Gender Counts now more than ever

Crises exacerbate inequalities.

Gerda Binder & Karen Humphries-Waa
Chompuu with her grandmother and sister
UNICEF/Panos/2020/Patrick Brown
20 October 2020

Gender impacts almost every facet of our lives – our relationships, health, education, employment and safety. It affects society’s expectations of us; in our behaviour, roles and responsibilities and the opportunities and resources we can access.

These effects start early in life, in some instances, before a child is even born. Yet, up until recently, there has been little investigation into how gender impacts the lives of children and adolescents. This is despite the first two decades being the time when gender inequalities first emerge, and gender norms are internalized.

Thirteen of the 54 gender-sensitive indicators, for the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), relate to childhood and adolescence and many other indicators call for sex- and age-disaggregation, however data is still not widely available. Yet, data collection and analysis, for this formative period, will be pivotal in the development of policies and programming to achieve many SDGs by 2030.

Gender impacts in the first two decades

Recent research has provided many insights into how gender impacts the lives of girls and boys. In some settings, the first impact of son preference is seen during pregnancy, with sex-determination and sex-selective abortion, leading to the birth of more boys than girls. However, adolescence is when most gender inequalities begin to take their toll. Many girls have their childhoods cut short by teenage pregnancy, child marriage, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse. And, whilst gender parity in education may be in reach for many countries, girls are still less likely than boys to transition to higher education, training or employment. 

Harmful gender norms also impact boys, particularly those which encourage male dominance and risk-taking and discourage vulnerability and help-seeking. These masculine norms contribute to higher rates of suicide, interpersonal violence, unintentional injury, binge drinking and substance use among boys.

A girl looks at the camera in an IDP camp in Kachin State, Myanmar

COVID-19 pandemic - exacerbating gender inequalities

Inequalities are exacerbated by crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. There is evidence that hard-won gains in gender equality in education, employment and sexual and reproductive health are being lost. Across Southeast Asia, young women are experiencing greater job losses as they are more likely to be informally employed, in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as food, accommodations, essential domestic work, and manufacturing. In India, the pandemic is estimated to be undoing 70 years of progress in girls’ education, with the drop out of an estimated 10 million secondary school girls, due to increases in child marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, and violence. The surge in domestic violence, harming many girls and young women, has been described as a ‘shadow pandemic’ by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Girls are also more likely to be targeted for sexual exploitation, including  online abuse which has sky-rocketed during lockdowns. Financial instability is also leading families to marry girls off early and send boys to work. Child marriages in Indonesia have approximately tripled, with 33,000 in the first half of 2020 compared to 22,000 for the previous full year. Girls may also be pulled from education to help with care-giving or domestic work.

Health service disruptions adds another barrier for young women and girls seeking sexual and reproductive services. As a result, teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions and births without skilled attendants will surge. And, so will maternal complications and mortality. In the Philippines, rates of birth to mothers under the age of 20 are predicted to double as a result of quarantines, with approximately 200,000 young Filipinos becoming parents. In Thailand, unwanted teenage pregnancies are also expected to surge, with twice as many youth reporting difficulties accessing sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception, counselling and abortion.

Gender data supports progress

Inequality based on gender remains one of the fundamental challenges to global health and sustainable development. Measuring and monitoring gender data during the first two decades of life, when socialization intensifies and inequalities emerge, will be fundamental to implementing policies and programmes that progress gender equality. Investment in the collection and analysis of sex- and age-disaggregated data for all SDG gender-sensitive indicators should be a priority. Critical gaps in gender statistics must be addressed and additional research undertaken to understand disparities in the lives, health, wellbeing and opportunities, of girls and boys.

There is an opportunity to make a difference, both now and for the next generation – to ensure girls and boys receive equitable care, support and opportunities, to reach their full potential. Now, during the current crisis, it is more important than ever to consider gender, as we undertake data collection and analysis, make plans, take action and respond to the pandemic. Because, now more than ever, gender counts.

To learn more about how gender impacts the health and wellbeing of girls and boys in Asia Pacific see this Lancet journal article and the Gender Counts reports for East Asia and Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific. This research has been developed as part of an inter-agency initiative led by UNICEF, in collaboration with the Burnet Institute.