OPINION: Gender counts: Why investing in data on girls means transforming the future

Friday, 11 October 2019 10:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An Ethnic Kayan also know as a Long Neck girl sits at her parents souvenir shop in the Kayan village at the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We cannot possibly understand the situation and needs of girls without reliable data, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised

Karin Hulshof is UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific and Bjorn Andersson is UNFPA Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

It’s an undeniable fact that even in the 21st century, whether you are born a girl or a boy will shape to a large extent the lives and opportunities of the vast majority of the 2.3 billion children and adolescents around the world.

Quite simply, gender counts – with girls at a distinct disadvantage.

While the challenge of gender inequality isn’t new, there has been little data globally regarding its particular impact on children and adolescents.

This lack of data has limited our understanding of the problem and our ability to develop effective policies and programmes to address it. 

Also, when we only consider combined data on children, we miss seeing the full picture of how the lives – including the health, well-being, education and employment prospects - of girls and boys differ.

Now, researchers have started gathering more robust evidence for Asia-Pacific – a good geographical starting point given that it’s home to over half the world’s children and adolescents with an estimated 546 million girls and 604 million boys – who also comprise one-third of this vast region’s total population.

The harmful impacts of gender inequality are seen in several countries in the region where many more boys are born than girls. This is a result of son preference leading to sex selection and abortion.

Once they reach adolescence, girls are more likely to have their lives dominated by domestic and reproductive roles. Many girls become pregnant as teenagers, and unintended pregnancies can have multiple negative consequences including stigma, social isolation, school expulsion, forced marriage or unsafe abortion.

Despite this, there have been practically no data on the sexual and reproductive health of unmarried girls and boys, or those under 15 years, in Asia-Pacific – even though there’s ample evidence of sexual activity among these groups across the region. 

If there’s little information available about access to contraception for unmarried girls, for example, how can health services and comprehensive sexuality education best meet their needs?

On another front, even as more and more girls complete their schooling, they are still far less likely than boys to find gainful and equitable employment or enter further education. Gender norms limiting women's roles are one contributor. However, a lack of self-confidence, networks and even technology may also be challenges to girls' economic productivity. Without the right data, we just won't know.

On this International Day of the Girl we call upon governments and civil society to urgently address the harmful gender norms and inequalities that negatively impact girls and boys. And for this to happen, we all the more need solid data to illustrate the severity of the challenge and the best ways to address it.

A recently released set of regional reviews, Gender Counts, focus on gender inequality across the first two decades of life, providing in-depth analyses on how these inequalities are manifested,  as well as guidance on how countries can begin to deal with the challenge.

It’s important to acknowledge we cannot possibly understand the situation and needs of girls without reliable data, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised.

Effective programming with strategic interventions requires good data, otherwise how can we know we are making genuine progress?

Countries must invest in, and strengthen, data on gender-related disparities if they are serious about achieving the cross-cutting Sustainable Development Goals that underpin the 2030 Agenda – converting inequality into equality, and making “gender counts” take on a whole new meaning altogether.