By Breaking Gender Barriers and Shattering Ceilings, We Can Change the Course of the 21st Century. So What Are We Waiting For?

The Sustainable Development Goals seek to change the course of the 21st century, and nowhere more so than SDG 5, which aims to achieve gender equality.

For progress will only happen when men and women are equally empowered. When they are paid the same wages for the same work, treated equally, are given equal opportunities for health, education, work and more.  When they are free from fear, hunger, violence, inequity and prejudice.

Cutting the roots of gender discrimination is a prerequisite to achieving the SDGs.

Known as the stand alone gender goal, Goal 5 can only be achieved if we stand together.

Sadly, in many countries, gender discrimination remains intertwined though social and legislative norms. According to UN Women, while a record 143 countries guaranteed equality between men and women in their Constitutions by 2014,  52 are yet to take this step.

Stark gender inequalities remain not only in the economic and political domains, but also in the domain of the environment.

Environmental inequality manifests itself in the lopsided exposure to environmental risks and exclusion from environmental decision-making processes.

At its core, environmental discrimination is not an environmental issue, but a social and political one that is deeply rooted, according to Hollie Brehm and David Pellow, in our “discourses, structures, and political and economic institutions, and it is intertwined with the other inequalities that permeate our daily lives.”

A study of fish workers in Zambia reported that 31 per cent of fish traders had an institutional fish-for-sex relationship. In some cases these sexual transactions are voluntary, but in most cases they are not.

In the absence of money and other resources, female fish traders often lack the bargaining power to refuse a sexual relationship. In a ‘no sex, no fish’ scenario, turning down a sexual offer from a fisherman can mean starvation for the woman and her family.

Beyond sexual exploitation, these fish-for-sex dynamics drive high HIV risk, where in fishing communities they average 14 times above national averages, according to multiple assessments, with women often having much higher infection rates than men.

Developing gender sensitive policy agendas that protect marine livelihoods and ecosystems, while at the same time promote gender equality,  have the potential to provide equitable livelihoods in which women’s dignity, traditional knowledge and cultural identities are preserved and celebrated.

From food security to sustainable consumption and production and sustainable energy use, gender and environment approaches are necessary for the sustainable, equitable and just management of the planet’s natural resources and ecosystems.

Business-as-usual approaches are not working and are proving detrimental to people and the planet. We need Gender-and-environment approaches to be developed, streamlined and practiced as a norm across communities, nations and the world.

Gender and environment cannot continue to be treated as different silos. And while the gender and environment nexus is increasingly acknowledged in international agreements and policy documents, follow through remains weak or absent.

Gender equality cannot be measured by the ‘presence’ of men and women alone. Because 'presence' does not necessarily mean 'participation' and does not inherently imply 'influence'. It is the nature of people’s 'participation' that makes their 'presence' meaningful.

A transformative agenda for the 21st century needs to recognize gender equality as a driver of social change, leading to more people-smart environmental policies.

Men and women, boys and girls: let's break some barriers and chatter some ceilings.

Article by Dr. Janet Macharia, Gender Advisor, UN Environment