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Counting the Invisible, and making them count

It’s all very well pledging to transform the world’s inequalities, but you have to know who and what you’re dealing with first. A new report by Plan International argues we need a gender data revolution to ensure millions of ‘invisible’ girls and women aren’t left behind.

woman in pink t-shirt, head invisible
As the world begins to get off the starting blocks on 17 global goals including moves towards ending poverty and hunger, tackling inequality, combating climate change and improving health and education, new research is warning that millions of girls and women are at risk of being ignored. Not the greatest of starts, is it?

Still, much better to shine a light on a massive problem when there’s still time to put it right.

The report, Counting the Invisible by child rights organisation Plan International, says that unless there are drastic improvements to the quality of data and statistics on the realities of life for girls and women all over the world, they will continue to be effectively invisible to governments and policy makers.

We can all agree that it’s pretty difficult to help people you can’t see. As things stand, no credible statistics exist worldwide that show the real-life challenges of girls, such as how many drop out of school due to early marriage, pregnancy or sexual violence, or how many girls become mothers under the age of 15.

“Lack of data means governments are blind to basic rights being denied to girls such as the right to education or control over their own bodies,” says Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International.

“Even with scattered information we know girls face neglect, abuse and exploitation on a daily basis. The real scale of this injustice could be several times worse.

“The hard truth is that from the Philippines to Nicaragua, millions of girls are vulnerable because we have no reliable way of knowing what is happening to them.”

Zahra Sethna edited Counting the Invisible and was kind enough to answer some questions during what was presumably a pretty hectic week leading up to its publication today.

reportSo, what is the report about?

The report serves as a curtain-raiser to a new partnership Plan International has convened. It builds the argument for why we need more gender-sensitive data to make change possible for women and girls.

It introduces the founding partners and makes recommendations on how we can accelerate efforts to fuel a gender data revolution.

Why was this report needed?

The report comes as the world begins to implement a set of 17 global goals that include commitments to end poverty and hunger, tackle inequality, combat climate change and improve health and education.

The goals promise to transform our world by 2030, but in order for the promise to be made real, we have to face a stark reality: we don’t have the information we need to ensure no one gets left behind, especially girls and women.

This report makes a strong case for why improving data about girls and women will help create a just world and equality for all.

What are the key findings?

I would say a key finding is that the goal of achieving gender equality cannot be met without urgent attention from governments and policy makers – without a gender data revolution. Currently millions of girls and women are ‘invisible’ to governments and policy makers because they are not being counted. And they will continue to be invisible and excluded in 2030 unless we have more gender-sensitive data to inform the decisions and investments that can transform their lives.

We know that [improving] data is part of the solution. It won’t change the world on its own, but we strongly believe it is essential to help us uncover the root causes of inequality, measure what works and determine where we can be most impactful.

Siphiwe dropped out of school when she was 15 because her family were no longer able to pay for her education. She came under increasing pressure from her uncle to leave the family home. After being idle for close to a year, marriage became the only acceptable option.

Siphiwe dropped out of school when she was 15 because her family were no longer able to pay for her education. She came under increasing pressure from her uncle to leave the family home. After being idle for close to a year, marriage became the only acceptable option.

How have so many women and girls become ‘invisible’?

Girls and women are invisible because vital data about them is either incomplete or missing. For example, we don’t count how many girls leave school because of early marriage, because they get pregnant or because they experience violence at school or at home.

We don’t know exactly how many girls give birth before they turn 15 and what their lives or experiences are like.

We don’t measure how many hours a day girls and women spend working, what kind of work they do and whether they get paid for it. Bringing visibility to these realities can change their lives.

Do you think the key findings will/should shock people?

I think people might be shocked to know that most of the global goals that world leaders agreed to last year cannot yet be measured completely.

Beyond that, we make a strong case in the report that to make girls and women visible we need to talk to them directly and record their perceptions and experiences.

We did that with 240 girls aged 15-19 in Zimbabwe and Nicaragua and what they told us about their lives was very impactful.

A majority of the girls we spoke to in Nicaragua said they didn’t feel safe in public places. They spoke regularly of their fear of sexual violence and how they felt particularly vulnerable because they were young and female. They were particularly afraid that being sexually abused might lead to pregnancy, which would put an end to their hopes and dreams.

siphiwe2
In Zimbabwe, 81 per cent of the 121 girls we spoke to told us they had to drop out of school at one point or another – either temporarily or permanently. This was largely because their families could not afford their education, but also because of early marriage, early pregnancy or the simple fact that the school did not have appropriate facilities for them when they were menstruating.

Hearing these stories helps us gain a better understanding of the challenges that need to be overcome for these girls to be able to secure their rights.

How was the research conducted and data gathered for the report?

The research in Zimbabwe and Nicaragua was led by a team from Plan International, but one interesting aspect was that we trained young female research assistants in both countries. Not only was this important to build local capacity, but it also served to put the girls in the study at ease because they were sharing their views and experiences with someone from their own culture who was very close to them in age.

We used a mix of survey questions, open-ended responses and focus group discussions to collect the data.

The rest of the report was informed by many different sources, including United Nations reports and research done by other civil society organisations.

What should be the immediate response to the report from the people/organisations who can make a difference?

I think it’s important to note that everyone can play a role in the gender data revolution. People who produce data can ensure it is gender-sensitive, timely and available in a user-friendly way. People who have access to data can use it to highlight the situation of girls and women in their country.

“We don’t count how many girls leave school because of early marriage, because they get pregnant or because they experience violence at school or at home.”

Those who don’t produce or use data can lend their voice to demand data that makes the invisible visible and help raise awareness of the role gender data plays in ensuring equality.

The media can play a role in covering the issue, the private sector can play a role in helping to drive innovations in gender data collection and analysis, and citizens – particularly young people – can find opportunities to build their data literacy skills so they can hold governments accountable.

What are the longer term recommendations?

There are a few. Firstly, more investment is needed in all countries to strengthen statistical capacity, in government agencies but also in broader society.

It is estimated that measuring and monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals will cost about $1 billion a year. It sounds like a lot, but robust and reliable data is the only way to track whether people are being left behind.

We also recommend an emphasis on citizen-generated and perceptions-based data that can complement official statistics and paint a fuller picture of the realities that girls and women face – like the research we did in Zimbabwe and Nicaragua.

We want to be sure that when data is available, it gets into the hands of the people who are best placed to push for change, whether that’s government decision makers or activists and advocates who can build a movement in their country.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, data must be treated with extreme care because data is about people and people have rights. Privacy and security, reliability and protection from potential abuses of data are of paramount importance if the gender data revolution is to succeed.

To find out more about the report and the wider work of Plan International, visit www.plan-international.org.
The report is Plan International’s contribution to a coalition of organisations working to hold governments to their commitments, and forms part of its
Because I am a Girl global initiative – a movement to ensure that girls everywhere can learn, lead, decide and thrive.

@PlanGlobal

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Written by Standard Issue