The Thar Desert: a long stretch of nothingness epitomized by infinite sand. A small hamlet for living, a well for water, searing sun in the day, followed by a numbingly cold night, a tiny lamp for light, a hard laboured field, and a herd for living off of.
A woman here is not only subjected to harsh weather but also, to rigid patriarchal systems: she is married early as a girl by a family in want of a son. She walks as many as four hours a day, fetching water for the daily needs of her entire household, hours that could be spent in going to a school or earning an income. Access to basic services is either obstructed or missing in this challenging geographical setting. As it turns out, her ability to access education, work, skills, or even dignity and decision-making positions here, is gendered. This is not just the story of women in the Thar specifically, but of women across the country.
Now, let’s move to a high-density urban setting located in New Delhi. An ‘invisible’ home-based woman worker is living in a resettlement colony in the capital’s semi-rural stretch. After putting her three children to sleep at night, she spends hours sewing and cutting clothes. She works at a garment factory, another ‘robust’ profit organisation exploiting the marginalized at penny wages. She earns less than one Indian rupee for each finished garment. Women here are denied minimum wages, often threatened in case of any external disclosure of their working conditions, and exploited unlawfully. There are millions of women workers like her who are employed by the unorganised sector, where one’s vulnerability is directly proportional to the power of the employer.
Vignettes like these remind us that we still live in a world of inequalities and injustice. In every sector, be it agriculture, industrial production, education, transportation, energy, or sanitation, our models of growth and development are profit-led, ultimately revealing persistent socioeconomic inequalities between men and women. Whether inadvertent or not, development strategies at the national, state and local levels accentuate this gender inequality. Growth and ‘development’ are often fuelled by exploiting women’s labour and at times underpaying them (or not paying them at all). The participation of women in planning and decision-making processes is restricted or limited, resulting in gender-exclusive development that fails to identify women as uncontested stakeholders.
This paradigm of development is at odds with the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 agenda of achieving 17 goals of sustainable development, all of which emphasize the idea of “leaving no one behind”. While a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) in and of itself, Gender Equality (SDG 5) intersects with the remaining 16 SDGs too, as well as their 45 SDG targets and 54 indicators. Simply put: none of the SDG targets can be advanced if the singular goal of Gender Equality is not prioritised.
Integrating Gender Equality into the implementation of the remaining SDGs will trigger a positive multiplier effect: it may guard against the widespread perils of gender-based exploitation and marginalisation. If equipped with power, opportunities, and resources, women, some 50% of the world’s population, can drive sustainable development, and catalyse the process of realising the SDGs by 2030.
So, how does the United Nations Development Programme describe the role of gender equality in achieving each Sustainable Development Goal? When broken down, SDG 5 can be viewed through the lens of five key elements: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership.
Globally, nearly 15 million girls are not enrolled in primary school as compared to 10 million boys. In 2018, the UN noted that women around the world also face a 10% higher risk of experiencing food insecurity compared to men. When women experience unemployment and poverty, a country’s human capital, that is, the measure of investment in human resources, is negatively affected.
According to a new report, if women earned as much as men in the 141 countries analyzed, this would generate $160 trillion in additional human capital wealth. Ending gender inequality makes economic sense: https://t.co/pQCDmghc81
— Kuldeep Bishnoi (@bishnoikuldeep) June 1, 2018
Additionally, women spend more hours performing domestic work: therefore, their well-being is directly correlated to the well-being of their children and other family members. So, increased access to income and resources for women leads to better nutritional status and better education outcomes for children.
For example, in households where women manage the budget, family members tend to have higher nutrition levels and the childhood survival rate is also higher. Notably, if given access to a full education women have outperformed men both globally as well as in India, especially in subjects such as English and Science.
The gender inequity in education has also translated into inequity in employment and work opportunities. With this section of human capital tapped incompletely, we are slowing our economic growth by limiting the size of the talent pool and the workforce’s capabilities. This has also impeded entrepreneurship and economic diversification, two important anchors of sustainable growth.
For example, only 28.8% of the world’s researchers are women. The participation rate for women aged 25 to 54 in the labour force is 55% as compared to 94% for men in the same age bracket. When more women are a part of the labour force, the household income increases, with more families able to improve their living standards.
Owing to their socio-economic status and higher dependence on natural resources for survival, women are the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change, which include flooding, hurricanes, droughts, and other natural disasters. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that time-intensive household care has hindered their participation in decision-making processes surrounding sustainability management initiatives. For example, women and girls worldwide spend a total of 200 million hours every day collecting water.
Women by default are the worst suffers of climate change issues in Assam and everywhere. Even today, women complain of going to a distant island to relieve themselves for lack of flood-resilient toilets and there is the issue of lack of menstruation care taking a backseat
— Aatreyee Dhar (@carbon_stink) October 14, 2021
As a result, we have overlooked women’s substantial body of knowledge and expertise in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction, and adaptation strategies. In addition, women’s positional responsibilities in the household and community care make them well placed to contribute towards sustainability initiatives and a climate-adapted livelihood.
