SDG#5 Gender Equality

Women’s rights are fundamental human rights. However, SDG#5 is not just a human right issue, it’s a tale of wasted human potential.

With International Women’s Day, and Mother’s Day in March, it is prime time to celebrate women, but also to acknowledge their struggles, and reflect on the long way ahead of us until meaningful gender equality. In this issue of the SDG x UCL x Volunteering Column, it’s all about empowerment, fighting for equal opportunities, what UCL is doing to further the gender equality agenda, and how you can help by devoting your time to a Goal#5 Charity.

Female volunteers at our Volunteer Awards Ceremony in 2018-19

SDG#5 Gender equality: a human rights issue

Women comprise half the population and therefore represent half of our society’s human potential. Through excluding them from legal, economic, and social process we stop humanity as a collective from thriving. Gender Equality is the foundation of a healthy, prosperous, and productive society.

While progress has been made in the past decade, and the number of forced, child marriages, as well as the number of people undergoing forced female genital mutilation has decreased, they still affect too many girls. In the corporate and political sphere, women now make up 26% of MPs, 36% of local representatives, and 26% of managerial positions. While these are all-time high to be celebrated, they still leave women grossly underrepresented in leadership roles.

A too often forgotten result of the pandemic is the surge in domestic violence worldwide. With lockdowns in place, many were shut in with their abusers, and 1 in 5 women experienced violence from an intimate partner in the last 12 months. Domestic violence and its physical, psychological, and social consequences isolate women and put them at risk of social isolation. Still, 49 countries lack any formal laws that protect women from domestic violence. Another consequence of lockdown for women is the burden of increased unpaid care and domestic labour that fell on them disproportionately. Even before, women already spent 2.5 times more time on unpaid domestic and care work than men. Such extra pressure risks forcing women out of the labour market thereby putting them at higher risk of poverty, and economic dependency.

And while women bear the harsh consequences of the pandemic, they also represent the solution to it. With 70% of frontline workers being female, female doctors, nurses, and other key professionals fought the virus. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it is ever more important to integrate women into the solutions, recovery, and planning to prevent loosing the progress of the last decades.

UCL and Gender Equality

UCL’s far-reaching global networks are utilised to fight inequality outside of UCL walls. The IoE in collaboration with UNICEF and local African governments is working towards eliminating gender-based violence in school to allow girls to stay in school. Researchers led by IoE-based Professor Jenny Parkes collect evidence on school-related violence to inform much needed policy reforms in 4 African countries. In addition to evidence collection, they also engage in capacity building and knowledge exchange to empower the local communities to enforce policies. The framework is generalisable to other countries and aims to equip communities with the necessary tools to collate necessary evidence to combat school-based violence against girls.

Another UCL-led initiative is fighting to change the social norms around child marriage by shedding light on the practice’s psychological effects on children. Moreover, the project aims to aid those who entered a marital contract before the age of 18. Their mental health and support needs are often neglected – argues UCL-based lead researcher Dr Rochelle Burges – and increased awareness of the issue is needed. By documenting the experiences and needs of those affected by child marriage, the project aims to facilitate conversation and bring about policy, as well as cultural change with the involvement of local communities.

Still today, too many live in period poverty which often forces young girls to leave education prematurely thereby worsening their opportunities and outcomes. The Students’ Union and Sustainable UCL are working to not only supply all citizens of UCL with free period products but for all sanitary items to be sustainable too. Project Period, running since 2018 is a fusion of SDG#5, #6 and #13 among others, and aims to use UCL’s research and influence to facilitate a shift away from both period poverty and plastic-heavy period products.

Support a Goal 5 Charity

There are many ways to fight for gender equality and to empower women and other marginalised gender identities. Whether through activism, advocacy, or individualised support for those in need, and victims of trauma, you can play a part in changing our society for the better and unleashing women’s potential.

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

Women@TheWell provides women-only services to women and girls who are or are at risk of being affected by prostitution. They support these individuals with their complex needs and traumas including alcohol, and drug abuse, rough sleeping, or trafficking. By providing a safe space, holistic therapy, and support, the origination aims to empower them to overcome these issues. Naturally, Women@TheWell also works for the abolition of the structural problems facing women in the first place with a special focus on forced prostitution, and trafficking. As a Drop-in Volunteer you will be able to support the Women of the organisation first-hand, and also get involved in advocacy.

5.6 Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights

Education for Choice is an amazing Student-led initiative that works with London schools to educate young girls and people on sexual health, contraception, pregnancy-related decision-making, and abortion. They deliver evidence-led, non-judgmental, and inclusive workshops to ensure that girls grow up knowing all their options and leave school with the ability to make informed decisions. While the NHS provides accessible and inclusive contraception to all, social structures, lack of information, poverty, stigma, or insecure immigration status - including those trafficked and sex workers – stop many from accessing it. Information is the first step towards liberating women’s sexual health and the burden of reproductive labour.

UCL Volunteers at an Endometriosis Research Now conference in 2018

5.B Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women

The WONDER Foundation works to empower women, girls and their community through one of the most powerful tools: education. They support communities of women and girls so that they can take control of their lives and make informed decisions. Read their report on the Gender Digital Divide and what to do about it. As a Communications Volunteer you will be supporting their core team who work to popularise the work of the WONDER Foundation and raise awareness of issues and barrier women face, including access to technology. They are also looking for Fundraising Volunteers who will raise funds to WONDER’s Polish operations supporting Ukrainians fleeing the war. Through providing women and their families with essential food and shelter, as well as information, they contribute to lessening the war’s devastating impacts.

There is a long way to go until meaningful gender equality and our responsibility is twofold: We must help those behind catch up, and those disadvantaged to prosper. But while decades of slow progress are starting to show, gender bias and discrimination are still engraved into the social fabric of our societies. We must work to actively deconstruct and dismantle misogyny, and the social, economic, and legal barriers to women's access to equal right, representation, and opportunities.