Advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment

Provided by UN Women

The mainstreaming of a gender perspective is crucial for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls constitute a goal (SDG 5) and a means for achieving the other goals that contain gender-specific targets.

With only eight years left until 2030, and the Covid-19 pandemic threatening to deteriorate gains made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, investing in the capabilities, dignity and human rights of all women and girls without distinction, across multiple sectors and throughout the life course has never been more important. An assessment of selected SDG targets based on the data available in the United Nations Global SDG Indicators Database confirms that countries in the UNECE region have made significant strides in the pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, progress has been impeded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which may reverse many of the gains of the last decade.

Where does the UNECE region stand on gender, equal power, and representation in leadership positions?

Few countries are close to gender parity in leadership positions

Women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life are crucial in achieving sustainable development. Under-representation in positions of power and leadership is still the norm in the UNECE region. Men dominate national and local politics as well as decision-making positions within the private sector. Women hold at least four in every ten seats in national parliaments in only 9 of 56 UNECE countries. When it comes to local government, only 7 of 46 UNECE countries with data have achieved this level of representation. Ten countries have reached or surpassed 40 per cent of women in managerial positions.

Based on the latest data available for 2021, women account for at least 40 per cent of representatives in national parliaments in 9 countries in the region, including Sweden (47 per cent), Andorra (46 per cent), Finland (46 per cent), Norway (44 per cent) and Spain (44 per cent).5 However, there are eight countries across the region in which women’s representation in national parliaments stands below 20 per cent. If adequately designed and enforced, temporary special measures, including quotas, can accelerate women’s political representation at all levels. As of February 2022, 40 of 56 UNECE countries had electoral quotas for women in lower chambers and unicameral parliaments.6

5 These countries would meet the target if the threshold were to be set between 40 per cent and 60 per cent, with the aim of no more than 60 per cent of either sex being represented in parliament.

6 IPU. 2022. Parline Database. Accessed 8 February 2022.

While acknowledging the advancements made towards ensuring women’s participation in local governments, overall progress is still slow as the latest available data from 46 UNECE countries shows. Women hold at least four in every ten elected seats in deliberative bodies of local government only in 7 UNECE countries, including Belarus (48 per cent), Iceland (47 per cent), Sweden (44 per cent), Albania (44 per cent), Norway (41 percent) and Andorra (41 per cent). There is considerable variation across countries for this indicator and in eight countries women hold 20 per cent or less of seats in local governments (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Proportion of seats held by women in local governments, 2017-2020 (SDG Indicator 5.5.1b)

Source: Global SDG Indicators Database.

Managerial positions are gender imbalanced in most of the countries. Based on the latest data available for the period 2017-2020, women hold at least 40 per cent of managerial positions in 10 of the 48 UNECE countries with data, including Belarus (49 per cent), Latvia (46), the Republic of Moldova (46), the Russian Federation (45) and Poland (43 per cent). In three countries, however, women hold one quarter or less of all managerial positions. This same pattern is observed if only high-level positions are considered: in 8 of 39 countries with recent data available, women account for at least 40 per cent of senior and middle managers, including in Iceland (44 per cent), Latvia (44 per cent), the United States (42 per cent) and the Russian Federation (42 per cent). In three countries, women hold one quarter or less of such positions.

A gender-responsive recovery to the Covid-19 pandemic depends on the effective participation of women in the decision-making bodies tackling the epidemic and its socio-economic consequences. Women have been at the centre of the pandemic response, occupying crucial positions as frontline medical workers, researchers, and educators, yet they remain significantly underrepresented in country-level Covid-19 task forces. As of November 2021, women held at least for in every ten positions in such bodies in Iceland (100 per cent), Ireland (57), Estonia (55), Canada (50), Finland (48), Austria (44), Italy (43), Portugal (41) and Belgium (40 per cent).7

7 UNDP, UN Women, UN Volunteers and University of Pittsburgh. 2021. COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker – Factsheet on COVID-19 Task Force Participation. Accessed 11 February 2022,

What progress has been made on equal participation in the economy?

Large gender gaps remain in labour force participation and time spent on household chores.

