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Gender equality is a human right. Women are entitled to live with dignity and in freedom from want, fear, and violence. Gender equality is also a precondition for advancing development and reducing poverty: Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole communities and societies, and they improve prospects for the next generation.
Still, despite solid evidence demonstrating the centrality of women’s empowerment to reducing poverty, advancing development and addressing the world’s most urgent challenges, gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise.

The roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined. They are socially determined, changing and changeable. While they may be justified by their proponents as being required by culture or religion, these roles vary widely by locality and evolve over time. Efforts to promote women’s empowerment should ensure cultural considerations are respected while women’s and girls’ rights are upheld.
Effectively promoting gender equality also requires recognizing that women are diverse in the roles they play, as well as in age, social status, geographic location and educational attainment. The realities of their lives and the choices available to them vary widely.

Empowering women

Despite many international agreements affirming women’s human rights, women and girls are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. They have less access to property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence.
Gender equality will be achieved only when women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life. This means sharing equally the distribution of power and influence, and having equal opportunities for financial independence, education and realizing one’s personal ambitions.
Gender equality demands the empowerment of women, with a focus on identifying and addressing power imbalances and giving women more autonomy to manage their own lives. When women are empowered, whole societies benefit, and these benefits often have a ripple effect on future generations.

Gender equality benefits not only women, but their families and communities as well. ©UNFPA Yemen


What UNFPA is doing

For more than 30 years, UNFPA has advocated for women and girls, promoting legal and policy reforms and gender-sensitive data collection, and supporting initiatives that improve women's health and expand their choices in life.

For example, UNFPA Arab States Regional Office has launched, together with UNDP, UNWomen and ESCWA, a Gender Justice Initiative, which includes a series of 18 country reports as well as one overarching regional report on Gender Justice and the Law in the Arab states region. The reports assess existing legal frameworks in relation to gender equality and protection from gender-based violence and aim to encourage legal, policy and institutional reforms in the countries studied. Currently, the four agencies are working on further expanding the scope of the country reports, for example to include laws on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and on launching a dedicated Gender Justice website that hosts the data and information made available by the Gender Justice Initiative.

UNFPA is further dedicating many of its activities to the aim of eradicating gender-based violence, including harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, as those forms of violence are extreme violations of human rights and are both rooted in gender inequality as well as reinforce these unequal power relations.

UNFPA aims to respond to the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable – including adolescent girls, people living with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants, women refugees, female heads of households and those living in extreme poverty.

One critical, and often overlooked, requirement for promoting gender equality is the collection of sex- and age-disaggregated data, which helps reveal where progress has taken place and where it is flagging. UNFPA works with countries to build capacity for data gathering and analysis.

Key issues

Experience has shown that addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy-making. In addition to the different forms of gender-based violence and harmful practices mentioned above, key issues include:

Reproductive health: The ability of women to control their own fertility is fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life. Protecting and promoting women’s reproductive rights – including the right to decide the number, timing and spacing of children – is essential to ensuring women’s and girls’ freedom to participate fully and equally in society.

In addition, for both physiological and social reasons, women are more vulnerable than men to reproductive health problems. Collectively, complications of pregnancy or childbirth are one of the leading causes of death of women of reproductive age. In 2017, about 295,000 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Failure to provide information, services and conditions to help women protect their reproductive health constitutes gender-based discrimination and is a violation of women’s rights to health and life.

Economic empowerment: Poverty is not gender-neutral: Globally, women are more likely to be poor than men. Economic disparities persist partly because women have unequal access to and control over economic resources, and much of the unpaid work within families and communities falls on the shoulders of women.

Educational empowerment: About two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Lack of an education severely restricts a woman’s access to information and opportunities. Conversely, increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment benefits both individuals and future generations. Higher levels of women's education are strongly associated with lower infant mortality and lower fertility, as well as better outcomes for their children.

Political empowerment: Gender equality cannot be achieved without the backing and enforcement by institutions. But too many social and legal institutions still do not grant women equality in basic legal entitlements and human rights, in access to or control of resources, in employment or earnings, or in social or political participation. And men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority; globally, less than one quarter of parliamentarians are women and the percentage is even less in the Arab States Region.

Last updated May 2020.