Beyond women in parliaments: Getting indicators right in the SDGs

In this blog post, orginally published on the Eldis website, Maria Vlahakis from VSO and Abigail Hunt from Womankind Worldwide argue that measuring women’s participation and leadership in the SDGs goes beyond women in parliaments.

No country has yet achieved equality for women and girls: they are still denied their basic human rights and are denied a full say in decisions that affect their lives. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have real potential to transform the lives of women and girls, but they must be accompanied by equally ambitious ways in which to measure progress. 

The SDGs will shape the international development agenda over the next 15-20 years. The SDGs are set to include a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment (Goal 5) and a target on women’s participation and leadership at all levels of decision making (Target 5.5). The international process for agreeing the new framework comes to an end in September. However, there is still more work to be done to select indicators. Indicators are important because they allow for the measurement of progress towards meeting the new goals and targets, and help us hold governments and other actors to account. 

The right measurements

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shaped the international development agenda over the past fifteen years, and included an indicator on the number of women in national parliaments.

However, this indicator was limited because it focused on a narrow definition of women’s participation, focusing only on the number of women in national parliaments.

First, increased numerical representation does not automatically translate into increased influence. The MDG indicator did not provide insight into whether the women represented in national parliaments were participating meaningfully and able to influence decisions. Neither did it provide insight into their level of power.

Sunita Chand, board member of Nepal’s Women’s Empowerment Association Forum, a VSO partner women’s organisation, powerfully illustrates that a seat round the table doesn’t necessarily mean influence, “Women who are actually present at the table will all be known to the male leaders – they are placed there and tend to be women that the men think will do what they want”.

Second, it did not take into account women’s participation and leadership at other levels of decision-making, particularly at the local level. While national-level representation is important, it is often decisions taken at the local level that have the most impact on women experiencing poverty. As Jane a Councillor and CCF member supported by Womankind Worldwide partner organisation Women in Politics Support Unit in Zimbabwe said, “ I want to help make the situation of women and girls better, which is why I decided to become a councillor. I would like to see more women in council and parliament because we have the same capabilities as men.”


The Gender and Development Network’s Women’s Participation and Leadership Working Group has published a briefing paper which sets out recommendations for the SDG indicators for ‘women’s participation and leadership at all levels of decision-making’. 

We recommend that the global indicator list should include one quantitative indicator that measures the number of women in both local and national government, but that it must also include the share of seats at a leadership, ministerial or cabinet level - to identify the level of power. We also recommend that a qualitative indicator is included which incorporates data regarding women’s own understanding of their impact. 

There is a huge opportunity to develop meaningful indicators on women’ participation and leadership at all levels of decision-making. But it’s crucial that the data collected reflects what really matters, and that the UN does not resort to just using data which is easier to obtain.

Suggested reading

‘Measuring progress on women’s participation and influence in decision-making in the SDGs: Recommendations to the Inter-agency and Expert Group and UN Member States’ 

Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Finalised text for adoption (August 1)

Women in Power: beyond access to influence in a post-2015 world, VSO

At the crossroads: women’s rights after 2015, Womankind Worldwide 

For further information about gender and indicators see the Eldis key issues guide on Gender and Indicators produced by BRIDGE and the Gender and Indicators Cuttings Edge Pack.

Photo: Ganga Adhikari from Bindabasini, a remote mountain village in Nepal. Ganga and many other women have mobilised themselves for fight for women’s rights in Nepal. By Peter Caton/VSO