Rachel B. Vogelstein, CFR’s senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program, discusses the critical role of gender equity in economic development, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at cfr.org.
We’re delighted to have Rachel Vogelstein with us today to talk about gender equity and global economic development. Rachel Vogelstein is senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program here at CFR. She is also a professor of gender and U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown Law School.
From 2009 to 2012 she was director of policy and senior adviser in the Office of Global Women’s Issues within the Office of the Secretary of State. She also represented the State Department as a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Following her time at the State Department, she served as the director of women and girls’ programs in the Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Clinton Foundation.
She has clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and served as assistant counsel to then-Senator Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and an adviser to her first U.S. Senate campaign.
Rachel, thank you very much for being with us today. This past fall, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, designed to end poverty by 2030, and had specific targets for empowering women and girls and achieving gender equality. Can you talk about the challenges—the challenges this presents and why advancing the status of women and girls is so important to economic development?
VOGELSTEIN: Absolutely. Let me begin, Irina, by thanking you for moderating today’s discussion, and to thank everyone on the phone for participating.
We are at a critical moment in global development now that an ambitious new sustainable development agenda has been adopted which aims to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges over the next fifteen years by 2030.
And as I think we have seen, this agenda is unique for a number of reasons. First, it was forged really with an unprecedented level of collaboration by the international community and it goes well beyond the predecessor Millennium Development Goals framework that preceded it. And it is an agenda that is characterized by a universal set of goals that applies to every country. That includes new issues that had not been in the predecessor development agenda, like peace-building as part of our development efforts that is focused on harnessing a data revolution and using new forms of data to measure and hold ourselves accountable to progress on development.
And we have also seen that the bar has been raised with respect to our commitment to advancing gender equality. So the Sustainable Development Goal that focuses on gender equality, Goal 5, for the first time creates time-bound targets that are related to a range of issues, from economic issues that we’ll discuss today like property rights and financial inclusion, to political participation, to ending violence against women, to practices like child marriage and FGM issues that were all previously overlooked in the predecessor Millennium Development Goal agenda.
So the scale of our mission has grown and we are at a critical moment as nations now turn to implementing this agenda in partnership with multilateral institutions, civil society, and the private sector. And yet we know that realizing this agenda in just fifteen years will not be easily achieved. So there are serious questions about how governments will prioritize their efforts, particularly on women, when there are seventeen goals and 169 targets that are encapsulated by the Sustainable Development Goal agenda and questions about how we can ensure that the gender equality targets in Goal 5 specifically on gender equality remains high on the agenda, particularly given the historical underfunding of this issue.
There are also questions about how we can finance this agenda and the new efforts and partnerships that we need, including with the private sector, in order to achieve it. It is now clear, particularly following the Addis Conference on Financing for Development that preceded the adoption of this agenda, that leveraging dollars from a variety of sources, not only official development assistance but also domestic revenue, private sector investment, trade, and international financing will be critical, particularly given that the financial landscape in the 21st century is such that private capital flows actually dwarf international aid.
So, really important questions about how we finance this agenda, and also questions about how we ensure accountability and progress against the goals and the targets that are in place. And that is particularly true for issues related to gender equality.
I want to take a minute just to talk about kind of where we stand in the march towards progress for women and girls. And a data-driven review of the past twenty years shows that, in fact, on issues that are often seen as deeply rooted in culture and social tradition and that are often seen as intractable, in fact we’ve seen a remarkable degree of progress in a very short period of time, and the status of women and girls has improved considerably.
I date the review I’m going to walk you through now back about twenty years. It’s to capture progress for women following the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where 189 nations declared with one voice that women’s rights are human rights and, importantly, adopted an ambitious platform for action that called for the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, and social, and cultural life. And since that time we’ve seen tremendous headway made in advancing the status of women through legal frameworks and institutions.
So, for example, we’ve seen a record number of countries put laws on the books prohibiting discrimination or violence against women, meaning that there’s a new cohort of women and girls growing up with rights that their mothers didn’t enjoy. We’ve seen tremendous progress in the area of women’s health, where the rate of maternal mortality has essentially been halved over the past two decades, and in the area of education, where the gender gap in primary schooling has virtually closed on a global in just twenty years’ time—again, meaning that an entire generation of girls around the world has had the chance to go to school.
