In its opening days, the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen has bestowed praise and congratulations on the women’s rights advocacy community writ large—and appropriately so. Some of the panelists have risked their lives and livelihoods to create a better world for women and girls; recognition of their accomplishments is truly the least we can do. Many others have dedicated their distinguished careers to this cause, trailblazing the path for later generations.
But there’s a lot we still have to accomplish. Here’s how we think Women Deliver participants and all of us working to promote gender equality need to challenge ourselves to make sure conference commitments translate into tangible action.
Close the gender data gap.
On day two of the conference, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $80 million over the next three years to help close the gender data gap. (This BBC article quotes CGD experts explaining why such a gap exists.) These investments will improve the accuracy and reliability of data collection on women and girls, helping inform better policy and decision making. This was, of course, welcome news for many—indeed, in nearly every session we attended, at least one panelist echoed the call for better gender data. And we agree this investment will be crucial. Strengthening data has been a high priority at CGD, from the Girls Count initiative to our working group report on data for development in sub-Saharan Africa.
But we also know that this one new commitment is just a first step. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria and a CGD distinguished fellow, challenged the Gates Foundation to use this investment to leverage additional funding for improved data collection, especially from countries themselves. And other donor organizations pledged to address gender data challenges; we’d love to see them put new money behind their commitments.
Monitor and evaluate so we know what works.
In a plenary session on Tuesday, PSI’s Keith Hoffman aptly noted that “never before has so much information been available… measurement is demystified.” Yet we still see too few impact evaluations, whether using randomized controlled trials or other appropriate methodologies. And as we’ve noted before, sexual and reproductive health programs could hugely benefit from investing more of their resources in monitoring and evaluation. Measurement helps us gain an understanding of what is and is not working, whether we need to iterate or pivot, and where we should spend our next dollar. Or as Julia Bunting, director of the Population Council, succinctly put it, “evidence—not intuition—must guide global health efforts.” It is therefore critical for those of us working to improve the well-being of women and girls to step up and make measurement a priority throughout the life of our programs and policies. If we want to see real progress, we need to know how well we are doing.
Face failure—and learn from it.
Amidst many (well-earned) congratulations, a few frank acknowledgements of failure offered an important counterpoint. In a day two session, Ambassador Deborah Birx, US Global AIDS Coordinator, recalled the origins of the DREAMS initiative to empower adolescent girls through a holistic program of education, empowerment, and healthcare access—hopefully reducing their vulnerability to HIV infections. The program’s path-breaking design arose from an inconvenient truth: data showed that a decade plus of previous programs had failed to make a dent in HIV incidence among adolescent girls. “It got to the point where we had to be honest with ourselves,” recounted Amb. Birx; by recognizing the failure, PEPFAR could attempt a different approach (which itself may or may not succeed!). A new Guttmacher report contained a similar nugget. In broadly making the case for investments in adolescent health, the report pointed out that “two approaches commonly pursued—stand-alone youth centers and peer education—have not been shown to be effective in changing young people’s reproductive health behaviors.”
Going forward, the women’s rights advocacy community cannot just hope or assume that their delivery strategies are working without rigorous evaluation; as Millions Saved points out, an efficacious intervention does not necessarily lead to effective delivery at scale. Instead, they must challenge themselves to face up to failing programs—and use data and evaluation to help change course.
Think big (but concretely).
Because gender inequality is deeply rooted in personal beliefs, community values, and social norms, its eradication undoubtedly requires grassroots engagement and local advocacy-based approaches. But Women Deliver sessions on topics ranging from innovative financing through international public-private partnerships to gender budgeting by national governments remind us that we also have the opportunity to affect change on a much larger scale if we’re willing to go beyond business as usual.
As we seek to tackle discrimination and break down barriers, we shouldn’t be afraid to think big. That means incorporating a gender lens into every area of government budgeting (not just health and education, but also infrastructure, energy access, and taxation schemes). It means leveraging the resources and experimental capacity of the private sector to test new approaches that governments can then scale up, or to transform global value chains to make them more inclusive.
In reality, achieving SDG 5—and the rest of the sustainable development agenda—is going to take a lot more than a village, or a village-by-village approach. Change to a gender-biased system certainly won’t happen overnight, but it also doesn’t have to take forever, if we commit to taking big steps alongside the necessary small ones. And in order to maximize impact, our points above about data collection and monitoring results apply just as much to the macro level as they do to the micro.