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Deep Dive

Gender Equality and Sustainable Development

How IISD works to advance gender equality

Sustainable development encourages us to think about how to improve economies and societies without compromising the natural environment or the well-being of future generations.

May 20, 2019


For any development effort to be sustainable and effective, it must consider the needs of all people, including those who don’t typically have a voice in decision making. That’s why gender equality is a critical ingredient in achieving sustainable development.

It’s also why we aim to use a gender lens in our work—whether it is exploring how to replace unsustainable practices, helping governments develop policies to address inequality, tackle climate change and end poverty and hunger, or working with communities to build resilience to climate-related events.

IISD works on a number of initiatives to ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment are at the centre of sustainable development policies and legislation.

Here are some of the areas we are exploring through our work:

Gender-responsive climate change adaptation

Around the world, countries are making plans to accelerate climate change adaptation efforts. Known as National Adaptation Plans, these are a key mechanism for achieving the goals identified in the climate change agreement countries have committed to (the Paris Agreement). NAP processes assess vulnerabilities, prioritize actions and put in place the resources, capacities and systems needed for implementation.

NAP processes represent an important opportunity to address the gender dimensions of adapting to climate change. Through the NAP Global Network, IISD is working with country governments and international partners to promote gender-responsive approaches to adaptation through analysis and guidance, technical assistance and capacity building.

We believe gender-responsive NAP processes will ensure that resources for adaptation are targeted where they are needed most, yielding more equitable benefits over the longer term.

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Voluntary sustainability standards and women's empowerment

Food security is an intersectional issue touching on income, poverty, access to resources, gender-based discrimination and health. Women face systemic gender inequality in agricultural production.

Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) can contribute to gender equality in agriculture. Sustainable production practices, for example, can contribute to a diverse and nutritional diet because different crops are cultivated simultaneously in the same land plot.

Certification via VSSs can potentially lead to higher household incomes that can contribute to food security, particularly when women have control of an income stream. Certification can also alleviate some of women’s domestic labour burden through financial support provided for labour-saving services, equipment and/or technology, such as processing mills.

All this requires meaningful engagement between VSS setting bodies and development organizations working on the ground with rural communities and farmers’ groups.

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Legal innovations for women in contract farming

Husband and wife smiling together

Contract farming is production carried out under agreement between a producer and a buyer. The contract can eliminate some of the risk around agricultural commodity productions, creating opportunities for investment and expansion that might not arise in a less regulated transaction.

Contract farming has existed for decades in most countries and while it is meant to provide farmers with a more predictable income and help them access higher quality inputs such as fertilizer and seed, historically it has done little to improve outcomes for women. This is a missed opportunity. Female farmers and farm workers face gender-specific challenges that contracts could be adapted to address. Contracts designed with the interests of women farmers in mind can help foster more balanced relationships between producers and buyers, as well as between female farmers and their husbands.

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Gender and fossil fuel subsidy reform

Governments spend billions of dollars every year subsidizing fossil fuels. Many countries are reforming and phasing out such subsidies, but reforms could affect women and men differently. Governments need to ensure that reform plans and subsidies are well targeted at women’s needs and help safeguard vulnerable women’s access to clean household energy sources.

Our recent research found that fuel subsidies do not work well for poor women. A large share of subsidies accrues to wealthier segments of the population because they consume more energy and have better access to it. This effect is particularly strong for liquified petroleum gas (LPG), as the researchers found in India, but also for a “poor people’s fuel” like kerosene, as observed in Bangladesh and Nigeria.

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Tracking progress toward SDG5

Gender equality can enable and even accelerate the achievement of all the SDGs. While gender equality is captured as a stand-alone goal (SDG 5), gender must be integrated across all the SDGs, and gender considerations must be included in all sustainable development work and climate action.

SDG 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls to reach their full potential. This requires eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against them. Goal 5 seeks to ensure that women and girls:

  • have full access to sexual and reproductive health and rights;
  • receive due recognition for their unpaid work;
  • have full access to productive resources; and enjoy equal participation with men in political, economic, and public life.

IISD provides information and analysis on progress towards achieving the targets set out in SDG 5.

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Gender audits and the SDGs

The adoption of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development presents an opportunity to end poverty, hunger, and inequality, and put the world on track to sustainable development. As governments and other stakeholders strive to meet the Agenda’s ambitious goals, auditors have a crucial role to play.

The UN and the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) are calling on supreme audit institutions (SAIs) to audit the efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Audits can lead to improvements in the way programs are designed and delivered, gender-disaggregated data is gathered, and results are achieved.

Supreme audit institutions have a key role to play in auditing programs to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Such audits can determine whether governments are meeting their commitments, achieving planned results, and putting in place policies and programs that work.

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