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Must try harder: What do our global development goals mean for equality?

womens day
Professor Shirin Rai reflects on some of the structural impediments to women’s equality in the 21st century.

On the 25th of September 2015, the UN’s 193 member states voted to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals and 169 sub-targets to guide and inform global policy-making up until 2030. SDGs are anchored in a discourse of universal human rights, and are accompanied by the strong assertion that equality must not only apply to the creation of opportunities but also the results for real people.

A tick list of massive issues

Of course we should be pleased that we have these goals, writ large for all to see and to which governments are signed up and obliged to be seen as tackling.

The 17 goals form a ‘tick list’ of massive issues that need addressing. Among them are climate change, poverty, hunger, clean water and sanitation and very high up the list, at number five, is gender equality. Goal 5 is: To achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Quite right. We should be tackling the issue of global gender inequality. In 2019 it is shocking that there are only 11 women serving as Head of State and ten serving as Head of Government in the entire world; one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime; In most countries, women only earn between 60-75% of men’s wages - for the same work and of the approximately 781 million illiterate adults worldwide – two-thirds are women.

What is ‘decent work’?

A problem arises however when you begin to look at the goals on the list in isolation. Considering them as discreet and separate targets is problematic and they can be at odds with each other. Take for example, Goal 8, which advocates ‘sustainable economic growth and decent work for all’. Yes, of course we should want to achieve this. But, if you consider this statement in the context of moving towards gender equality, it begs the question – what is ‘decent work’?

Two aspects of ‘work’ are overlooked in Goal 8. First, much of social reproductive work – by which we mean the work done for the maintenance of human life, include birthing, domestic and care work – is generally done by women and remains unrecognised and unvalued as ‘work’. It is not captured in a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Second, even when it is paid, this type of work – a part time care job for example - is generally done by women and it is precarious and undervalued in terms of wages and conditions of work. In other words - gender inequality persists.

Take a gendered look

We need to take a gendered look at ‘decent work’. Without this we risk overlooking the harm to those who do this work without any recognition or recompense.

Within the detail of Goal 5, covering gender equality, state parties are urged to ‘recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family’, advancing a vision of work that appears to be grounded in feminist campaigns and wider institutional trends. Research has shown that while the entry of women into cheap labour markets might support economic growth, it does not assist gender equality and empowerment for women and girls. Without strategies for redistributing unpaid domestic labour within the household, an emphasis on paid ‘decent work’, although important, can only remain a limited approach to gender equality.

Also, addressing ‘depletion’ that builds up through social reproduction is critical to the realisation of gender equality. Depletion means the running down of individuals, households and even communities because of lack of social infrastructure, such as health, social care and education. Women’s wage employment is considered by states as a ‘magic solution’ within the Sustainable Development Goals, but achieving ‘decent work’ for women, does not automatically take away the unpaid social reproductive work. This situation can actually increase the depletion of women if not replenished through state social infrastructural support, redistribution of gender care roles and the recognition of domestic labour.

Relying on women’s free labour

Unfortunately Goal 8, which advocates ‘sustainable economic growth and decent work for all’, falls short of its own ambition by not addressing issues of social reproductive work and therefore of gender equality. At the moment, if Goal 8 was to be put in conversation with Goal 5, the unresolved tensions between these two Goals make for an unsustainable and unequal policy framework to address both decent work and persistent gender inequality globally. Goal 8 cannot then be successful in delivering ‘decent work for all’ unless paid employment as well as unpaid social reproductive work are recognised as important contributions to society and properly valued and recompensed through state supported mechanisms, non-state initiatives and through cooperative and community actions.

If we are to take the UN’s lead to achieve gender equality, it is important that policy makers at least consider these two goals in tandem and recognise that not all models for growth rely on women’s free labour.

For more details, see Professor Rai's paper, SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth – A gendered analysis 


7 March 2019


Shirin Rai

Shirin M. Rai is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research covers the feminist international political economy, gender and political institutions and politics and performance. She has written extensively on issues of gender, governance and development.

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