Now, a lot of this progress was spurred, in part, because of the Millennium Development Goal framework that preceded the Sustainable Development Goal agenda that we just talked about, but there is much more work to do. And one of the areas where we continue to see gaps twenty years after the Beijing conference that catalyzed twenty years of progress for women and girls is in the area of women’s economic participation. So two decades after the Beijing conference we see that the highest echelons of the economic sphere remain largely male.
And despite the gains that we’ve seen in girls’ education, women’s labor force participation has actually stagnated over the past three decades, actually dropping, according to the World Bank, from fifty-seven (percent) to fifty-five percent globally. And this is despite the strong evidence that women’s economic participation benefits entire families, communities, and economies. In addition, we see that there is a gender wage gap that persists in every country in the world for which we have recorded data.
So I think the good-news story is we have this new agenda. It does include issues including women’s economic participation, financial inclusion, property, inheritance rights that were overlooked in the previous agenda. And we have evidence that we can make progress on these issues over a relatively short period of time when we have sufficient resources and political will, as we did in the areas of health and education under the predecessor development agenda.
And now it is the work for those who believe that there is an imperative here, a strategic imperative, to advance the status of women and girls in order to improve prosperity, to ensure that we make progress in this area of women’s participation in the economic sphere.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much, Rachel.
Let’s open up to the group for questions and comments.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And at this time we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
FASKIANOS: While we wait for questions to queue up, Rachel, how did the Sustainable Development Goals differ from the Millennium Development Goals? And what more—what more will the SDGs—how will they improve upon the outcomes of the MDGs?
VOGELSTEIN: It’s a great question.
The Millennium Development Goals included one goal that focused on gender equality. And the difference between Millennium Development Goal 3, that focused on gender equality, and Sustainable Development Goal 5, that focuses on the same set of issues, is really the scale of ambition. The issues that were highlighted in Millennium Development Goal 3 were primary schooling, where we did see progress for girls on a global level. And there was also a focus on women’s political participation, where we saw comparatively less progress.
Under Sustainable Development Goal 5, we see the incorporation of a range of issues that previously were overlooked. So there is now a time-bound target and for the first time an international target to end child marriage, the practice of child marriage, by 2030; to end female genital mutilation; to ensure that women have access to property and are able to inherit land; to ensure that women have the right to access credit, to open a bank account, to sign a contract, all of which are critical for women to participate in the economy; to prohibit discrimination against women and girls in public life.
So there’s a range of new targets that really expand dramatically what we hope to achieve through our development agenda. And I think that dramatic expansion really speaks to the growing recognition that promoting gender equality advances prosperity and advances stability, and it advances peace. And that’s certainly important from a U.S. foreign policy perspective, but it is also important, we are increasingly seeing, to countries around the world.
So consider, for example, the issue of economic growth. There is a really strong body of evidence that shows that when women are able to participate in the economy, that entire nations benefit. So it’s important not only for women and girls in their own right to be able to become educated and to participate economically, but it actually matters to economic growth and to GDP because poverty decreases and GDP grows when women participate in the economy.
So, for example, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimate that closing the gap in women’s labor force participation across OECD countries would lead to gains by twelve percent by 2030, including twenty percent in Japan and Korea and twenty-two percent in Italy.
We also see that the World Economic Forum, an incredibly respected economic institution, puts out an annual gender gap report, which measures the gap between men and women in a given country in terms of economic participation as well as other factors, including access to education and political participation.
And this report shows that the countries in which the gender gap is closest to being closed are those that are, in fact, more economically prosperous. And we’ve seen these results mirrored in analyses from the private sector as well. So just last fall McKinsey released a study assessing the potential gain of gender equality in the workforce at twenty-eight trillion (dollars) globally, or put another way, at twenty-six percent of annual gross domestic product globally if we could just close the gap between men and women by 2025. So think about that. At a time when the international community is still struggling to recover from an economic downturn that has roiled markets and sown unrest around the world, we are literally leaving trillions of dollars of economic potential on the table.
