New Report from UN Women argues that Universal Childcare can unlock progress across multiple SDGs (and costs it)

February 15, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Silke Staab and Ginette Azcona introduce their new report on gender and the SDGs, published yesterday

UN Women has just launched its first monitoring report on gender equality and the SDGs “Turning promises into action: Gender equality in the 2030 Agenda”. The report offers the most comprehensive review to date on how gender equality features in the 2030 agenda, the massive challenges in making progress on it, and what countries need to do to bring about meaningful change in women and girls’ lives.

Having gender issues well represented in the Agenda is a huge win for women’s organizations, and as a result, among the 17 goals, 169 targets, and 232 indicators, 54 are gender-specific. It is sobering to realize that of that total, we have good data coverage for only 10.  There is no question that challenge number one is improving the availability of gender data (something that we have been saying for years, but which has been given a very helpful push through the SDGs).

But, more than data availability, the policy challenges are huge, especially for developing countries. The Agenda requires progress on repealing discriminatory laws (which UN member states set a deadline for back in 2005); providing comprehensive services to address violence against women (when not even the wealthiest countries are doing this adequately); ending child marriage; reducing women’s unpaid care work burdens, and so on.

There are those who argued for a much smaller SDGs framework – a few, more tightly-focused goals that would get governments’ attention. In the end, human rights and universalism won out; and that was the right outcome – why should women and girls choose between not living in poverty, going to school, being able to decide if and when to have children and living a life free of violence and discrimination? In any case, they are all linked.

And it is precisely these linkages that provide the key to making progress on the 2030 Agenda. What are the policies that unlock change across several goals, that leverage change in one area, with massive ripple effects to others, that benefit women and girls, but also broader societies?

One of the answers is: universal childcare services. Good quality, universal and affordable childcare services reduce women’s unpaid care work (target 5.4) and enable mothers to access decent quality work because they can leave their children safely (8.5); ensure that children get at least one good meal a day (2.2), prepare them for school in the crucial and neglected early years (4.2), particularly those from disadvantaged households (10.3); and can create decent jobs in the social service sector, which tend to be taken up mostly by women (8.3).

This one policy could also have a dramatic impact on women’s poverty. In our report, we analyzed household surveys from 89 countries, finding that in their prime reproductive years (ages 25-34), women are 22 percent more likely to live in extreme poverty than men. In the years when the amount of unpaid work they do is largest, in the absence of support from governments to share this burden, women pay the price in terms of their economic security and rights.

But how are developing countries meant to afford luxuries like free universal childcare services? We did some costing in South Africa for the report, and there’s no point in pretending that these services are cheap – we reckon they come to about 3.6 percent of GDP. South Africa currently spends about 6 percent of its GDP on education; and about 4.2 percent on health, so it’s an expensive additional investment. But, according to our analysis, more than one third of the cost can be recouped through reduced social security bills and increased tax yields (because more mothers are working; and 2-3 million new jobs are created). And none of these figures include the benefits of having school-ready, well cared for children, and the potential reductions in poverty among women.

While we’re talking about affordability, in the week in which activists are attending the first global conference on tax and the SDGs in New York, it is also worth noting that tax is a feminist issue. The value of outflows from developing countries ($3.3 trillion) is 2.5 times the amount of resources flowing in ($1.3 trillion). In comparison, donor spending on gender equality ($40.2 million) is a drop in the ocean. Stopping outflows, increasing tax revenues and ensuring that corporations pay their fair share of tax would provide all the resources and more to make the kind of investments we need to see in childcare services, for everyone’s benefit.

Will the SDGs make a difference? The jury is still out, but the report has some proposals for how accountability can be strengthened. As Duncan has pointed out, in the case of the MDGs we never had the longitudinal research on change and policy processes at global or national level to answer that question. This time around, we are commissioning country level research on how the SDGs have been taken up and are shaping national level policy agendas. This will be featured in the next edition of the report, so stay tuned.