Structural barriers to gender equality and gender discrimination prevail in labour markets, manifesting as gaps in labour force participation and pay, occupational segregation, unemployment and the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work. Women’s workforce participation has generally moved closer to men’s, however large gender disparities persist among the prime working-age population. Prime-age mothers (aged 25–54 years) of young children (under 6 years of age) are particularly penalized in the labour market in terms of participation, pay and access to leadership positions. Data for the period 2018–2021 reveal that the gender gap in labour force participation among couples with small children exceeds 15 percentage points in 24 countries in the region. More than 90 per cent off at hers aged 25–54 are engaged in the workforce in all countries with data. Labour force participation among mothers this age approaches a high level – 80 per cent or more – in only six countries, (Austria, Croatia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia).8

8 ILO. 2022. ILOSTAT Database. Accessed 11 February 2022

For many women across the region, the countless hours spent on unpaid care and domestic work remain an obstacle for accessing decent employment. Women continue to bear a disproportionate responsibility for household chores and care duties in most of countries. Data available for eleven UNECE countries for the period 2015-2020 reveals that even prior to Covid-19 women already spend up to twice as many hours performing unpaid care and domestic work tasks than men in Canada, Switzerland, the United States, Kyrgyzstan, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Belarus. In some countries like Serbia, North Macedonia and Kazakhstan, this ratio stands between 2 and 3 times and at over 5 times in Turkey. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated women’s unpaid care and domestic work burden on an unprecedented scale, oftentimes impacting their physical and mental health. Investments in the care economy are therefore central as the UNECE region recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Care leave policies such as maternity, paternity and parental leave, and flexible working arrangements can help working parents combine paid work and family responsibilities and encourage amore even division of work at home.9 Affordable early childhood education and care services can also enable women to participate in the workforce and create decent jobs in the paid care sector. The lack of kindergartens and pre-schools in some countries impedes women’s engagement in paid work. In only a few countries does the share of children aged less than 3 years enrolled in formal childcare services exceed 40 percent: Slovenia (42 per cent), Luxembourg (47 per cent), Portugal (51 per cent), Norway (56 per cent) and Denmark (66 per cent).10 Countries should further promote equal take-up of parental leave among women and men strengthen the public and private provision of childcare services, and implement policies on flexible working arrangements.

9 ILO. 2021. Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery – Policy Brief. Accessed 8 February 2022.

10 Eurostat, 2020,

Protecting dignity and human rights of women and girls

Many UNECE countries have taken action to combat the rise of violence against women during the pandemic.
With few exceptions, women in the region can make their own decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and reproductive health care, and the prevalence of early marriage is low.
Women are more likely to experience multidimensional poverty than men.

Women and girls in the UNECE region have the right to live in dignity, free from fear, coercion, violence and discrimination. Yet they continue to endure human rights violations in the public and private spheres that hamper equality in all areas of life. According to the WHO Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates for 2018 which provide data for 48 UNECE countries,11 around one in every ten women aged 15 or older has experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner in Tajikistan (12 per cent),Kyrgyzstan (12 per cent) and Turkey (10 per cent). In contrast, the prevalence of intimate partner violence is 5 per cent or less in 39 UNECE countries. Iceland (2per cent), Canada (2 per cent) and Switzerland (1 per cent) have achieved most progress in this area (Figure 2).

11 The WHO Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates for 2018 are based on nationally or sub-nationally representative surveys and studies conducted between 2000 and 2018 and that measured intimate partner violence using act-specific questions.

Figure 2

Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 years and older subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, 2018, (SDG Indicator 5.2.1)

Source: Global SDG Indicators Database.

Violence against women, and domestic violence in particular, has intensified since the outbreak of Covid-19. Countries in the region have prioritized addressing this shadow pandemic as part of their Covid-19 policy responses. For instance, Denmark funded an additional 25 temporary shelters, Malta and Montenegro introduced silent reporting through a mobile phone app, Kyrgyzstan expanded and strengthened existing hotlines, including online psychological services, and Romania organized online awareness campaigns with the participation of public figures.12

12 UNDP, UN Women, UN Volunteers and University of Pittsburgh. 2022. COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker. Accessed 8 February 2022

The prevalence of early, child and forced marriage in the UNECE region is significantly lower compared to other regions of the world (indicator 5.3.1). Yet this harmful practice, which severely curtails girls’ opportunities throughout their life course, remains common in some Eastern European and Central Asian countries. Among the fifteen UNECE countries with recent data available, more than one in every ten women aged 20–24 were married before age 18 in Turkey (15 per cent), Georgia (14 per cent), Kyrgyzstan (13 per cent) and Albania (12 per cent).

