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OPINION: What does data have to do with gender equality?

by Alexandra Bilak | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Friday, 6 March 2020 14:45 GMT

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

Women and girls count, which is why we count them

Alexandra Bilak is the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

After Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique in March 2019, over 600,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Among those aged 18 to 59 housed in emergency shelters a month later, the number of women was a third higher than that of men. Why?

One explanation might be that men were more likely to stay in their damaged home to repair it or protect it from thieves. 

Women’s greater vulnerability to many types of violence may also encourage them to abandon their homes faster than men.  

It is often cited as one of the main causes of displacement in situations of widespread criminal violence and fully-fledged conflict, where women and families with daughters flee the risk of rape.

So gender inequality is even more pronounced amongst those who are uprooted, and displacement has a disproportionately female face.

New research gives us the first-ever ‘best-case’ scenario estimate that there are at least 21 million women and girls worldwide who are internally displaced as a result of conflict or violence.  

Two-thirds of them are in Africa and the Middle East, and the nine countries with more than a million of them are a roll call of fragility and trauma: Syria, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan.

And this is not even the full picture. The estimates don’t account for women and girls displaced by disasters such as Cyclone Idai, largely because for more than half of the largest events recorded since 2008, data was only collected for up to a month afterwards. 

Unravelling any of the mysteries around internal displacement has to be based on fact. And yet, only 15% of the countries for which we collect data provide it disaggregated by sex and age. 

One glaring finding from a new and independent index which measures progress towards achieving gender equality within the quest to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is that displaced and stateless people have been all but omitted from reporting to date.

Four of the ten countries with the largest internally displaced populations worldwide - Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia - are completely missing from the index due to the unavailability of data. A further three which did have enough data to be included in the Index – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Pakistan - are all less than halfway towards reaching their gender equality targets.

The Index confirms that no country in the world is set to achieve gender equality by 2030, a full 25 years after 189 of them committed to doing so in a landmark Declaration signed in Beijing.

Women and girls remain in vulnerable situations the world over, and their inherent vulnerability is massively multiplied in situations of internal displacement, where hard-wired discrimination and social and economic disadvantage only rise further to the surface, while the female voice often sinks further.

Women consistently find it harder than men to find jobs when they are displaced. The camps and the neighbourhoods in which they are housed tend to be hostile environments, their medical facilities stretched or non-existent, and schools likewise. Boys are prioritised over girls for the few school places available; and girls are more likely to be forced into earlier marriage.

How do we address this? 

First, greater awareness. So now we know: the world has another 21 million gender-based reasons to be alarmed.

Second, better data. Data is patchy and inconclusive the world over. But it drives policy, funding and response. 

Third, better policy implementation. Over 20 years ago, the UN clearly set out the basic principles for supporting vulnerable people before, during and after their displacement within their own countries. And over 10 years ago, every African country signed a convention to make those commitments legally binding. Yet this does not necessarily mean that policy has become practice. Governments need better capacity, and deeper political commitment, to make the protection of internally displaced people a reality.

The dignity and resilience I have seen the world over among displaced women and girls cannot mask a crisis, but they can be vital ingredients of the solution. Let’s put women and girls front and centre of the diagnosis, and the response.