International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements and contributions that women have made in society and that society has made in advancing the position of women. In the development sphere, we tend to coin this “gender mainstreaming”.  As a feminist in development, I believe it is important to celebrate these successes – but without any naivety as to how far there is still to go.

The term “gender mainstreaming” hit the development agenda back in 1995, following the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. There, campaigners successfully lobbied the world’s governments to make a dramatic commitment to the way they approached gender and women’s rights within international development policy and programming. Two decades later, women are much more visible in the design of development programmes, but there are lingering concerns as to whether this translates into the kind of investment and sustained focus needed to shift the needle on gender equality.

Women continue to be at a disadvantage and are more likely to live in poverty around the world. They are held back by restrictive cultural norms and practices, discriminatory laws, and a lack of access to education, health and job opportunities. In fragile and conflict-affected states, issues such a gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) all increase during conflict, leaving women and girls at their most vulnerable.

One of the barriers to effective programming and policy development is that there is not enough data to understand the full picture and root causes of inequality. A lack of data on women’s socio-economic status – and a lack of sex-disaggregated development generally – is a real barrier to monitoring the position and progress of excluded groups under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN Women’s chief statistician notes, “if we want to achieve SDG 5 by 2030 there is a need to improve coordination, data production and ensure adequate indicators to support policy needs, and support countries to identify and close gaps”.

Positively, the World Bank and the UN have signed MoUs to support data collection for the SDGs, particularly SDG 5 (achieving gender equality). In 2018, UNECA partnered with the African Development Bank to develop the first holistic African Gender Index (AGI). Combining two separate indices and national data from most African countries, the AGI is designed to build up a comprehensive picture on progress towards gender equality across the continent. The 2017 data shows that Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa rank among the most equal countries, whereas Sierra Leone, Niger and Comoros rank among the lowest gender equality levels. The Index also tracks progress on overcoming some of the barriers that women face to equal participation in the social, economic and political life of their communities, including access to education and health services, vulnerability to sexual violence, access to jobs and livelihoods opportunities, and participation in leadership roles.

On a scale where 100 represents parity between women and men, the 2017 Index shows that African women have reached 96 in basic education and 87.8 on literacy, but just 36.1 on STEM subjects. Thanks to widespread donor efforts on access to finance, they have reached 83.1 on access to credit, but only 72 on asset ownership, 56.5 on participation in business and 14.5 on senior management roles in firms.

This Index is the first step in helping policy makers and development partners identify priorities for advancing gender equality in Africa and establish key trend lines that will help programmes to monitor their gender impacts.

Whilst capturing the data through such indices represents a useful step on the road to developing a holistic picture of gender inequalities, continued collaboration is needed to effectively implement policy and programmes to tackle the gaps and work together to enhance the status of women globally.