There is also research that supports the notion that women’s economic participation matters not only at the macro level, as I was just discussing, but also at the micro level. And there are studies that suggest that women are more likely to use their resources to benefit their families and communities, so for areas like health care or education or sanitation. And that has a discernible multiplier effect on families and communities. So to ignore the barriers to women’s economic participation is really to forfeit many of these critical development benefits and will undermine the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
And our first question will come from Satpal Singh from the State University of New York in Buffalo.
SINGH: Hi. Thanks for your efforts in this direction and your excellent introduction. As you mentioned, beyond written documents some real progress needs to be made at the practical level. So I have a two-part question in the local terms.
How strongly is the U.S. government and public committed towards gender equality and equity, in particular with respect to violence against women? At least on the surface it would seem that on several aspects there is not much reduction in misogyny in this country.
VOGELSTEIN: Thank you for that question.
From a foreign policy perspective, over the past two decades as awareness of really the evidence-based case, the strategic imperative in support of gender equality to promote prosperity and security has grown, so too has U.S. foreign policies to support it. So there’s really now an historic and unprecedented policy framework on gender equality in U.S. foreign policy.
And we’ve seen this from leaders, from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to our current Secretary of State John Kerry, all of whom have emphasized that women are critical to serving, you know, virtually every challenge we face as individual nations but also as a community of nations.
And we really see that in the policy. So one emblem of this shift I would point to is the current U.S. national security strategy, which explicitly recognizes that countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunities. And, of course, when those rights and opportunities are denied, countries lag behind.
We’ve also seen this emphasis reflected by policy guidance issued by our past two secretaries of state, highlighting the importance of gender equality to U.S. diplomacy and to foreign assistance, and outlining concrete ways in which every bureau at the State Department in Washington and every embassy around the world should incorporate this gender equality lens into its strategy.
Even the existence of the office I had the good fortune to serve in at the State Department, the secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, shows that these issues have been elevated really to the highest levels of U.S. foreign policy and are no longer rightly considered ancillary but rather, instead, are core to the work of the entire department.
With respect to the United States’ own progress on gender equality issues, you know, I think you rightly point out that there is no country in the world, including the United States, that has achieved full participation for women and girls or that is free from violence against women or gender-based violence. So we all have work to do and that includes the United States. And I think that, you know, proceeding with that humility in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy is critical.
And we have a lot to learn from other nations, some of whom have made progress on gender equality areas where we still haven’t. We have a lot to model as well in terms of areas where we’ve had great success, and continue to work in partnership with others to advance these issues around the world and also here at home.
SINGH: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Ved Nanda from the University of Denver Law School.
NANDA: Thank you very much for your excellent presentation.
I want to know two things: the latest development on getting adequate finances in order to see the Sustainable Development Goals succeed, the initiative succeed. And second, on the indicators, what progress has been made and how much effort is being made on collecting the appropriate data and standards and methodologies that will be needed in order to make this initiative a success?
VOGELSTEIN: Thank you for your question.
On financing, I think you’re exactly right to highlight the importance of resources when the subject is how we’re going to implement the entirety of the Sustainable Development Goal agenda. You know, as I referenced earlier, any agenda with seventeen goals and 169 targets is going to be a challenge. And one answer to your question is that countries will need to prioritize within that agenda as they turn to implementation.
Another answer I think is ensuring that we are pursuing innovative financing mechanisms to leverage not only official development assistance but also new sources like private sector investment or international financing, domestic revenue, trade, to think really broadly about how to leverage financing from a variety of sectors in order to generate the resources that we need to fulfill the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals.
And, you know, I’ve been really heartened to see the interest in particular by the private sector in recent years to invest in this agenda, in many instances to pick off a particular goal or a part of the agenda and then provide resources to help finance it and to provide also, in addition to resources, technical assistance and capacity that the private sector sometimes has and that in some instances can be lacking in civil society or in government. So I think that partnership will be critical to generating the resources that are required.
