing countries are bridging the gap with developed countries. In 2023, 19 (or 41%) of the 46 countries for which the level of discrimination in social institutions is estimated to be very low are non-OECD countries (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[7]).

Despite major reforms and advances in legal and policy systems, gender equality remains a distant goal in many countries. Numerous challenges and discrimination in social institutions continue to severely hamper the empowerment of women and girls. Globally, 40% of women and girls live in countries where the level of discrimination in social institutions is estimated to be high or very high. In 18 countries, all located in Africa and Asia, the levels of discrimination in social institutions are measured as very high (OECD, 2023[8]).

Gender-responsive legal reforms and policy measures addressing discriminatory social norms can contribute to women’s social and economic empowerment. Moreover, advancing policies that promote gender equality is particularly important in light of global crises such as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. In the wake of the pandemic, countries have primarily focused on recovery and economic growth policies that are largely gender-blind and that can have a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls (UNDP and UN Women, 2021[9]). Failing to prioritise gender equality or to adopt a systematic gender lens is a missed opportunity for sustainable development.

The following sections provide an illustrative look at how discriminatory social institutions may hamper progress towards gender equality in developing countries, and what steps can be taken to address them.

SDG 4 sets a shared goal to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, with a specific target (4.5) addressing the elimination of gender disparities in education (United Nations, 2022[10]). Education is a determinant of women’s economic empowerment, which in turn influences women’s bargaining power and agency, including in the household. Persistent discriminatory social norms in the family can undermine girls’ access to education, therefore limiting women’s and girls’ decision-making power, status and authority in both the private and public spheres and their opportunities for the future.

For instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, despite recent progress and reforms that drastically advanced girls’ education, discriminatory social norms continue to hamper their status. In 2015, the country introduced compulsory education for all children aged 6-16 and implemented targeted policies to boost girls’ educational attainment, which led to an increase of girls’ gross enrolment rates in primary education from 81% in 2014 to 98% in 2020 (World Bank, 2022[11]). However, social norms categorise domestic chores as an integral part of girls’ education, limiting the time available for girls to study relative to boys. By contrast, the same norms do not establish that domestic work should be part of boys’ education (OECD, 2022[12]). At the same time, large shares of the population in Côte d’Ivoire perceive boys as having higher innate abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) than girls (OECD, 2022[12]). These stereotypes and biases perpetuate educational segregation (Chapter 9). Furthermore, although girl child marriage is prohibited by law, it remains prevalent in Côte d’Ivoire as in many other countries, increasing girls’ risk of adolescent pregnancy and school dropout. This harmful practice is encouraged by discriminatory social norms: 34% of the population believes that a well-educated woman has less chance of marrying (OECD, 2022[12]). Social norms and perceptions of future returns on education also encourage families to prioritise boys’ educational development over investing in girls’ education.

SDG 8 promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (United Nations, 2022[13]). At the same time, target 5.a of SDG 5 fosters reforms that give women equal rights to economic resources, including access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property (United Nations, 2022[14]). Despite progress towards these shared goals, many challenges and obstacles persist. For example in Tanzania, agriculture is a key driver of the national economy, accounting for one-third of the national output and two-thirds of total employment, but gender imbalances in land ownership hurt women’s economic empowerment: in 2021, only 33% of Tanzanian women owned agricultural land, compared to 47% of men (OECD, 2022[15]).

Discriminatory laws and practices contribute to the restrictions that prevent women from accessing and controlling critical productive and financial resources and assets, including land. Inheritance practices in Tanzania favour sons and male family members over daughters and widows. Evidence shows that such discriminatory attitudes towards women’s inheritance are associated with lower land ownership rates of women (OECD, 2022[15]). Practices that partially transfer brides’ formal ownership of agricultural land to their husbands and put household assets predominantly under men’s control also play a role.

