Revitalizing the Roots of the Gender Data Movement: From Mexico City to Beijing and Beyond

Stephanie Oula May 30, 2019

Time for a history pop quiz! Which United Nations World Conference on Women was the first to mention the need for better gender data?

A) Beijing in 1995
B) Nairobi in 1985
C) Copenhagen in 1980
D) Mexico City in 1975

If you answered D) Mexico City in 1975, that is correct! The Mexico City conference was the first to call for a stronger gender data agenda; however, this call has been repeated in all UN World Conference on Women reports from 1975 to 1995. With the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference next year, it’s timely to revisit the history of international consensus on gender data.

Gender data is cross-cutting to the entire Beijing Platform for Action and the Platform remains revolutionary, nearly twenty-five years after its drafting. This realization is inspiring because of its radical, transformative vision, and disheartening in the face of all we have left to accomplish. Much like any effort related to gender equality, building inclusive data systems is a long-term effort. But the fact that a twenty-five-year-old document still reads as our incomplete to-do list today clearly signals the urgency of action needed on gender data.

UN/DPI Photo

Report cards on the state of gender data and Beijing as our latest baseline

How far have we come on improving gender data from Mexico to Beijing, and beyond? The reports of the UN World Conferences on Women and their follow-up reviews offer a historical report card of sorts for the gender data community. The history of the international women’s movement, captured in these important intergovernmental documents, demonstrates that lack of gender data has been a stubborn issue plaguing policymakers and activists alike for nearly half-a-century.

There is both good news and bad news in how far we’ve come on gender data. Let’s start with the good news: earlier conference reports identified significant gender data gaps in health. Thanks in large part to the international development community’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals, the state of global gender data on health and education is fairly robust today. While not entirely comprehensive for the wide range of health and education issues facing women and girls (indeed, a recent report by Data2X found that there are still gender data gaps in all sectors, including health and education), we have important data on maternal mortality; on the provision of health services to girls and women; on HIV+ incidence rates; on age of first pregnancy; and on primary and secondary school enrollment.

Having this gender data has been instrumental in our understanding of the health and educational lives of women and girls and has funneled attention and funding to interventions for improved outcomes.

Yet while significant progress has been made, there are still many areas for improvement. Nearly forty-five years ago, the Mexico City report strikingly identified many of the persistent gender data gaps that still exist today: women’s economic contributions; unpaid care work; time use; women’s political participation; harmful cultural practices; the need for strengthened civil registration and vital statistics systems; and the need for greater data disaggregation by sex and also other key variables such as age.

In the years following the Mexico City conference, even more gender data gaps have been identified as the international community’s understanding of multifaceted gender inequalities and intersectionality has grown: data on gender-based violence; data on girls; data on women and the environment; and data on women with disabilities and other vulnerable populations, such as indigenous women, low-income, and minority women. And since the Beijing conference, not only have additional gender data gaps have been identified in areas including women’s access and use of financial services; the effect of conflict and migration on women; access to digital technologies; and much more, but the rise of new types of data and new data usage (such as big data and algorithmic bias issues) mean emerging possibilities and pitfalls for data on women and girls.

Using the Beijing anniversary to drive momentum on gender data

The first UN World Conference on Women, and the conferences that followed, provide a still-relevant blueprint for our gender data needs. Fortunately, there has recently been a groundswell of recognition on the need for and the impact of gender data. This greater attention could translate to increased political will and financing, but it is not yet remotely sufficient to propel us beyond Beijing.

Much work remains if we are to achieve the Beijing Platform for Action. The UN World Conferences on Women consistently stressed that implementation of gender equality commitments is the responsibility of governments; however, they also acknowledged the importance of other actors. From the UN system to civil society to the private sector, we must work together revitalize energy and action on gender data as we approach the next significant anniversary of Beijing.

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