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Gender and the Sustainable Development Goals


By 2050, one-quarter of the global population will live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water. Evidence shows that women are typically the main users, providers and managers of water in developing countries and are also more usually responsible for household hygiene. Given this, women often possess invaluable knowledge about water sources, their quality and reliability, and how to improve hygiene patterns. The better inclusion of gender aspects in the design and management of water supply and sanitation systems would therefore benefit not just women but the community, as well; it would help increase women’s human capital, free up their time for new income-generating activities or education, and improve community health, thereby increasing the productivity of society as a whole and increasing wealth.

This is just one of a number of examples highlighted in a new report from the Korea Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET) and gender and science specialists Portia Ltd. outlining how sex and gender-sensitive scientific knowledge can contribute to socioeconomic and sustainable development worldwide.

Entitled ‘The Role of Gender-based Innovations for the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Toward 2030: Better Science and Technology for All’, the report was launched on 27 January in response to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of 17 universal objectives that all UN member states are expected to use to frame their political agendas over the next 15 years. Here, managing editor Dr Elizabeth Pollitzer, co-convenor of the Gender Summits and director of Portia Ltd., discusses the inspiration behind the report and why gender-based innovations are crucial to the successful implementation of the SDGs.

Can you explain the motivation behind the report?

Disappointingly, and despite promises that the SDGs would be more gender-aware than their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), just one out of the 17 SDGs has been allocated to women’s empowerment and gender equality, which is insufficient.

What’s more, less than 10% of the SDGs’ 169 targets recognise the special needs of women and girls – this comes in spite of an analysis of the goals by the International Council for Science which identified 78 scientific topics that involve ‘gender’ and/or ‘women’ as the main and a separate concern.

Just prior to the SDGs’ approval in September 2015, we held the first Asia-Pacific Gender Summit (GS6) in Seoul, South Korea. There, almost all participants agreed that the importance of gender as a cross-cutting issue that influences all the goals should be highlighted to the UN. In response, we wrote to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, underlining that you cannot separate poverty, health and food security etc. from considerations of gender.

That led us to this report – rather than just saying it can, we wanted to demonstrate exactly how more gender and sex-aware scientific research and innovation can enhance socioeconomic development and contribute to the successful implementation of the SDGs. That’s our ultimate aim: not to criticise the goals – a lot of work went into defining them and incorporating into them the lessons learned from the MDGs – but to improve their implementation. The report therefore showcases the scientific evidence that already exists in this regard but also highlights the gaps in our knowledge.

For me, that’s the difference between our thinking and the thinking of others. That only one SDG is explicitly associated with gender had already been criticised, and it had also previously been pointed out that there were gaps in the way the SDGs had been formulated. A number of recommendations had been made, but nobody had looked at the goals in terms of the available and specific evidence linking each one to different gender issues.

What difficulties were there, then, in compiling the report?

We knew that the relevant research existed because it had been raised at past gender summits, but we didn’t know how much there was or how big the gaps were. To find out, we invited a panel of 27 gender, science and development experts from a host of international organisations – including UNESCO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – to each identify up to five key research references and up to five research topics requiring further attention to include in the report. We added their recommendations to the results of our own investigations and the evidence we had already accumulated over the last few years.

We were surprised by how much evidence there was once we started looking, but it was fragmented and not easily available, and scattered over different providers, universities and journals etc. It proved quite an extensive job to unearth sufficient examples of recent research of a high enough scientific quality to put into the report, but altogether we compiled some 170 references and 150 topics for further investigation – each linked to specific SDG targets.

For example, the report highlights how a deeper understanding of the reproduction and sexual maturation of fish could lead to improved fish farming, thereby helping to better manage and care for fish stocks (Goal 14: Life Below Water) and increasing food production (Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production/Goal 2: Zero Hunger).

But there are gaps in this knowledge that will need to be filled if Goal 2 is to be achieved. For example, more data is needed on the impact of food price variations on the socioeconomic and nutrition status of women and men, and lessons remain to be taken from analyses of the best strategies for empowering women and girls as food producers and processors. These knowledge gaps represent a valuable opportunity for the research and innovation community to come together with policy makers and development actors to help realise the SDGs by 2030.

How do you hope the report’s evidence might now be put into practice? 

The next step will be to link the research and innovation community with the development and aid actors – at the moment the two don’t usually interact under the same agenda. For the purpose of common understanding, therefore, the scientific evidence has to be put in context of the development issues. As it stands, most researchers aren’t particularly aware of them; they might know the SDGs and the targets, but they aren’t familiar with the kind of work that has already gone into promoting social and economic advancement in developing countries.

Vice versa, the development and aid community, while it does try to produce solutions that are based on scientific knowledge, isn’t necessarily aware of the kind of diverse scientific evidence that has been emerging in recent years with regards to sex and gender – in terms of not only the biological and sociocultural differences between human beings but also the biological differences in plants and animals – and their impact on development.

It will also be extremely important to develop indicators of the take-up of this knowledge. We will need to find a way to monitor how far the implementation measures that will be used in delivering the SDGs are taking in the available scientific knowledge and to what extent R&I actors are responding to the SDG targets by producing the knowledge that is still needed in order to assist in the adoption of gender-sensitive approaches to implementing the SDGs.

We will also have to develop easily accessible tools that can be used by the development actors to help them perform this kind of sex-gender analysis without having to invest a huge amount of time and effort in learning the science. From now on, each Gender Summit is going to have at least one session dedicated to assessing and promoting these three things: the linking of the development and research communities, the measurement of indicators of the take-up of the gender-sensitive approaches, and the development of analysis tools.

You can read the full report here. To find out more about the Sustainable Development Goals, visit the UN website.  

Dr Elizabeth Pollitzer

Director, Portia Ltd.

Co-convenor, Gender Summits

Pan European Networks Ltd