Women’s political voice is silenced when they are not represented in the public sphere. SDG 10 aims to combat that exclusion by reducing inequality within and among countries. Specifically, Target 10.3 looks to empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of sex or other statuses (United Nations, 2022[16]). Discriminatory social norms, such as those that perceive men as better political leaders than women, are a root cause of women’s exclusion from the political sphere and are associated with women’s underrepresentation in national parliaments. For instance, nearly half of the population (48%) continues to think that men make better political leaders than women (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[7]). Politically motivated gender-based violence and fear of such violence can also deter women’s participation in public and political leadership roles (Krook, 2017[17]). The exclusion of women from politics and other decision-making structures in the public sphere can become self-perpetuating, reinforcing discriminatory norms in other areas.

At the global level, in 2022, women only account for one in four representatives in national parliaments (IPU Parline, 2022[18]) (Chapter 18). Although women’s collective political voice is strengthening, progress is uneven, and some regions lag behind (Figure 2.1). There is political willingness to involve women more in public life at all levels, as 76 countries out of 179 have a national action plan promoting equality between women and men in political and public life (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[7]). Across the G20 countries, women account for 29% of parliamentarians, and in only three G20 countries women represent more than 40% of national representatives (OECD, 2020[19]). In 2021, Mexico became the first G20 country to reach gender parity in political representation with 50% of women as representatives in the lower house (IPU Parline, 2022[18]).

Legal reforms and specific instruments such as quotas help promote women’s political inclusion. These policy measures require effective enforcement mechanisms and structures in place that ensure women have the knowledge, support and time needed to run for office. For instance, in Latin American and the Caribbean, many countries have established quota systems at the national and sub-national levels (OECD, 2020[20]), which have helped promote women’s equal political participation and may explain the regions’ relatively high representation of women in parliament (IPU Parline, 2022[18]). As of 2023, 19 countries in the region have quotas or special measures at the national level (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[7]).

This section provides an overview of OECD DAC members’ financial and policy efforts to advance gender equality. The report Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls: Guidance for Development Partners (OECD, 2022[22]) presents an extensive set of good practice recommendations and check lists for OECD DAC members and other development partners that include and go beyond what is addressed in this chapter.

Political and policy support amongst OECD DAC members for these issues is strong and has increased over the past 15 years. Of the 30 DAC members, 29 have development co-operation policies that identify gender equality as a policy priority. Some have adopted Feminist Foreign and/or Development policies, and other have anchored gender equality in their legislative frameworks (OECD, 2022[22]).

The volume of ODA for gender equality and women’s empowerment increased from USD 53.4 billion per year on average in 2018-19 to USD 57.4 billion in 2020-21. This is in line with the increase of total ODA during the same period, as DAC members stepped up their co-operation with partner countries grappling with the COVID-19 crisis. However, the share of total ODA with gender equality as a policy objective dropped slightly to 44% (OECD, 2023[23]). As shown in Figure 2.2, much of this (40%) was committed to programmes, across different sectors, that integrate gender equality as one of their significant policy objectives. Only 4% of bilateral allocable aid went to programmes dedicated to gender equality as the main objective.

Additionally, considering DAC members’ “other official flows” to developing countries (i.e. official flows that do not meet ODA criteria), USD 4.2 billion integrated or were dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, corresponding to 42% of total other bilateral flows on average per year in 2020-21.

Most DAC members have a twin-track approach of mainstreaming gender equality throughout their development frameworks, while also implementing dedicated programmes for gender equality. Gender equality needs to be included in all stages of development and humanitarian interventions – from the design phase, throughout implementation and financing, and in monitoring and evaluation. It is positive that many DAC members are taking a holistic approach to mainstreaming gender, which also encompasses gender equal policies within their own institutions, including in human resources. Using an agreed DAC standard, members are also improving systems to better address sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment within institutions and when implementing humanitarian and development assistance (OECD, 2022[22]).

