Many charts of women's progress remain blank

Posted: 29 May 2006

Author: Thalif Deen

The lack of vital gender-related statistics - on population, health, education and labour - is distorting the social and economic position of women worldwide, according to a new UN report.

A teacher reads aloud from a textbook to her students. © UNICEF
A teacher reads aloud from a textbook to her students. © UNICEF
A teacher reads aloud from a textbook to schoolgirls.© UNICEF
The paucity of reliable national statistics is also impinging negatively on four relatively new areas: violence against women; poverty; power and decision-making; and human rights.

"Europe has the highest reporting and Africa the lowest," says the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in its latest report on The World's Women 2005: Progress in Statistics. The world's other regions - including Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean - fall between the two extremes. "The more developed regions report the most data and the (50) least developed countries (LDCs) the least," says the study.

Women count

Women at a water pump near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: P. Virot/WHO
Women at a water pump near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: P. Virot/WHO
Women at a water pump near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia© P. Virot/WHO
The situation in Africa is such that well over half of the 54 countries provided sex-disaggregated data on population and on primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment at least once between 1995 and 2003. However, less than a third were able to provide data on births, deaths and economic characteristics of Africa's population by sex.

"Statistics are unsung yet essential ingredients for economic and social progress," says UN Under-Secreetary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Jose Antonio Ocampo. "One of the most pronounced shortcomings in this area - with the most damaging effects - appears in the collection of data disaggregated by sex and of data focusing on gender issues," he told reporters.

In a preface to the report, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan points out that 11 years after the adoption of a Platform for Action at the landmark 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing, "the lack of reliable national statistics on gender issues persists in many parts of the world." The Platform for Action urged national, regional and international statistical services to ensure that statistics related to individuals be collected, analysed and presented by sex and age, and reflect problems, issues and questions related to women and men.

According to the current study, continued improvements in data collection and reporting are key factors not only in charting the situation of the world's women, but also in advancing their situation.

Mary Chamie, chief of the demographics and social statistics branch at DESA, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that it is not possible to produce and sustain national gender statistics programmes in isolation of supporting and strengthening the production of official national statistics.

"Weak collection and reporting of statistics lead to lack of evidence. How well represented are the world's women in statistics? This is the question of the report. Regular and reliable national statistics programmes are required for policy formulation, planning and for evaluation of national development goals," she said.

Vital statistics

Asked to identify some of the primary stumbling blocks, Chamie said the world's least developed countries, and developing regions of Africa in particular, require national commitment and public support by key stakeholders such as women's groups, to strengthen three major and essential statistical activities:

  • First, conducting a population and housing census that enumerates the total population and reporting the results during the next decade round of population censuses (2005-2014)

  • Second, strengthening of a national household survey capability programme to address topics requiring further detail and explanation, and

  • Third, strengthening of vital statistics through a civil registration system that registers births by sex - and deaths by sex and age.
At the most essential levels of government, Chamie said, official national statistics are required for detailed assessment of progress - in provinces, across cities, in countries, small rural areas and villages and across socioeconomic and other special groups. "Without statistics, one is driving blind," Chamie said.

According to the study, there is also a shortage of basic vital statistics - disaggregated by sex - even on the number of births and deaths in a country. "Yet there has been very little increase in the countries frequently collecting and reporting the number of birth by sex and death by sex and age in their population in the last 30 years. In fact, many countries fail to do so," the study notes.

Francois Farah, chief of the Population and Development Division at the UN Population Fond (UNFPA), said the production of gender statistics has been seriously impaired by the little attention, or mere lip service, paid to gender equality to society in general, and in development and poverty eradication policies, in particular.

"Women are not visible in most vital statistics - such as those covering births and deaths - because they are simply often not made visible in their own societies and communities. Female births are often not registered because girls may not enjoy the same value as boys. Many censuses under-report the health conditions of women and many labour and agriculture statistics under-represent women because of a serious lack of recognition of their economic and social contributions," Farah told IPS.

Systematic gender statistics are absolutely essential to monitor the magnitude of gender discrimination and to inform adequate policies and programmes. Every woman should count so that everyone can count, Farah said.

Thalif Deen writes from the UN, New York for the Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article is reprinted.

Source: Third World Network Features / IPS

Related links:

Read the report, The World's Women 2005: Progress in Statistics

Read the report, The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics