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Infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women (Report)

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Women and girls experience numerous barriers when trying to access basic services – such as education and healthcare – or opportunities to improve their livelihoods. While gender equality implies equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for women, men, boys and girls, women and girls are disproportionately affected by persistent gender inequalities when accessing infrastructure. This is particularly apparent in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, not all women and girls are equal or equally disadvantaged. The extent to which they are at risk of being excluded depends on where they lie at the intersection of different underserved, disadvantaged or marginalized groups in any given context. The implications of this intersectionality need to be understood and recognized. Inclusive infrastructure that addresses these barriers and accounts for diverse needs can enhance access to quality services and development opportunities for the broadest segments of society, especially the underserved, vulnerable and marginalized groups

Underdeveloped and gender-blind infrastructure is one of the leading causes for the inability of women and girls to access the basic services to support their upward social mobility and reduce the gender gap. Gender-blind infrastructure fails to consider the different roles, responsibilities and particular needs of women, men, girls and boys in a specific context and how this affects their ability to use or access infrastructure. In times of crisis, this can have life-threatening consequences for women and girls. They are at risk not only from poor health infrastructure, but from inadequate infrastructure across all sectors, which can limit access to essential services and prevent them from maintaining security and self-sufficiency during social and economic upheaval. These considerations must guide future infrastructure development.

Approximately 2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion lack access to sanitation,) while 975 million people do not have access to electricity and 1 billion lack access to all-weather roads globally. The burden of underdeveloped and non-inclusive infrastructure falls disproportionately on vulnerable and marginalized groups, especially women and girls. In this daunting context, inclusive infrastructure planning, delivery and management plays a key role in creating an enabling environment to empower women and girls to make effective choices and transform those choices into effective outcomes – including when it comes to their safety and wellbeing.

Infrastructure development and service delivery is a critical public policy and investment area in many developing countries. It is estimated that $97 trillion in global infrastructure investment is required by 2040 to support sustainable development; two-thirds of which is required in developing countries.Considering the long operational life of infrastructure, not mainstreaming gender in the infrastructure life cycle can reinforce gender inequalities for decades, wasting limited financial resources and putting lives at risk. It is a moral and financial imperative to ensure that this massive investment includes a gender mainstreaming approach to infrastructure planning, delivery and management to achieve sustainability, equality, and economic and social benefits for all.

There is a lot to be gained by ensuring equal access to infrastructure services for women and girls. Not only will it improve and protect the lives and livelihoods of women and girls, but will benefit the entire global economy as well. Numerous studies have demonstrated the social and financial advantages of improving gender equality and empowering women. In particular, it is estimated that approximately $28 trillion could be added to the annual global GDP in 2025 by achieving the equal participation of women and men in the economy. Ensuring equal access to infrastructure services is a critical step to close the gender gap.

To make certain that infrastructure development supports equal access to infrastructure services, driving increased economic opportunities for women and girls, the global community needs to step up and change the way infrastructure is planned, delivered and managed. This requires cross-disciplinary cooperation that spans the entire infrastructure life cycle where each participant asks: “Will this support all end users?” If the answer to this question is no, participants must work together to find a solution.

While all disciplines have a role to play in mainstreaming gender considerations across the infrastructure life cycle, infrastructure designers have the largest role in ensuring that the infrastructure they design is inclusive, i.e., reflects the needs of all groups in society, including women, girls and other disadvantaged groups. Our existing infrastructure has far too often been designed without considering their needs. This needs to change, urgently.

Incorporating a gender mainstreaming approach into the infrastructure life cycle, starting in the design stage, is part of the current paradigm shift encouraged by UNOPS. On this premise, UNOPS is establishing dialogues with national and local governments, as well as other development partners, to understand how to limit barriers and maximize benefits for all end users when developing and implementing infrastructure projects.

To support this paradigm shift, UNOPS has developed – and is currently implementing – a series of methodologies and tools based on the evidence-based infrastructure (EBI) approach, helping governments assess and improve their capacity to plan, deliver and manage infrastructure systems. This includes identifying actions to mainstream gender in infrastructure projects, understanding priority areas for intervention and assessing the level of sustainability, efficiency and resilience of existing infrastructure assets and systems. The tools and methodologies that have been developed to support gender mainstreaming in infrastructure are the sustainABLE tool and the Capacity Assessment Tool for Infrastructure (CAT-I), which are discussed in detail in the final section of this report.

By identifying the challenges women and girls face, this report aims to inform future infrastructure decisions – to increase resilience, provide equal opportunities and, in the long-term, create a world where gender equality is not only the norm, but can also be upheld in times of crisis and beyond.