Gender equality is an integral part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contains the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “Agenda 2030’’ represents a unique opportunity for all development partners – governments, donors, the private sector, philanthropy and civil society – to work together for gender equality and the commitments made in the Agenda. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are included as a mainstreamed target and stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5). This represents political recognition that the world cannot achieve the SDGs while holding back half the global population.

The ambitious and forward-looking nature of the SDGs presents an enormous challenge to all stakeholders. Despite increasing investment in efforts to reduce gender gaps and empower women over the last 25 years, at the current rate of progress it will still require over 200 years to achieve SDG 5, which is the equivalent to nine generations. Since 1995 and the Beijing call for action, policy makers and researchers have increasingly turned their attention and resources to closing gender gaps on key economic and social elements. This has led to impressive improvements: the share of women in paid employment outside the agricultural sector increased from 35% to 41% between 1990 and 2015 (UN, 2015[1]); gender parity in primary education has been achieved in 64% of developing countries (UN, 2015[1]). However, the promise of gender equality remains unfulfilled. Despite accounting for 41% of the global labour force, women generate only 37% of global GDP due to their over-representation in part-time jobs and low-productivity sectors (Woetzel et al., 2015[2]); the gender pay gap stands at 23% globally (UN Women, 2018[3]).

Over the past decade, the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) has consistently shown that governments need to look at discriminatory laws, social norms and practices to achieve gender equality and promote women’s empowerment. Discriminatory laws and social norms define what is legally and socially acceptable to think, do, say or act in relation to gender. As such, they closely link individual sets of rights and opportunities to a person’s gender. Individual and collective beliefs and behaviours are still influenced by patriarchal norms that influence, for example, the allocation of land and may make gender equality more difficult to achieve. Daily, across the globe, women and girls experience some form of discrimination solely because they were born female. Throughout their whole life cycle, they encounter different types of discrimination that restrict their ability to choose their own development paths.

The SIGI is a policy tool for governments, development partners and researchers to understand better the progress and challenges each country faces in moving towards achieving gender equality and the commitments of Agenda 2030. The SIGI sheds light on the multiple layers that drive gender-based discrimination, from the legal framework, to discriminatory customs, practices and attitudes. Comprehensive legal frameworks that guarantee women’s and men’s rights, regardless of their marriage status, ethnicity, location, education, religion or income, represent the first steps towards substantive gender equality. The SIGI data goes further than the examination of statutory law, alone, by measuring gender-based discrimination in religious, customary and traditional law. In plural legal systems, where statutory law exists alongside customary, traditional or religious law, women of certain groups may continue to face discrimination, despite statutory legal reform. Where customs and traditions still largely determine people’s behaviour, standard legal reforms to promote gender equality are essential but not necessarily, sufficient. The SIGI also points to the need for governments to link strong legal frameworks with policies and advocacy that support their implementation and challenge discriminatory social norms.

Putting discriminatory laws, social norms and practices at the core of gender strategies opens new opportunities for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Discriminatory social institutions (Box 1) impinge on sustainable and inclusive development by restraining women and girls from realising their political, economic and social rights. Women’s restricted access to land, resources and finance, makes families more vulnerable to poverty and shocks. When women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are not guaranteed, women and their children endure greater health risks. In the household, the burden of unpaid care and domestic homework limits women’s ability to take paid employment. Discriminatory social institutions limit the potential for the achievement of the development objectives set in the Sustainable Development Agenda: sustained and inclusive economic growth (SDG 1, 8 and 10), well-being for all (SDG 3), healthy lives (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4) and full and productive employment (SDG 8). Indeed, such discrimination induces a loss of 8% in the global level of investment, reduces women’s average years of schooling by 16% and their labour force participation by 12%. As a result, the current levels of discrimination, as measured by the SIGI, reduce global income by 7.5%, an impressive loss of USD 6 trillion (Chapter 2).

Box 1. What are discriminatory social institutions

Formal and informal laws, social norms and practices that restrict or exclude women and girls, consequently curtailing their access to rights, justice, empowerment opportunities and resources.

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Challenges urgently need to be transformed into opportunities. Legal reforms and shifts in social norms can lead to catalytic change. In Ethiopia, for example, the emergence of opportunities for young women as domestic workers in the Gulf countries has led to changing perceptions concerning girls’ independent mobility, the value of education and the role of marriage. This has had impressive consequences for delaying the age of first marriage and for social expectations of women’s economic role. Social transformation implies changing what are legally and socially feasible activities for women and men.


[1] UN (2015), The Millennium Development Goals Report, United Nations , Geneva, Switzerland, (accessed on 30 January 2019).

[3] UN Women (2018), UN Women Annual Report 2017-2018, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), (accessed on 30 January 2019).

[2] Woetzel, J. et al. (2015), “The power of parity: How advancing women's equality can add $12 trillion to global growth”, (accessed on 27 January 2019).

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