I would make a special note that we have seen that there is a historical tendency to overlook and to underfund issues related to gender. So if you consider the entirety of the Beijing Platform for Action that I mentioned earlier that was adopted in 1995, that was an incredibly ambitious agenda that arguably has been dramatically underfunded over the past twenty years, an unfunded agenda.
And if we are to achieve progress on the general equality goal before us now, Sustainable Development Goal 5, we will need to create resources to match the scale of our ambition. And I believe that there is room to consider creating an independent financing mechanism to address some of the areas that are not addressed by other multilateral funding mechanisms or by many national budgets.
So while to some extent we want to ensure that gender issues are not siloed with respect to financing and that we are ensuring that existing financing mechanisms adequately are focused on gender equality targets and goals, I do believe that there is room to consider a new financing mechanism that would pursue some of the innovative financing models that are now being considered in a variety of areas and that would fill some of the significant funding gaps that we have on Goal 5.
And I’ll close on that point just by noting that we will not be able to achieve the ambitious targets that have been outlined under Goal 5 unless we figure out how to resource that goal appropriately.
With respect to indicators and data, I think that’s a wonderful question. And of course we’ve all watched closely as the sustainable development agenda was debated to see the emphasis that the secretary general put, as well as many nations, on the importance of a data revolution to ensure that we are holding ourselves accountable to the new agenda but also to use new technology and forms of data to help advance progress.
And I was heartened to see that what came out of not only the Addis Financing for Development Conference but also on the margins of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals themselves in New York last September that a new partnership on global development data was formed.
I would love to call your attention to an initiative that is focused specifically on closing gender data gaps. And there’s an initiative, it’s called Data2X, that was launched when I had the privilege of serving in the State Department and has just spun off to become its own NGO housed at the United Nations Foundation. That is focused on closing gaps and data related to women and girls on the theory that if we want to make the case that women and girls count, we need to count women and girls.
And I truly believe that data not only measures progress; it inspires it. And so if we want to show the progress against the targets that have been outlined in Goal 5, we need to strengthen technical capacity and national statistical systems to be able to track many of the indicators that were recently agreed to at the United Nations this spring to ensure accountability against this robust agenda that we have before us.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Suzanne Moon with the University of Oklahoma.
MOON: Yes, hi. Thank you also for this helpful presentation.
With respect to the women’s labor force participation and the stagnation we’re seeing there, I’m wondering, at this point, what are understood to be the kind of major barriers to women entering the workforce? And specifically I’m kind of wondering to what extent that stagnation is related to a larger global stagnation in labor, you know, participation, or whether this is, you know, very specific, is kind of maybe separate from that larger issue.
VOGELSTEIN: Great question. So why don’t I start by talking about some of the barriers to women’s economic participation? And I would love to refer you to a critical resource on this issue, which is the Women, Business and the Law report that the World Bank has put out over the last several years, which is really, in my view, kind of the best catalogue of barriers on women’s economic participation around the world.
The Women, Business and the Law report shows that, in fact, despite the progress that’s been made in reforming laws to prohibit discrimination against women, to prohibit violence against women, that in fact legal gender differences in the economic sphere are still quite widespread.
So out of 175 economies surveyed by the World Bank, 155 of them have at least one law that impedes women’s economic participation. In a hundred economies surveyed, women face gender-based job restrictions. So, for example, that could mean that in a given country you, as a woman, would not be allowed to be a truck driver or to participate in a particular occupation simply because of your sex.
In forty-six of the economies surveyed, there are no laws that specifically protect women from domestic violence. In eighteen of the economies surveyed, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. And some of the nations surveyed have as many as ten legal restrictions on the books that prevent women from participating economically or that restrict women’s economic opportunities.
So what that indicates is that there is still a lot of work to be done to reform laws to ensure equal treatment for men and women in the economic sphere. And of course that does not approach the cultural and social norms that also can prohibit women or prevent women from participating in particular fields or in leadership positions, or even in the economy in the first instance.
With respect to the question about whether the stagnation in women’s labor force participation is a symptom of a larger economic issue, you know, I would note that over this twenty-year period, that the gap between men and women’s labor force participation has remained virtually unchanged. So I think that does tell us a lot in terms of the kind of consistency of the challenge here that, you know, there is gender gap in men and women’s labor force participation that, kind of, irrespective of the particular economic conditions of a given nation or the international community over a twenty-year period of time had not moved at all.
