Aparna Mehrotra is Director, Division for Coordination of the United Nations System on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women at UN Women. She has worked with the UN since 1983, both at headquarters and in the field, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the UN Secretariat. Aparna Mehrotra co-founded and led the development and implementation of the UN System-Wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP), the only UN system-wide accountability framework for gender equality and the empowerment of women. Previously, while at UNDP, she led the UNDP Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean contingent to the World Women’s Conference in Beijing; co-founded the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, focusing on eliminating violence against women; and headed the UN Trust Fund for International Partnerships for UNDP. Subsequently, she served as Focal Point for Women in the UN system where, amongst other duties, she led development of the Directive on Sexual Harassment for the UN Military and Police contingents. In 2004, on deputation with the Office of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Iraq, she supported the establishment of the International Advisory and Monitoring Board (IAMB) set up by the UN Security Council. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, a law degree, and speaks five languages.
Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but also a crucial foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Progress in achieving gender equality requires sustained and adequate financing. Change takes time, as mindsets and systems evolve and transform. Further, while there have been advancements, the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030, the deadline set by the 2030 Agenda for achievement of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which SDG 5 is dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.1 Yet, estimates indicate that it will take another 286 years to bridge the global gender gap.2
Accelerating progress towards gender equality requires firm commitment, bold action and predictable funding. Where this exists, notable progress is possible. Programmes focused on women’s leadership and participation that have enjoyed investments, for example, have contributed to a record high number of women holding political decision-making positions worldwide.3 This is not to say that the parity attained is sustained, which it is often not, but progress occurred when intent and investments aligned.4
Tracking investments in gender equality and women’s empowerment in official development assistance
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analyses the official development assistance (ODA) invested by bilateral donors on gender equality and women’s empowerment using the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) gender equality policy marker.5 The DAC gender equality policy marker rates investments, using a three-point scale, on whether gender equality is addressed as a principal objective (usually through dedicated financing) or as a significant objective among a project’s various development goals.6 The marker is also applied to investments without any explicit gender equality focus to ensure that, at a minimum, they are aligned with ‘do no harm’ principles.
An examination of ODA flows reveals that the volume of ODA for gender equality and women’s empowerment increased from US$ 53.4 billion per year on average over 2018–2019 to US$ 57.4 billion in 2020. Figure 1 shows that after a decade of increasing financing, the share of ODA for gender equality stopped growing in 2020, plateauing at 44% (of a total US$ 129.5 billion screened against the marker).7
Further, 40% of this gender-related aid in 2020 seems to have been allocated not to standalone programmes with gender equality as a principal objective, but rather projects that integrate gender equality as one of several development objectives. In other words, only 4% of total bilateral ODA targets gender equality as a principal objective. Also, notably, several OECD-DAC publications acknowledge that funding for dedicated programmes with the primary goal of achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment remains consistently low (at 4%)8, and that this indicates donors are failing to effectively implement a twin-track on the centrality of gender equality to all progress, and the money flowing to gender-related commitments in the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
With respect to bilateral aid flows, Figure 2 highlights that more than half of bilateral aid (56%) does not yet integrate a gender perspective, meaning it may be leading to adverse impacts on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
Examining aid flows by sector, by cross-referencing the marker with the intended sector for ODA, Figure 3 illustrates the sectors that received the largest shares of ODA with gender equality objectives, indicated by the dots in the figure.12 Notably, the sectors with the highest allocations for gender equality are under ‘Other Social Infrastructure and Services’, which encompass employment policies, housing and social protection. This is followed by ‘Agriculture and Rural Development’ and ‘Education’.
In contrast, however, we can observe that there is relatively low emphasis on gender equality in sectors such as ‘Humanitarian Aid’ and ‘Energy’. This constitutes a concern. Integrating gender equality objectives into programming across all sectors enhances the effectiveness and sustainability of interventions, while also preventing potential harm. Research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of such integration, highlighting the need for increased focus on gender equality across diverse sectors.
