Women On The Rise – And Women Denied: No Ceilings Big Data Illustrates Progress And Gaps

Author

Tom Watson, Contributor

March 10, 2015

For social sector geeks who care about equal opportunity for women around the world – perhaps the great global civil rights cause of our time – today was Christmas morning.

With its big data newly unwrapped, and sortable in all sorts of interesting new ways, the much-heralded No Ceilings report reveals both encouraging progress and stunning gaps in crucial policy areas over the last two decades since the historic Beijing conference in women in 1995.

Of course, it was at that gathering 20 years ago that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights” – the same Hillary Clinton who took the stage today with Melinda Gates and her daughter Chelsea on the cusp of her potentially historic presidential campaign whose symbolic ambition (in part) gives the No Ceilings projects its name.

No Ceilings is the unquestionably ambitious project of the Gates and Clinton Foundations, with support from the Economist Intelligence Unit and the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at UCLA. It parses nearly a million data points to derive a complex and nuanced view of women’s rights and economic development now, and over the past two decades.

Putting the U.S. politics aside – including legitimate questions about email and foundation donations, as well as obviously scripted GOP attack lines designed to make Clinton’s leadership in the cause of women’s rights over the last two decades into a liability – the No Ceilings project is a vital addition to the growing investment among civil society organizations in studying “big data” trends in order to change policy.

And on the whole, it asks a simple question: Is the world a better place for women and girls than it was in 1995?

The answer is a qualified yes.

But that judgment comes with a lot of bad news as well – data points that the authors of the report clearly hope will be addressed by civil society and the UN’s next set of major development goals.

I’ll get to the good and the bad in a moment, but I think it’s important to point out here that the No Ceilings report – which comes with a handsome set of interactive graphics and a cool world map that allows for almost infinite manipulation of the data – is the work of organizations and individuals who believe strongly in the collective impact of civil society itself.

No Ceilings is an explicit argument for big picture, top-down political, civil society, and social sector leadership – married to civil rights and citizens’ movements that take on different local, regional and cultural flavors. It endorses the kind of coalition-based data monitoring that spurred the now-expiring United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and argues that those big picture outcomes represent valid successes or failures in development. As Melinda Gates put it at today’s No Ceilings event in Manhattan: “the data that it contains gives us more power.”

Moreover, No Ceilings seeks to establish the civil, social and economic rights for girls and women as the top of the global development agenda – and to argue that those rights represent the biggest global cause of the post-MDG era. Disclosure: I agree.

At the kick-off today, which highlighted the stories of organizations working for women’s empowerment around the world, Hillary Clinton declared, “there has never been a better time in history to be born female.”

And at least in part, that’s true. The advances highlighted in the No Ceilings report are impressive: “We have seen significant gains since 1995. Advances have been made in legal rights — through international agreements, groundbreaking UN resolutions, and constitutional and legislative change. Health and education for women and girls have improved significantly. The rate of maternal mortality has nearly halved. The global gender gap in primary school enrollment has virtually closed. These achievements prove that progress is possible.”

Most of the big trend lines in the report run in the right direction. Yet, the numbers that argue for change – that demand participation in the global movement for women’s civil rights – are still sobering. Here are a few that jumped off the page for me:

  • Nine countries legally restrict women’s freedom of movement, and 27 percent treat women’s ability to pass citizenship to a child or spouse differently from men’s.
  • Only one-third of national constitutions protect women from workplace discrimination or guarantee equal pay for equal work. Fewer than three out of 10 countries have legal protections against gender discrimination in both hiring and pay.
  • Although new HIV infections are declining, females aged 15 to 24 have infection rates twice as high as young men, and now comprise the majority of youth living with HIV.
  • About 800 women die every day from largely preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries.42 In 2013, ten countries accounted for approximately 60 percent of maternal deaths, including China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria Pakistan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
  • While maternal mortality is comparatively low in the developed world, rates in the United States have actually worsened since 1995, with an increase from 11 deaths per 100,000 births to 28 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.
  • Education for girls is one of the big development success stories over the past two decades, but the report describes an inherent weakness: Twenty years after Beijing, less than one in three girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and fewer than half in South Asia are enrolled in secondary school.
  • Because of sex selection, by the year 2020 China will have 30 to 40 million more males than females under age 20.
  • Experts predict that unless current trends change, approximately 140 million girls worldwide will become child brides between 2011 and 2020 — nearly 50 million younger than age of 15.

Throughout the report, the thread of violence against women and girls runs like an angry threat against progress, liberty and real development. While No Ceilings devotes an entire section to security, reading the report you feel that threat and its impact on other areas – like political participation, access to education, economic rights, and labor participation.

Violence against women is the great global shadow over the No Ceilings dataset, in my view, and it ranges from domestic and sexual violence in all societies – developed and otherwise – to harmful cultural and religious norms, to the use of rape as an instrument of war. “An estimated one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence,” says the report, “the vast majority at the hands of her husband or partner.”

It is no accident that No Ceilings proclaims that “violence against women is a global epidemic.” That may be the strongest statement in a very strong report, and if I had one criticism of No Ceilings, it would be the clear need to call this vital point out further – perhaps in a conference of its own sponsored by Clinton and Gates, perhaps in a special report that adds greater depth, perhaps in a movement that unites some of the same civil society players who took part in the launch of today’s report – and asks for participation from women around the world.

A word about the data and its visualization in No Ceilings. While the launch program in Manhattan was impressive and at times quite moving (I love to hear the personal stories), the project is primarily designed as a data collection and presentation effort. In this, it shines – the map is pretty nifty – but it also works as a simple repository for data that others can download and use. In background conversations with the staff before launch, it was clear that the big foundation funders would love nothing better than to see a million Powerpoints bloom from the data they’ve collected – as students, academics, writers, analysts, consultants, nonprofit leaders, organizers, activists, politicians and all sorts of trouble-makers and do-gooders sift and sort the numbers to make their case for empowerment, not just globally but in specific countries and regions.

One final point. To me, this report is less about the last 20 years – though I certainly get the symbolism – as it is about (as Melinda Gates said) a blueprint for the future, a guide for what matters. As former Secretary Clinton said, it presents “a universal story about the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren.”

This article was written by Tom Watson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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