Women’s and girls’ autonomy in decision making about sexual and reproductive health, contraceptive use and consensual sexual relations is key to their empowerment and the full exercise of their reproductive rights. The share of married or in-union women of reproductive age that can make their own informed decisions in these domains (indicator 5.6.1) varies considerably across the eight UNECE countries with data. It stands at over three-quarters in Serbia (96 per cent), North Macedonia (88 per cent) and Georgia (82 per cent), at around two-thirds in the Republic of Moldova (73 percent), Albania (69 per cent), Armenia (66 per cent) and Turkmenistan (59 percent), and at one third in Tajikistan (33 per cent).

The most progress in the development of national laws and regulations to guarantee full and equal access to sexual and reproductive health care, information and education (indicator 5.6.2) is observed in Sweden (100 per cent), Finland (98 per cent), the Netherlands (98 per cent), Georgia (93 per cent), Switzerland (92 per cent), the United Kingdom (92 per cent), Denmark (90 per cent), and Malta (90 per cent), based on data available for 2019.

The availability of and access to social protection and social services is crucial to reduce female poverty, combat in equality and promote social inclusion. Multi-dimensional poverty in the UNECE region has a female face. In all but two countries with data women are more likely than men to live in multi-dimensional poverty (indicator 1.2.2). More than one third of women in Greece (31 per cent), Romania (32 per cent), Bulgaria (34 per cent), Turkey (41 per cent) and North Macedonia (41 per cent) are multi-dimensionally poor. Gender gaps are largest in Latvia (30 per cent of men compared to 25 per cent of men), Lithuania (28 and 24 per cent) and Bulgaria (34 and 30 per cent).

In three quarters of countries with data, all mothers with newborns receive maternity cash. Gaps in pension access to pensions remain (indicator 1.3.1). Universal pension coverage has been achieved among men in 37 of 45 countries with data but among women in only 26 of 45 countries (indicator 1.3.1).

UNECE countries prioritized access to social protection and social services at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many introducing new cash transfer programmes, cash for care, in-kind support and social pension schemes. For instance, North Macedonia targeted single parents, most of whom are women, with a one-time cash payment, while Belarus provided in-kind support to deliver foods and medicines to elderly people and persons with disabilities through district-level social protection centres.13 In the Netherlands parents who continued to pay for childcare during the closure of childcare facilities between March and June 2020 received compensation from the government.13

13 UNDP, UN Women, UN Volunteers and University of Pittsburgh. 2022. COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker. Accessed 8 February 2022

Gender equality and effective learning outcomes

Girls finishing lower secondary education are more likely than boys to achieve the minimum proficiency level in reading whereas the picture is mixed in mathematics.
In most countries, more than 90 per cent of women have a mobile phone.

The achievement of equal learning outcomes among girls and boys is key to reverse educational segregation at the tertiary level and the feminization of certain labour sectors and occupations. Girls finishing lower secondary education are more likely than boys to achieve the minimum proficiency level in reading in all UNECE countries with recent data (indicator 4.1.1). The overall share of girls achieving proficiency, however, varies widely across the region, ranging from more than 90 per cent in Finland (93 per cent), Estonia (92 per cent), Ireland (92 per cent), Canada (90 percent) and Poland (90 per cent) to just around less than half in Georgia (44 percent) and Kazakhstan (43 per cent).

The picture is mixed in when it comes to achieving minimum proficiency in mathematics at the end of the same educational period. Girls perform better than boys in 26 of the 44 UNECE countries with data. The highest levels of minimum proficiency among girls are observed in Estonia (90 per cent), Finland (87 per cent), Poland (86 per cent) and Denmark (86 per cent). Girls are more likely than boys to complete lower secondary education in 7 of the 11 countries with sex-disaggregated, with female completion rates exceeding 93 per cent in all countries (indicator 4.1.2).