Regarding funding for gender data, a noteworthy development occurred in 2020 when it decreased by 55% (Figure 4) – nearly three times the drop observed in funding for overall data and statistics. This decline becomes all the more significant, and perhaps even ironic, considering the increasing recognition that better data drives the effectiveness of policies and programmes aimed at addressing ongoing global crises and challenges. A report by Data 2X titled ‘The PARIS21 Partner Report on Support to Statistics 2022: A Wake-Up Call to Finance Better Data’, estimates that US$ 500 million per year, twice the current allocation, is required until 2030 to meet data needs.14
Tracking investments in gender equality and women’s empowerment in the UN system
The UN System-wide Action Plan on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-SWAP), introduced in 2012 and updated in 2018, constituted a ground-breaking framework to hold the UN system accountable for its commitment to gender mainstreaming, and to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment is at the core of its work, both within the organisation and in its projects worldwide. UN-SWAP consists of 17 performance indicators clustered in six functional areas, providing a systematic approach to gender mainstreaming and the integration of gender perspectives into the policies, programmes and projects of UN entities.16
The UN-SWAP’s financial resource performance cluster includes two complementary requirements: first, the implementation of a financial tracking system and, second, the establishment of financial allocations for gender equality and the empowerment of women. Accordingly, the Gender Equality Marker (GEM), as well as the setting of financial benchmarks on gender equality at the entity level, became mandatory in 2012 and the standards for the UN entities (currently 73) participating in and reporting annually on their performance against UN-SWAP. An equivalent framework, the UNCT-SWAP Gender Equality Scorecard, launched in 2018 for application at UN country team (UNCT)-level, also requires implementation of the GEM in UNCT Joint Work Plans.17
The combined use of these tools at both corporate and UNCT levels provides a comprehensive approach to financing gender equality within the UN system. The GEM is intended to ensure that gender perspectives are incorporated into the design, implementation and evaluation of programmes, while financial benchmarks ensure that adequate resources are allocated to them.
Recognising the importance of financing for gender equality, in 2018, the Secretary-General’s Executive Committee, established the High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality. Its recommendation to implement a harmonised financial tracking mechanism accelerated adoption of the GEM by UN entities. To date, 30 entities have adopted the GEM, up from 10 entities in 2012 when it was first made mandatory by UN-SWAP, and 28 in 2021.18
Additionally, and notably, at its 39th session in November 202219, the Finance and Budget Network of the High-level Committee on Management of the UN Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), in acknowledging the significance of financial tracking and allocations, adopted the GEM as a UN Data Standard for system-wide reporting of financial data.20
The standard introduces a common methodology and format for tracking the contribution of UN activities to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its purpose is to ensure consistency in the reporting of UN financial information, such as budget and expenditures, related to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Furthermore, it aims to align the reporting practices of UN entities to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the OECD, ensuring a similar approach in reporting contributions to gender equality.21 This standardised approach contributes to a further strengthening of global efforts to implement international commitments and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
According to the UN Data Standards, UN activities will be marked on a four-point scale with the category of the UN GEM to which the activity is contributing:
- GEM 3: Gender equality and the empowerment of women is the principal objective.
- GEM 2: Significant contribution to gender equality and the empowerment of women (but not the principal objective).
- GEM 1: Limited contribution to gender equality and the empowerment of women (gender mainstreaming to a limited extent).
- GEM 0: No expected contribution to gender equality and the empowerment of women.22
As per the recommendations of the High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality and the UN Data Standards, the UN GEM is embedded in the entity’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) and is to be applied to all financial allocations and expenditures at the UN entity and UNCT levels, as well as in inter-agency pooled funds.
Figure 5 presents the uptake of the UN GEM by UN-SWAP reporting entity type. The number of entities applying or working towards implementation of the UN GEM has grown significantly, from 28 entities in 2012 to 66 in 2022.