Many DAC members are recognising the importance of identifying context-specific thematic areas that can maximise results on gender equality (OECD, 2022[22]). Several are also understanding the interlinked and mutually reinforcing nature between gender equality and other development priorities, such as climate change (OECD, 2021[24]) (Chapter 5). Due to socio-economic and discriminatory reasons, women and girls face disproportionate adversity and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change – which in turn exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities (OECD, 2022[25]). At the same time, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is critical to delivering positive climate action. To address these connections, 57% of the USD 33.1 billion on average per year in 2018-19 of bilateral climate ODA integrated gender equality objectives. However, only USD 778 million of climate ODA went to programmes with gender equality as the principal objective, corresponding to less than 1% of climate-related ODA (OECD, 2022[25]).

DAC members are also increasingly recognising transformative change as the pathway to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Working within existing social and cultural systems can not only inhibit change; it can also be harmful. The gender equality continuum tool (Figure 2.3) helps identify transformative change and what type of impact a development intervention may have.

DAC members are increasingly employing approaches to transform unequal power relations, systemic barriers, and the harmful structures that uphold them:

  • Through their development co-operation policy commitments. For example, USAID uses the design phase of an intervention to identify actions that will alter the pre-existing power dynamics between women and men in that area, then create mechanisms and opportunities to amplify the voices of women throughout it. The EU has embedded a transformative approach within its Gender Action Plan III by committing to gender-balanced management and ensuring that gender advisers or focal points are in place and adequately trained (OECD, 2022[22]).

  • Through intersectional strategies, considering how gender and other social identifiers intersect and result in compounding dimensions of vulnerability and discrimination. This also means providing resources and removing barriers in the design and implementation of policies and programmes.

  • Through the identification and support of local women’s rights organisation and feminist movements as critical actors in addressing the structural drivers of gender inequality. However, an average of only USD 707 million per year in 2019-20 of ODA went directly to women’s right organisations and movements (OECD, 2022[1]).

At the policy level, multilateral organisations and development banks are often regarded with political legitimacy and neutrality, thereby giving them credibility and enabling good working relations with governments, which can help to bring political attention to gender equality issues. They also generally have the reporting and accountability systems in place that are requested and agreed to by DAC members sitting on governing bodies (OECD, 2022[26]). At the same time, multilaterals can act at the grassroots level through their partnerships with local organisations. Additionally, academic and research-based institutions are important sources of emerging ideas and new knowledge and play an important role in providing statistics and gender analyses that can form the basis for policy making.

Multilateral organisations and banks can absorb and allocate high volumes of funding. Banks and financial institutions are also important partners in leveraging development finance beyond aid. By attracting large volumes of private capital, they can mobilise financial resources for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. However, a recent OECD survey showed that only 1% of financial assets under management by blended finance funds and facilities were dedicated to gender equality as the main objective, with significant missed opportunities to fill in gaps in gender financing (OECD, 2022[26]).

Some DAC members are engaging in partnerships with private sector actors to leverage both private capital and influence, accelerate funding and mobilise resources in the pursuit of gender equality. Free from the constraints of political cycles, the flexibility of private philanthropies make them uniquely positioned to harness innovative opportunities (OECD, 2022[22]). According to statistics from the OECD DAC Creditor Reporting System (CRS) database, using the DAC gender marker, 45 private philanthropies integrated or dedicated USD 2.7 billion of their bilateral flows to gender equality on average in 2019-20, corresponding to 26% of total flows reported. Much of this went to reproductive health and family planning.

Additionally, a larger sample of 205 large philanthropic organisations shows that close to 8% of all funding between 2016-19, approximately USD 3.5 billion, were allocated to reproductive health, family planning, supporting organisations that advocate for women’s rights and towards ending violence against women and girls (OECD, 2021[27]). Foundations from emerging markets such as Colombia (OECD, 2021[28]), India (OECD, 2019[29]) and South Africa (OECD, 2021[30]) are advancing gender equality in different ways: some are closing the financing gap to higher education while others provide microfinance loans to women and support women-led groups that advocate for equal rights.


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