To lift the status of women and girls, we need better data — now
December 21, 2022
by Patricia Geli
The fragility of gender equity within societies across the globe is more obvious today than it has been in years. The World Economic Forum estimates the pandemic created a step back of nearly 40 years in progress toward parity for women and girls. The World Bank reports about 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent their full economic participation. Indeed, there are only 12 economies in the world where women have equal legal standing with men.
But there is reason for renewed hope, as global stakeholders are moving decisively to address this crisis.
A few examples:
The Gates Foundation launched a Gender Equality Division in 2020 to focus on breaking down structural barriers to women’s equality and help them overcome daily obstacles. The following year, Melinda French Gates announced a $650 million investment to further the economic empowerment of women.
The World Economic Forum launched a global initiative in 2021 to protect the health of women and girls. The project aims to engage communities, amplify leading efforts, and demonstrate how improved access to reproductive and maternal health services helps achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and contributes to sustainable growth.
Vice President Kamala Harris and the Partnership for Central America launched In Her Hands, a women’s economic empowerment initiative, in 2022. It aims to provide opportunities for 5 million women across Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras through job creation, technical skill-building, financial inclusion, textiles and apparel, and agricultural programs to pave the way for the next generation of leaders.
In my work as a leader with Reform for Resilience, a global commission that develops new models, metrics, and policy recommendations to create healthier societies, I’ve played a role in the World Economic Forum initiative and the White House work to empower women and girls in Central America. These efforts matter; they help turn the world’s attention toward accelerating progress to achieve a more gender-equal world —an acute need considering the latest estimate that it will take 132 years to reach gender parity globally.
All of this brings us to one of my favorite subjects as an economist: the value of using data to measure and improve the impact of interventions. This type of impact analysis is an essential tool for public-, philanthropic- and private-sector actors looking to fund and expand projects that we know are making a real difference on the ground.
With the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence, powerful data ecosystems are now available to provide decision-makers with an unprecedented window into the tangible forces that shape lives in a region. We can track variables that impact the quality of life for residents, we can design precision interventions—and we can track the impact of those interventions over time, at a highly localized level.
This is mostly great news. But these operational tools are only as useful as the data we input. So, it’s essential that those involved in efforts to improve gender equity ask the right questions and obtain the right data to effectively shape and assess their interventions.
Take for instance the case of Guatemala which has one of the highest rates of migration and also femicide rates in the world. While it is likely that violence against migrant women and girls is significantly higher due to the vulnerable situations they are in, there continues to be a lack of comprehensive data and analysis capturing this issue.
To solve this problem and to better understand the drivers of migration, Harvard T.H. Chan School recently teamed up with Gallup and data technology firm Fraym to design a data dashboard to help guide the work of the Partnership for Central America (PCA), a large public-private-academic coalition that includes more than 100 corporations working to improve the quality of life in that region. Our project focused on tracking migration patterns and key issues impacting daily life for residents, right down to the neighborhood level.
For instance, our dashboard helps illuminate differences in the exploitation, abuse and violence faced by women, in particular among those with cash-only employment, which typically refers to part-time jobs in the informal economy. In regions where larger numbers of residents are employed in professional clerical work, they seem to have lower rates of domestic violence or injury from partner. While this might indicate that women are more protected in jobs that exist within the economic system rather than outside of it, we need to know more before we can act on these insights to expand gender equity.
In the meantime, access to coordinated essential services at all stages of migration will remain critical for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and our dashboard can help illuminate where the worst inequities are.
Here the dashboard captures geographic areas in Guatemala with a high prevalence of domestic violence and injury from partner, with the deep blue indicating the largest percentage of women ages 15-49 hurt in this way.
Clearly, tools like this can do so much more if we have the resources to gather more targeted data. As UN Women states in a recent policy brief “to tackle and prevent violence against migrant women and girls and improve the provision of essential services to survivors, it is critical to strengthen the safe and ethical collection, analysis and dissemination of data on their experiences of violence.”
I couldn’t agree more. We must make gender-sensitive data collection and analysis a routine and robust allocation within project budgets—a critical dimension of the infrastructure because gathering this information is well worth it.
One more example. Exposure to the damaging impacts of climate change is another factor that highly correlates with gender-based violence. We can surmise that climate change may act as a major stressor that catalyzes gender-based violence. But again, more data over longer periods of time is needed to study these effects.
Here we see the department Retahuleu has the highest climate change risk. Compared to the national average, domestic violence is more prevalent at 30% compared to the national average of 25%. Injury from partner is also higher at 12% versus 10% across Guatemala.
Cumulatively, these examples hint at how helpful the dashboard and other data-rich tools can be in the fight for gender equity – but only if we first collect the right data. And collecting that data requires substantial resources. My hope is that the philanthropies and partnerships intent on improving the lives of women and girls will recognize data as the critical foundation of that work.
This is not the just the right thing to do, but also a smart investment. Healthier women contribute to better-educated and more productive societies. Achieving gender parity in business could boost global gross domestic product by as much as $2 trillion, or 2% to 3% of global GDP, according to a recent Citi analysis.
But again, the public and private sectors must invest in better data in order to target and track the interventions that will get us there.
A strong first step would be to work with subject-matter experts to identify the data we need — and the questions we must ask to collect that information. We can use the correlations surfaced in our data dashboard from Guatemala and Honduras as a starting point for such efforts, or we could tap insights from community organizations and NGOs on the ground in key regions. Academics can then help design questions that will produce the data we need to illuminate hidden drivers of despair for girls and women in specific locations. And once interventions have started, we can help with questions designed to measure their impact.
I am passionate about this issue because I’ve seen first-hand how a drop in the status of women and girls can lead to a pernicious cycle that’s difficult to break. In 2014, I was in Sierra Leone to manage the World Bank’s response to the Ebola crisis. The severity of that public health crisis reduced access to routine health care, which took a tremendous toll on women and girls. Teenage pregnancies increased exponentially. Consequently, many girls were unable to attend school and more likely to be caught in a poverty trap without voice and agency.
I am thrilled by the deepened commitment to raising the status of women and girls globally. Now let’s start gathering the data we need to make that happen. That’s where real change will start.