Q: Great. Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from John Murray with Hesston Mennonite Church.
MURRAY: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for taking my questions here.
You know, religious institutions have had our own issues with creating gender equality within our own structures. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about the unique role or actions that religious leaders can play in gender equality and economic development and supporting those things?
VOGELSTEIN: Thank you for that question. I think the answer is absolutely yes, that the role that religious leaders and religious institutions can play in advancing the status of women and girls around the world is incredibly significant. And what I’ve talked about thus far in our conversation is really a strategic case, the strategic imperative for advancing the status of women and girls in order to promote goals like prosperity and stability.
But I don’t want to minimize the power of the moral argument in support of gender equality. So when you consider the evidence, for example, that one in three women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes or that an estimated twenty million people are trafficked around the world and trapped in modern slavery or that about five million girls are forced to marry under the age of fifteen every year—you know, it’s hard to hear staggering figures like those and not to feel a sense of moral outrage and to appeal to the human decency that ought to prevent crimes like those from taking place and to fight for the human rights of every woman and every girl.
And indeed it is, you know, human rights advocates and leaders from religious traditions that took a lead in laboring since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to expand the notion of human rights to include violations of the rights of women and girls.
So while the universal declaration itself did include language to make clear that, you know, the rights and freedoms contained therein are to be afforded, you know, without distinction of any kind, including on the basis of sex. It really was not until close to five decades later at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing that I referenced earlier that nations really began to accept the idea that in fact women’s rights are human rights.
And it took fifty years for that shift to take place, you know, from seeing violence against women as cultural to seeing it as criminal, from U.N. women’s issues as ancillary to human rights to understanding women’s rights as fundamental human rights.
And this moral case, I believe, still needs to be made, and religious leaders are uniquely positioned to make it. But there are also, I think, strategic reasons to include religious leaders and religious institutions in this work, because of their longstanding leadership and belief in human rights and because of the influence that they have over, you know, wide swaths of the population around the world.
And there are some great examples where involving religious leaders has led to really tangible progress that you might not have seen from simply changing a law or from imposing, you know, a new program on the ground. And I’ll give an example.
When I was at the State Department, we were focused on reducing the horrifyingly high rates of maternal mortality in Afghanistan, where it was one of the highest rates in the world. And we found that one of the most effective interventions that we employed was working with local religious and tribal leaders to educate them about the importance of skilled birth attendants and women’s access to care and to then work with those leaders to transmit that—their knowledge to the population at large.
And that had a tremendous effect and was one of many interventions we tried, and it was notable to see how significant that was.
There are many other examples, working with faith leaders to increase women’s participation in parliaments, working with faith leaders to combat human trafficking, to promote nutrition and hygiene. Given the level of influence and the moral authority that faith leaders and religious institutions have, I really think that we can’t overstate the significance of involving that community in this work.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question will come from John DeVries with the Canadian Multifaith Council.
DEVRIES: Thank you very much for your presentation and also for your response to John Murray, who just had a question before I have come on board. And you’ve answered some of my concern regarding possible gap of partnership. But I really think that much of the way we relate as people is a core faith-based value. And how can we—in addition to what you’ve already responded to when you addressed some of John’s issues and questions, how can we as a faith council be more of a partner with you, the university’s representative on this call, and others to be intentionally working for something which is a basic core human value in a time when religious radicalism is another reality?
But—I know, Rachel, just if you have any comments—you had a couple of success stories, and I value that. But if you have any other advice to us.
VOGELSTEIN: Well, you know, I think that’s a—first of all, thank you for your question. That’s a great question and, I think, incredibly important because the success of the Sustainable Development Goal agenda, you know, what’s been outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action, the goal focused on gender equality in particular under the SDGs, all of that hinges on our ability to partner and work together to achieve the ambitious goals that have been set.
And the goal on gender equality and the targets within it will not be achieved without the robust participation of civil society and the leadership of the faith community in particular. So if you consider one of the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals here, I’m thinking specifically about ending the practice of child marriage in just fifteen years’ time.