New technologies hold enormous potential for the empowerment of women and girls, yet it remains essential to close the gender digital divide, so that women have equal access to digital tools and can participate equally in the development of technology. At the same time, new risks such as cyber violence, threats to privacy rights or algorithms that perpetuate unconscious bias also need to be eliminated. Mobile phone ownership among women (indicator 5.b.1) is above 90 percent in more than half of countries with data and nearly universal in Cyprus (98 per cent), Finland (98 per cent), Spain (97 per cent), the Russian Federation (97 per cent), Slovenia (97 per cent), Belarus (96 per cent), Lithuania (96 per cent), Czechia (96 percent) and Romania (95 per cent).

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted education systems in the UNECE region. Between mid-February 2020 and December 2021, schools in 27 out of 49 UNECE countries with available data were closed for at least 100 days.14 Although countries have implemented various forms of remote learning, including online classes, not all children have benefited equally. Girls from the poorest communities lack computers and other related technologies. Similarly, the conflicting demands of work and home-schooling have increased the care burden for parents, and for women in particular.

14 UNESCO UIS. 2022. Dashboards on the global monitoring of school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessed 11 February 2022

Gender-responsive laws, policies and budgets are key for women’s empowerment

The UNECE region has made notable progress in the development and enforcement of legal frameworks to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls (indicator 5.1.1). However, gaps remain in the areas of public life, violence against women, employment and economic benefits, and marriage and the family.

The latest data available confirm that 9 of 40 UNECE countries have successfully implemented overarching legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality in public life: Albania, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Moldova and Spain. No UNECE country has yet met the target to put in place legal frameworks on preventing violence against women. However, fifteen UNECE countries are close to achieving the target, all scoring 92 percent on assessments of legal frameworks in this area: Albania, Bulgaria,Croatia, Denmark, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, NorthMacedonia, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Concerning the progress on legal frameworks that promote employment and economic benefits, data show that twenty countries have already met this specific: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. Only Germany has met the target related to promotion and enforcement of legal acts on marriage and family from gender perspective, though nine other countries are close to achieving it (assessment scores of 91 per cent): Albania, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Further progress needs to be made in developing, adopting and implementing methodologies for gender-responsive budgeting (target 5.c), especially in Covid-19 response and recovery efforts. None of the eight UNECE countries with data fully meet the three criteria – intent, allocation tracking and transparency – to make systematic public budget allocations for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Azerbaijan and Montenegro do not meet any requirements, while Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova meet at least one of the three criteria.

More gender data is available now, but coverage varies by country and indicator

Quality and timely gender data are crucial to informing public policies and programmes, and achieving and monitoring progress towards effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The limited data available to monitor some Goal 5 targets calls for increased investments in the collection, analysis and dissemination of related indicators. As of January 2022, 47 per cent of the data required to monitor SDG 5 is available for the UNECE region, although large regional variations are observed across countries.15

15 Regional and country-level estimates are based on 19 SDG 5 indicators. It is assumed that a country has data available for an indicator if at least one data point for the reference period 2015 or later is available in the SDG Global Database.

Data availability also differs significantly across the 19 Goal 5 indicators. For instance, all 56 countries have data available since 2015 on the representation in national parliaments (5.5.1a), while 48 countries have data on intimate partner violence (5.2.1) and access to managerial positions (5.5.2), 46 countries report data on representation in local governments bodies (5.5.1b) and 40 countries report on legal frameworks for gender equality and non-discrimination (5.1.1). In contrast, no more than 20 per cent of UNECE countries have data available since 2015 on key topics such as time spent on unpaid domestic and care work (5.4.1), decision-making on sexual and reproductive health (5.6.1), gender-responsive budgeting (5.c.1).

Data across multiple years that show trends over time are available for very few SDG indicators. Differences in the frequency of data collection and compilation and the fact that some indicators were newly introduced as part of the SDG framework partially explain the lack of cross-temporal data. Large gaps remain in the availability of disaggregated data by sex and intersecting vulnerabilities, such as age, geographic location, disability status, HIV status, migratory status, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation and gender identity to monitor gender-relevant SDG targets beyond Goal 5. National statistical offices and other key actors have undertaken huge efforts to improve gender data availability, however, more bold and decisive investments are needed to sustain the progress and to strengthen countries capacity to measure and inform progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

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