Much of this progress has resulted from the introduction of the GEM in the UN Secretariat’s ERP system. Over the period 2012–2022, this has more than tripled the number of UN Secretariat entities working to implement a financial resource mechanism tracking gender equality allocations and expenditures. In total, of the 5,272 projects currently monitored by the Umoja Integrated Planning, Monitoring and Reporting (IPMR) module, 2,025 are already using the GEM. This has fostered substantive improvements in project design, and gradually UN Secretariat entities will be able to quantify the contributions made and cross reference them with reporting on SDG 5.
Another area of noteworthy progress concerns the GEM’s increased application among the UN funds and programmes, doubled from five entities in 2012 to ten in 2022.
In addition, over and above the UN-SWAP standards and the recommendations of the High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality, high-level policy directives, including resolutions of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and technology enhancements have added impetus to the uptake of a harmonised GEM not only across UN entities but in inter-agency pooled funding mechanisms and at a UNCT level.23
Figure 6 shows that by the end of 2022, 30 entities (41% of UN-SWAP reporting entities) were using the GEM, while 91 UNCTs (69% of the 131 that had entered their Joint Work Plans into the unified UNCT platform, UN INFO) had reported the distribution of GEM codes in their funding frameworks.24 This represents an increase in uptake from 28 entities and 63 country teams in 2021.
Similar to the efforts made by UN entities, the UNDP Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office (MPTFO) has also increased efforts to embed the GEM in the design and implementation of inter-agency pooled funds. According to the 2022 Fiduciary Management and Oversight Group (FMOG) Survey on Funding Compact Commitment 14, as of 2022 the GEM had been integrated into 71% of multi-partner trust funds (MPTFs) and 76% of standalone joint programmes (JPs).25 Moreover, financial tracking reveals that 42% of MPTFs and 55% of standalone JPs allocated at least 15% of their resources to programmes targeting gender equality as a principal objective.26
The above notwithstanding, however, while a high percentage of MPTFs and JPs reported applying the GEM (71% and 76% respectively), Figure 7 shows that very few inter-agency pooled funds included their financial contributions to gender equality and women’s empowerment in their financial or narrative reports (6% of MPTFs and 33% of JPs, respectively). This suggests that the GEM is not being used to its full potential as a financial tracking mechanism.
With respect to theories of change, the 2022 FMOG survey conducted by the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) among UN pooled funds administrators reveals that a majority of MPTFs and JPs, ranging from 71% to 80%, incorporate gender equality (Figure 8).
The survey responses also demonstrate the capacity of inter-agency pooled funds to access technical expertise on gender equality matters; incorporate information on gender equality and women’s empowerment in their Terms of Reference; and apply the GEM. However, a significant disparity arises when comparing these responses to the proportion of inter-agency pooled funds that allocate at least 15% of their financial resources to programmes with gender equality as their primary objective. This discrepancy highlights a notable gap between the inclusion of gender equality considerations in planning and strategy documents, and the actual allocation of financial resources towards programmes focused on advancing gender equality.
While MPTFs and JPs demonstrate a strong commitment to addressing gender equality, it remains critical to ensure that the allocation of financial resources aligns with these intentions. This calls for greater attention and efforts to bridge the gap between gender-related commitments and the actual distribution of funds to programmes that prioritise gender equality as their principal objective.
Box 1: Establishment of financial targets for gender equality in the UN system
Overall, the establishment of financial targets and financial tracking through the GEM has shown promising progress in advancing financing for gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, sustained efforts and increased dedicated financing remain critical to driving and sustaining meaningful change.