That is an incredibly ambitious agenda. And without the leadership of the faith community in working with communities on the ground, we are unlikely to see anywhere near the realization of that goal in fifteen years’ time.
I’ll give another example of how working with religious and tribal leaders has been so instrumental. There’s a wonderful NGO that some of you may be familiar with called Tostan, which has worked in Senegal initially to focus on ending the practice of female genital mutilation and now expanded its work into some other countries in addition to Senegal but also working on the issue of ending child marriage.
And the Tostan model essentially is to educate leaders and then to work with those leaders to educate communities. And because of that really community-based work, there has been a sustainable change in many of the communities in which Tostan has worked. And entire communities have come together to agree that they will no longer practice those traditions any longer. And it takes entire communities to come together, to have sustainable change on issues like this. And the religious and tribal leaders with whom Tostan worked really were the key to what made the difference in those communities.
So, you know, I think with respect to making the case that these are fundamental human rights that apply irrespective of nation, irrespective of religion, irrespective of culture in terms of holding governments accountable to progress against the goals that have been outlined and in implementing programs on the ground and effecting community change, the role of religious and—religious leaders and faith institutions really is incredibly significant.
DEVRIES: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
I’m showing no further questions in the queue at this time.
FASKIANOS: While we wait, Rachel, you were part of a blog on CFR.org called Women Around the World. And there was a recent post talking about how many women are excluded from voting, receiving government services, and owning property because they do not have government-issued ID cards.
Can you talk about what is being done to address this issue?
VOGELSTEIN: Absolutely. You know, this is an important issue that is often overlooked, which is the importance of having legal identification or even birth registration in order to be able to receive government benefits, to participate in the economy; and even in cases of, you know, a practice like child marriage, to prove one’s age and to ensure compliance with minimum-age-of-marriage laws.
In some parts of the world, birth registration is unfortunately either difficult to obtain or not a priority. And we also see that in some communities, that registering the birth of boys is more likely than registering the birth of girls. So for an issue like child marriage, that can become incredibly difficult in terms of enforcing the law and ensuring that girls are not married underage illegally.
But we also know that not having identification can mean the inability to work and that women may be excluded from the economic sphere and from the ability to provide for their families without access to a legal form of identification. And there are many multilateral institutions that are now focused on providing technical support to nations without strong birth registration systems and to supporting efforts to ensure access to legal identification for all people, including women.
And you know, the World Bank has done a lot of work on this issue. I think with respect to the current refugee crisis and the number of people, including women and children, who are fleeing and trying to start new lives elsewhere, that this barrier becomes even more significant. So, you know, it is an issue that is incredibly important and hopefully will receive the attention and the resources it deserves.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. Any other questions?
OPERATOR: I’m showing no questions in the queue at this time.
FASKIANOS: I’ll ask a final question, Rachel, about how countries and international institutions are evaluating and monitoring progress toward gender equality.
VOGELSTEIN: That’s a great question. Thank you. There recently was the—an adoption of a new set of indicators for the sustainable development agenda at the United Nations, many of which included a focus on women and girls or were specifically tied to implementation of either Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality or some of the gender equality related targets that are housed within some of the other seventeen goals.
I think one of the challenges that was referenced in an earlier part of the conversation is the ability of countries to monitor against many of the indicators that have been agreed upon. In some nations there is a limitation in terms of technical capacity. In other nation the consideration is resources.
Unfortunately, in many places, there’s still a lack of sex-desegregated data and in some cases a lack of sex- and age-desegregated data, which can undermine our ability to track progress for women and girls specifically.
So one of the initiatives that I had the privilege of working on when I was at the State Department was a data-collection effort called Together for Girls, which was focused on closing the gender data gap in the area of sexual violence against children and focus in particular on girls. And the reason for that is that many data-collection efforts began at age fifteen and go up from there or focus on newborns and infants but overlook young girls.
And in fact, this effort, which was a partnership between the U.N., between other multilateral institutions, the private sector, and the U.S. government found that the incidence of sexual violence against girls age ten to fourteen, who previously had been overlooked was actually alarmingly high and in fact related to the spread of HIV.
