Addressing the global gap in data about women and girls

If you want to improve something, the challenge first needs to be visible—and, unfortunately, some of the challenges facing women in developing countries are invisible. Why? They haven’t been clearly investigated by researchers and tracked with data.  We know that we do what we measure.  In other words, if we don’t measure the right things, we won’t invest in them. This is particularly true as it relates to understanding gender inequality and the quality of women’s lives.

That’s why I’m heartened to see so much news emerging on this data gap right now: the BBC just ran a fascinating story on “the black hole in our knowledge on women and girls around the world,” and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new $80 million initiative to help fill this gap. The idea is to better track information that reveals important truths about women’s lives, such as how much time they spend doing unpaid work.

I want to applaud all the attention and investment converging on this critical issue. Feminist activists and researchers have been calling for more data on women’s lives for a long time. It looks like we’re about to take a huge step toward meeting that goal.

Why is this kind of data so important to anyone who cares about women and girls in developing countries? Data strengthens program design and supports policy advocacy. In order to direct investment in a smart way into global development projects that support women in improving and shaping their own lives, you’ve got to think carefully about what you’re trying to accomplish and how to evaluate meaningful progress toward your goals. That means measuring key aspects of women and girls’ lives. The challenge is—and this is one we have been working on for a long time—what do we invest in, and measure, in order to lessen gender inequality and improve women’s lives.

Here’s just one example of this idea in action: Ending child marriage is now part of the sustainable global development goals, which were adopted by the United Nations to guide international development efforts. How can we make sure we are using the right measures and investing in the right things so that we meet this new goal? Age at marriage is certainly an important measure that we are using—and should use—at a global level. But what should we measure so that we invest in the right things at the community level, where we know social beliefs and habits need to change in order for child marriage to stop?

In India, where AJWS supports local grassroots organizations focused on reducing early and child marriage, our team noticed that age at marriage was not a good indication of gender equality or the quality of girls’ lives. We realized that we needed to measure and invest in the kinds of interventions that empower girls and that create support structures, so they can access education and health care and their mobility isn’t restricted. The measure of age at marriage is not enough because the ultimate goal is not simply to delay marriage; it’s to truly empower women and girls so they have better lives. Increasing a girl’s age at marriage by a few years does not necessarily expand her opportunities to go to school or to work outside her home, or address her lack of choice regarding who she will marry—or whether she’ll marry at all. We need to understand how much choice and agency girls and women have to shape their lives, not just the age at which they marry.

To address this gap between what gets measured and what reflects real change in the lives of women and girls, AJWS initiated a new project with researchers at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, located in Mumbai, India. They’re studying exactly how community-based organizations across the country are making an impact on the lives of girls who face pressure to marry early. The goal? Develop new measures that will help people trying to empower women and girls around the world, so they can collect more meaningful data about the outcomes of their work and invest in the things that are most effective and meaningful for girls’ lives.

All who are working to empower women and girls, including many in the field of global development, will need a variety of data in order to achieve their goals and refine their strategies, from far-reaching, country-wide statistics to nuanced insights into the experiences of people in specific communities. I’m looking forward to both generating and seeing more of this valuable information in the future—and using it to ensure that women and girls are able to shape their own lives and get the services and support they need most. This is an exciting time when it comes to creating data for social change!


Jacqueline HartJacqueline Hart is the Vice President for Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation at AJWS.