At the entity level, implementation of the GEM has facilitated the establishment of financial benchmarks. By the end of 2022, 41 of the 73 UN-SWAP reporting entities had set financial targets for allocating funds or expenditures towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Among these, only four (ESCWA, UNAIDS, UNICEF and UNOCT) established a minimum financial target of 15% for activities addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment, while others maintained customised targets.28
An analysis of the 91 Joint Working Plans with their associated annual funding frameworks revealed that approximately 12% of funding was tagged as GEM 3 in 2022, compared to 17% in 2021. However, funding specifically targeting gender equality and women’s empowerment as the primary objective (GEM 3) has either remained stagnant or decreased, similar to the analysis of ODA. This underscores the pressing need for dedicated financing that addresses the root causes of gender inequality and helps implement innovative and gender-transformative solutions.29
Box 2: Incorporating the GEM and specific financial targets for gender equality in multi-partner trust funds
The combined use of the GEM and the setting of specific financial targets has led to an increased focus on and resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment in MPTFs. For example, the inclusion of the GEM and establishment of a 30% financial target for gender equality allocations within the COVID- 19 MPTF led to a significant increase in resources allocated to programmes prioritising gender equality as a primary objective.30 Likewise, the Peacebuilding Fund has reported for the second consecutive year an investment of 47% of its funds in gender equality and women’s empowerment, surpassing its established 30% minimum target.31
The Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan (STFA) also implemented the GEM and specific financial commitments for women and girls and for gender equality in 2022. Despite not meeting all these targets, the focus on reaching women and girls as a principled approach has remained strong. By the end of December 2022, approximately 3.63 million people, including 1.67 million (46.2%) women and girls, benefited from STFA JP activities in the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Central regions of Afghanistan.32
Over 280,838 people, including 19% females, received livelihood support under the STFA. The Livelihood activities included cash for work; unconditional cash transfers; micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) support; vocational training; and agriculture-based livelihood support. Despite a positive trajectory, in terms of the ratio of female beneficiaries, JP targets for female beneficiaries are yet to be achieved. Only 8.8% females compared to 30% target benefitted from cash for work and income generation projects and 28.6% females compared with the 80% target benefited from unconditional cash transfers. In addition, a total of 4,524 MSMEs, including 71% women led MSMEs, received a combination of cash and in-kind support under the STFA. The STFA also contributed to improving social cohesion by building the capacities of community governance structures to support inclusive, locally driven, planning processes, and the promotion of women and human rights. Some 340,603 people, including 15.4% females, benefited from social cohesion support.33
During 2022, the operating environment in Afghanistan became increasingly restrictive, especially in relation to female beneficiaries. Notwithstanding such challenges, the entire UN system kept working together using a harmo-nised approach and tools to monitor, adapt and respond to the evolving context, with a view to ensuring that women and girls continue to benefit, as beneficiaries and agents of development, from STFA programmatic activities.34
Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is recognised as a force multiplier to accelerate progress not only SDG 5 but across all SDGs. It is integral to building and sustaining inclusive development, wellbeing and peace of societies and nations. It is also central to the human rights of all people. Contributing to the realisation of gender equality and women’s empowerment is, hence, a UN system-wide imperative.
Imperatives without resource allocations, however, remain unrealised, in full or in part. Following the money is therefore key. Accordingly, tracking gender-related allocations and expenditure, and establishment of financial targets, remains a priority at all levels to support data comparability, harmonisation of practice, and relevant contributions of the UN system to its own commitments. As a foundational priority for the UN system, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is universally recognised as catalytic to achieve all the SDGs. Thus, ensuring the realisation of gender equality and women’s empowerment is an imperative that spans the entire UN system.
All UN entities, UNCTs and inter-agency pooled funds are called upon to contribute to this aim by securing adequate financing requirements for realising the normative agenda on gender equality and the promise of the SDGs, particularly SDG 5. UN Women, with its coordination, operational and normative mandate, plays a critical role in embedding gender-responsive solutions across the UN system’s processes and policy spaces, including financing for gender equality. It is the collective responsibility, however, of all UN entities, UNCTs and inter-agency pooled funds to contribute to this objective.
By prioritising gender-responsive approaches and bolstering financial commitments, the UN system can effectively support the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment, realising the transformative potential it holds for sustainable development and global peace.
For the latest available evidence on gender equality across all 17 SDGs, highlighting the progress made since 2015, see Ginette Azcona et al., ‘Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2022’ , UN Women and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC), 2022, http://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Progress-on-the-sust….
