Gender equality is a human right. Women are entitled to live with dignity and with freedom from want and from fear. Gender equality is also a precondition for advancing development and reducing poverty: Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole families and communities, and they improve prospects for the next generation. Still, despite solid evidence demonstrating the centrality of women’s empowerment to realizing human rights, reducing poverty, promoting development and addressing the world’s most urgent challenges, gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise. For more than 30 years, UNFPA has advocated for women and girls, promoting legal and policy reforms and gender-sensitive data collection, and supporting initiatives that improve women's and girls' health and expand their choices in life.

Topic summary

Empowering women and girls

Despite many international agreements affirming their human rights, women and girls are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. They have less access to property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence.

Gender equality will be achieved only when women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life.

This means sharing equally in the distribution of power and influence, and having equal opportunities for financial independence, education and realizing their personal ambitions.

Gender equality demands the empowerment of women, with a focus on identifying and redressing power imbalances and giving women more autonomy to manage their own lives. When women are empowered, whole families benefit, and these benefits often have a ripple effect on future generations.

Gender equality benefits not only women, but their families and communities as well. A Hmong woman in the village of Sin Chai, Viet Nam. ©UN Photo/Kibae Park

Taking action

The roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined. They are socially determined, changing and changeable. And while they may be justified as being required by culture or religion, these roles vary widely by locality and evolve over time. Efforts to promote women’s empowerment should ensure cultural considerations are respected while women’s and girls' rights are upheld.

Effectively promoting gender equality also requires recognizing that women are diverse in the roles they play, as well as in age, social status, ability, geographic location and educational attainment. The fabric of their lives and the choices available to them vary widely.

UNFPA aims to respond to the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable – including adolescent girls, people living with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants, women refugees, female heads of households and those living in extreme poverty. In 2017, UNFPA supported gender equality-related legislation, policy reform and development in countries around the world.

One critical, and often overlooked, requirement for promoting gender equality is the collection of sex- and age-disaggregated data, which helps reveal where progress has taken place and where it is flagging. UNFPA works with countries to build capacity for data gathering and analysis.

Key issues

Experience has shown that addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy-making. Key issues include:

Reproductive health: The ability of women to control their own fertility is fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life. Protecting and promoting her reproductive rights – including the right to decide the number, timing and spacing of her children – is essential to ensuring her freedom to participate more fully and equally in society.

In addition, for both physiological and social reasons, women are more vulnerable than men to reproductive health problems. Collectively, complications of pregnancy or childbirth are the number two killer of women of reproductive age. Failure to provide information, services and conditions to help women protect their reproductive health constitutes gender-based discrimination and is a violation of women’s rights to health and life.

Economic empowerment: Six out of 10 of the world’s poorest people are women. Economic disparities persist partly because much of the unpaid work within families and communities falls on the shoulders of women, and because women continue to face discrimination in the economic sphere.

Educational empowerment: About two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Lack of an education severely restricts a woman’s access to information and opportunities. Conversely, increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment benefits both individuals and future generations. Higher levels of women's education are strongly associated with lower infant mortality and lower fertility, as well as better outcomes for their children.

Political empowerment: Gender equality cannot be achieved without the backing and enforcement of institutions. But too many social and legal institutions still do not guarantee women equality in basic legal and human rights, in access to or control of resources, in employment or earnings, or in social or political participation. And men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority; globally, only 24 per cent of parliamentarians are women. Laws against domestic violence are often not enforced on behalf of women.

Last updated 10 May 2018.