Improved data collection and reporting are key factors not only in charting the situation of the world's women, but also in advancing their welfare. Yet, ironically, a decade after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the lack of reliable national statistics on gender issues persists in many parts of the globe.
A new UN report on the condition of the world's women has rapped governments for providing insufficient national data on basic demographic and social topics for gender analysis, especially in the areas of population, health, education and work. Reviewing available data from 204 countries during the period 1975 to 2003, the report, titled 'The World's Women 2005 - Progress in Statistics', concludes that most countries fall short in providing vital statistics through a civil registration system on a regular and timely basis. In order to shed light on issues such as sex discrimination in access to healthcare, higher rates of prenatal sex selection or early childbearing, countries must collect and disseminate statistics on births by sex, and deaths by sex and age, it emphasizes.
Population and enrolment are widely reported, with more than 180 countries reporting population and primary and secondary enrolment. Statistics on births, deaths and economic activity are not as widely reported, with between 100 and 160 countries reporting the data. The large number of countries unable to provide data by sex on wages, births and deaths is a cause for concern, the report cautions.
The national reporting of births by sex varies across geographic regions. Europe, North America and South America have the highest relative number of countries reporting total births by sex at least once, whereas Africa and Oceania have the smallest relative number reporting with 14 out of 55 in Africa and 6 out of 17 in Oceania. In Asia, 30 out of 50 countries reported such information. However, among those not reporting are China, India and Indonesia - the three most populous countries in the continent. As a result, at 19 per cent, Asia has the lowest percentage of the regional population living in a country that reported births by sex at least once, the report observes.
In Asia, 14 out of 50 countries reported unemployment by sex and age frequently, but again it is the populous countries of China, India and Indonesia who are conspicuously silent in this matter, it adds.
The report, in a significant departure from its three predecessors, focuses on the state of national statistics useful for addressing gender concerns. That focus is necessary in order to know the extent to which official national statistics, as differentiated from internationally prepared estimates, are available to address various gender concerns. The report has found praise from different quarters, including policymakers, academics and activists, who describe it as a major tool for all stakeholders in the area of gender empowerment.
"This report is a monumental effort to reach out to women, who comprise half the world's population," declares Dr Girija Vyas, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), who launched the report in India on January 18, 2006. "The complex challenges facing women calls for strong policy action and this report can be used as an advocacy tool to formulate gender- specific polices," she states.
The United Nations Fund for Women's (UNIFEM) Regional Programme Director, Chandni Joshi, lauds the use of "untraditional indicators" - such as violence against women, poverty and human rights to assess the progress of women - in the report. "Positive data is still a major hurdle in many developing countries. One of the greatest strengths of this report is the use of non-technical language, making it very user-friendly, and responding to the needs of diverse users," she said at the launch function.
The report is in direct response to the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) and the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), both of which call for gender- disaggregated data to reflect better on issues related to women and men, explains Dr Jeemol Unni of the Gujarat Institute of Development Research. The main objective of such gender statistics is to increase visibility of women's issues and serve as advocacy and policy tools, she observes. "For instance, an adverse sex ratio tells us about the status of women in society, health status, the status of the girl child and the possibility of sex selective abortion," Unni explains. Such statistics are invaluable as they reflect impending social problems, like the lack of girls of marriageable age and likely increase in violence against women, she points out.
Violence against women is an area where data collection remains fraught with difficulties, but the report has a word of praise, saying considerable progress has been made over the last 10 years in developing methodologies and procedures for collecting data on violence against women. Following adoption of the Beijing PFA, an increasing number of countries have been conducting national surveys on violence against women, though only a few like Australia, Canada and the US are doing so on a regular basis.
At least 68 of the 204 countries analyzed have carried out a survey on violence against women since 1995, and at least 38 of these have been nationwide surveys. The fact that studies and surveys are now raising the issue of violence against women is the first step towards classifying it as a defined social problem and bringing it from the shadows out into the light, the report says.
Yet most countries still do not have an established system of statistics on violence against women and there is currently no official international data collection on this issue. Efforts to design programs to combat the problem and monitor their progress have been hampered by the absence or lack of adequate statistics and methods. "While there have been considerable improvements in statistics on intimate partner violence...reliable statistics on many other forms of violence against women, including trafficking in women and girls and violence against women by agents of the State, remain scarce," the report adds.
Calling for more such statistics to map the status and progress of women and help find remedies for the gaps, Vyas says the NCW has taken the lead in India by recommending that the government should conduct Population Census on a yearly basis and provide for compulsory registration of marriages.
There is also action at the regional level to meet the challenges posed in the report. Joshi says that UNIFEM is planning to start a gender data system in SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) countries. The proposed data system will focus on issues of discrimination, exclusion, health and trafficking, she adds.