The rights of women and girls are jeopardised in situations of crisis and conflicts, which is especially when trafficking tends to increase. 3 out of 4 human trafficking victims in the world are women and girls. Research also suggests that countries with higher levels of gender inequality are more likely to be involved in intra- and interstate conflict than countries with more equitable gender relations. In countries with increased unrest due to extremism, we have seen how women have been the most vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
In this light, gender equality can have tangible impacts on peace and conflict. A global study by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom observes that the security of women, not democracy, ethnic, wealth or religious identities, is the most reliable indicator of a nation’s peacefulness.
When women are underrepresented in global, national, and regional institutions, decision-making is imbued with gender biases.
So, to think of Sustainable Development as a single driver agenda is to undermine the essence of sustainability. We can only accelerate the progress towards these goals when the partnerships for implementation are inclusive and representative, which means including more women in these processes too.
Can Collective Action Really Help Realise Gender Equality and the SDGs?
There has been enough evidence to prove that securing women’s rights can lead to a positive domino effect across other SDGs. Improving women’s access to resources and opportunities, including skill development or education, enables them to improve their living standards and increase their bargaining power within their families and community. This, in turn, strengthens womens’ participation and voices in decision-making processes, gradually making social systems more gender-responsive.
Case studies such as the Barefoot College stand testament to how gender-responsive institutions have been able to create women leaders for sustainability by enabling equal access to opportunities for them. Back in 1972, in a village called Tilonia in Rajasthan, Barefoot College started with the goal of helping women in rural India improve their living standards. Every year, Barefoot houses around 50 middle-aged women for six months and teaches them practical skills to become solution providers in their rural communities. In one such course, illiterate and older women, considered a particularly vulnerable group, were taught solar engineering skills. The training incorporated colour-coded charts and audio-visual pedagogy as a tool to overcome the reading or writing obstacles faced by some of these women. After finishing this program, the women returned to their homes and further worked towards transforming their villages by bringing solar electrification to their communities. These women have been able to raise the quality of life, not just for themselves, but also for their families and communities.
Years earlier Barefoot College developed a much larger solar cooker, for communal cooking. It had a clockwork motor and it tracked the sun. pic.twitter.com/JZiAH0rjq8
— electronics engineer (@Bruinou2) April 15, 2020
In 2015, the Government of India also launched the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (MUDRA), an example of how gender-responsive policies can galvanise not just equality but also economic development. MUDRA is a scheme that promotes self-reliance by providing collateral-free and low-interest loans to individuals so that they can start small-scale entrepreneurial ventures. Historically, access to finance has been difficult for women because of low stakes in family property and a lack of collateral. But, by making the loans collateral-free, banks have facilitated access to finance for women. 70% of the total borrowers in the scheme have been women.
By empowering women to be self-sustainable here, Barefoot College and the Mudra Yojana have worked towards SDG 5 (Gender Equality) while also spurring other SDGs such as SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 7 (Affordable & Clean Energy), SDG 8 (Decent Work And Economic Growth), and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, And Infrastructure).
Individual Action Towards Accelerating the SDGs
We have less than ten years to meet the SDG targets. While we are making progress, we are not yet advancing at the scale and speed required.
Change comes from both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. The top-down changes are instigated by the governing agencies at the state, national, and global levels. Policymakers and governments, with their ability to create and enforce laws, can develop a “societal scaffolding” that supports change at the bottom.
However, the institutional change from the top will always falter if the foundations at the bottom aren’t strong enough. Our families and homes are the starting points of equality. The ripple effect of individual action to attain the SDG targets is unspoken.
For example, we can ensure a fair division of household chores and childcare work between different family members. We can also create equal access to education for both boys and girls, by supporting the education and employment of the girl child without reservation. We should empower children to speak out: but, more importantly, we should teach ourselves to listen to them when they do speak out. We can choose our words mindfully: phrases like “stop being a girl,” “it’s your responsibility,” and “be a man” do more harm than one would imagine. We can let children choose the clothes they like. Above all, we must disrupt any kind of verbal, emotional, and physical violence against any gender at home.
It is time we shatter the notion that equality for women is gained at the expense of the rights of men. This is everyone’s struggle, and we are all paying the economic, social, and environmental costs of living in an unequal and unsustainable society. When women are genuinely celebrated and empowered, things will change for all of us.
This report is prepared under the She Leads Green project of NariShakti, anchored by Global Shapers Gurugram. She Leads Green is an initiative spreading awareness on the importance of achieving gender equality in a bid to achieve the targets of all other SDGs. Aashraya Seth, Aditi Rai, Anurit Kanti, and Dhara Shah, the team behind She Leads Green, contributed to the report.