And so now the U.S. government, using this data, has actually structured part of its HIV-prevention efforts through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to focus specifically on adolescent girls to ensure the prevention of the spread of the epidemic.
So that shows you that in fact data does inspire progress and change. And it will be critical to improve and strengthen the technical capacity of national statistical assistance, to be able to actually provide the indicators that were just called for and agreed to at the United Nations in order to truly hold nations accountable under the Sustainable Development Goals. But that will also require resources, and that’s one of the goals I hope we will see the new global partnership for sustainable development data achieve, which is sufficient resources for data-collection institutions and national statistical systems so that we can actually have the ability and the resources to disaggregate on the basis of sex and age and ethnicity and other factors.
And I understand that there are also private sector and philanthropic actors that are interested in contributing in this area. So, for example, we just had one of the leading officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation come and speak on implementation of Sustainable Development Goals at the Council, and he reports that in fact at the upcoming Women Deliver summit in Copenhagen, which is focused on maternal health, that we should expect to see a major announcement from the Gates Foundation to invest in data-collection efforts and gender data in particular.
So it’s an incredibly important issue. And hopefully we will continue to see not only attention to it but also the resources that it demands.
FASKIANOS: Great. I think we have one more question.
OPERATOR: We do. We have one more question from Satpal Singh with State University of New York in Buffalo.
SINGH: Hi. Thanks for taking another question from me. One of the hurdles in attaining gender equality is the centuries-old cultural and other notions on the status of women in society, you know, where women stand with respect to men.
Now, one of the approaches to resolve this should be education of general public, starting with the very, very young ages, as children start learning important social concepts from very young age, including few months.
Now, are there any efforts being devoted to this, including allocation of any resources?
VOGELSTEIN: That’s a great question, and thank you for it. And you are absolutely right that social and cultural norms are intricately related to work to advance the status of women and girls around the world. You know, I get asked questions about social and cultural norms quite often in the work that I do. And you know, one answer to the question of culture is kind of who gets to define that culture.
So consider the issue of child marriage, which we talked about earlier. It is a tradition that is practiced across religions, across regions of the world and is often attributed to tradition or to social and cultural norms. But the question of who gets to define and enforce those norms is a significant one. There are women, who are in many of the countries where you have a high prevalence of child marriage, working to end this practice and to shift those norms. And their voices too are part of the culture.
So, you know, I think that’s one question that we should always ask in considering the extent to which culture is a factor in the rights of women and girls, is kind of who gets to define what that culture looks like and whose voices count.
You know, I do think that there is a significant shift in cultural norms that we have seen around the status of women and girls in recent years. So if you take an issue like violence against women, you know, in many communities and nations, you know, even twenty years ago, that issue was considered to be a private family matter, it was a cultural issue.
And today, not everywhere—and needless to say we’ve not solved the problem of violence against women—but in many places today, it is not acceptable to see—it’s no longer acceptable to see that issue as a cultural issue. It is a criminal issue. And there are laws on the books, and there are prosecutions for violations of those laws. And certainly, you know, public rhetoric about those issues has changed, if not rhetoric in private.
So I think that there is a great opportunity to think about kind of who defines culture, whose voices we want to ensure are heard in those conversations, as well as the ways in which culture has changed to expand the circle of opportunities for women and girls in many parts of the world in recent years.
FASKIANOS: Great. Well, Rachel, thank you very much for being with us today and sharing your insights and work on this important issue and to all of you for your excellent questions and comments. I—
VOGELSTEIN: Well, thank you so much for having me and for everyone who participated. It was really a pleasure.
FASKIANOS: You can follow Rachel Vogelstein’s work with the Women and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_ WFP. And I already referenced the blog on CFR.org. But I hope that you will visit there for commentary from Rachel and other experts who are in the Women and Foreign Policy Program. The blog again is called Women Around the World. And of course, please do follow the work that we are doing at CFR Religion on twitter at @CFR_Religion. So there we are announcing the latest CFR resources and other events that should be of interest to you all.
So thank you again for your participation, and we look forward to having you all join us again for our next one.