More women than ever hold political decision-making posts worldwide but gender parity is still far off according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) – see IPU, ‘Women in power in 2023: New data shows progress but wide regional gaps’, press release, 7 March 2023, www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/press-release/2023/03/women-in-power-in…. The IPU–UN Women in Politics 2023 map referred to in this press release presents new data for women in executive, government and parliamentary positions (as of 1 January 2023): www. unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/Women-in-politics-2023-en.pdf.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development–Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET), ‘Handbook on the OECD-DAC Gender Equality Policy Marker’, December 2016, www.oecd.org/development/gender-development/Handbook-OECD-DAC-Gender-Eq….
OECD-DAC uses a three-point gender equality marker scale to denote the following: 0 (not targeted); 1 (significant objective); and 2 (principal objective). See OECD-DAC, ‘Definition and Minimum Recommended Criteria for the DAC Gender Equality Policy Marker’, December 2016, www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development/Minimum-recommended-criteria-for-DA….
OECD, ‘Aid activities targeting gender equality and womens empowerment (CRS)’, https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=DV_ DCD_GENDER; and OECD, ‘Development finance for gender equality and women’s empowerment’, www.oecd.org/development/financing-sustainable-development/development-….
OECD (note 7). The OECD provides information on bilateral, allocable ODA for gender equality and women’s empowerment, based on OECD data up to 2021, in 2020 constant prices, using the Creditor Reporting System’s DAC gender equality policy marker. This qualitative statistical tool enables the examination of development finance and the identification of gender equality as either a principal policy objective (dedicated funding, ‘score 2’); a significant objective (funding that integrates/mainstreams gender equality, ‘score 1’); or not an objective (‘score 0’). Analyses use commitments, rather than disbursements, in order to capture intentions for the activity at the design stage and the political vision of the finance provided. Averages of two years are used to reduce volatility, since commitments are recorded in full in the year they are made, even if multi-year, irrespective of when they are disbursed. The gender marker with the 0-1-2 scoring system has existed since 1997.
Krista Jones Baptista and Shaida Badiee, ‘A sharp decline in funding for gender data puts SDG 5 at risk: Charting a way forward’, Data2X blog, 8 December 2022, https://data2x.org/sharp-decline-in-funding-for-gender-data-sdg5-at-ris….
The High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality was established by the Secretary-General’s Executive Committee to review and track UN budgets and expenditures across the system, as well as make recommendations on how to increase financing for gender equality, including by identifying any structural and operational changes required to enable financial tracking. See UN, ‘Women, High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality’, https://gendercoordinationandmainstreaming. unwomen.org/building-block/high-level-task-force-financing-gender-equality.
UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) and UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG), ‘UN Data Standards for United Nations System-wide Reporting of Financial Data’, 2023, https://unsceb.org/data-standards-united-nations-system-wide-reporting-….
In the third quarter of 2022, the FMOG subgroup on inter-agency pooled funds
led by UNDP MPTFO sent a survey on UNSDG inter-agency pooled funds common management features to 190 inter-agency pooled funds that were active in 2021. The survey received a response from 150 funds (79% overall response rate), consisting of 102 JPs and 48 MPTFs (representing 68% and 32% of respondents, respectively).
See indicators 1.4.20 and 1.4.21 in the 2023 Report of the UN Secretary-General on the QCPR, ‘Annex1: QCPR Monitoring Framework of the 2023 Secretary General’s Report on the implementation of the QCPR’, www. un.org/ecosoc/sites/www.un.org.ecosoc/
For more information about the High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality, see https://gendercoordinationandmainstreaming. unwomen.org/building-block/high-level-task-force-financing-gender-equality.
For the sixth year in a row, the Peacebuilding Fund has exceeded its target allocation of 30% to gender equality, achieving 47% of gender-responsive investments, which reflects effective gender mainstreaming in its regular programming. See Peacebuilding Fund, ‘Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund 2022’, www.un.org/peacebuilding/sites/www.un.org.peacebuilding/files/documents….