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Action Area Policy: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls (Core Action Area)


Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are fundamental to the realization of human rights and are critical to the eradication of poverty and the achievement of sustainable development and peace. Women and girls can be powerful agents of change. Greater focus is needed on creating the enabling environment for them to participate as equal decision makers in their homes and societies, to have control over their own lives and bodies, and to equally contribute to and benefit from development and prosperity.

Canada recognizes the importance of gender equality and the roles that empowered women and girls play in building better futures for themselves, their communities, their countries and the world at large.

No country has eliminated gender-based inequalities–vast and disproportionate numbers of women and girls face violence, discrimination and socio-economic marginalization, often compounded by other forms of discrimination such as those based on racial or ethnic identity, place of birth or residence, colour, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or ability. Growing evidence shows that high levels of gender inequality and gender-based violence in a society are associated with civil and international conflict. And in such contexts, as well as in disasters, other humanitarian settings or during migration, the discrimination, marginalization and vulnerability faced by women and girls is further exacerbated.

Canada is committed to helping achieve the SDGs in Canada and in developing countries. Sustainable Development Goal 5–achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls–is at the heart of Canada’s approach to implementing the 2030 Agenda because it will drive progress toward achieving the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 2030 Agenda challenges the global community to once and for all put an end to pervasive gender inequalities as a goal in itself and as a prerequisite to the achievement of all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In response, Canada adopted a feminist approach to international assistance with six action areas. Within each action area, Canada recognizes the importance of gender equality and the roles that empowered women and girls play in building better futures for themselves, their communities, their countries and the world at large. This specific Action Area creates the space for dedicated and coordinated efforts required to build the foundation for the empowerment of women and girls and for challenging gender inequalities, which is necessary for progress in all other Action Areas.

To eradicate poverty and gender inequality, the following issues must be addressed:

Gender inequality is deeply rooted and constrains social, political and economic development. Systemic discrimination, unequal power relations and harmful sociocultural norms and practices, which are often replicated and exacerbated online, are deeply rooted barriers to advancing the rights and empowerment of women and girls across all spheres. Gender inequality can be addressed only through profound transformation from within societies themselves, with the active engagement of all members of society including men and boys.

Sexual and gender-based violence undercuts gains made across all sectors. Sexual and gender-based violence is a grave and pervasive violation and abuse of human rights, a contributor to insecurity and an insidious barrier to achieving gender equality. Sexual and gender-based violence is perpetrated mainly by men, and mainly against girls and women, throughout the lifecycle. It has immediate, lifelong and devastating impacts, preventing survivors from realizing their potential and perpetuating gender inequality.

Women’s organizations lack the funding and capacity-building support needed to influence change. Organizations and movements working to advance the rights of women and girls, particularly at the grassroots level, play a crucial role in advocating for change in laws, attitudes, behaviour, sociocultural norms and practices. However, their influence and sustainability is impeded by a lack of funding, capacity-building support and political space.

Lack of gender statistics and analysis is a barrier to closing gender gaps. The limited availability of sound gender-based analysis and of data disaggregated by sex, age and other intersecting identity factors hinders the understanding of gender inequalities, as well as the identification and implementation of effective solutions. Data disaggregated by age is particularly important to tailor strategies to the unique needs and priorities of girls and young women.

Weak public-sector capacity for gender equality undermines its role in ensuring that women and girls enjoy equal rights and opportunities. Public-sector institutions have limited capacity to apply gender-based analysis that takes into account intersecting identity factors, and to bring gender equality goals and the perspectives of women and girls to the centre of policymaking, resource allocation and program delivery.

Canada’s priorities

The Action Area advances gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as an objective in itself, by addressing fundamental and multidimensional challenges. To enhance their overall impact, Canada’s initiatives seek synergies among the Action Areas, which address key issues such as economic empowerment, quality education, political participation, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Canada directs assistance toward those initiatives that support the enabling environment for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and that accelerate progress across all Action Areas.

Canada focuses its efforts on three paths to action:

  1. Addressing sexual and gender-based violence, including child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation/cutting
  2. Supporting and strengthening women’s organizations and movements that advance women’s rights, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls
  3. Supporting evidence-based policymaking and program delivery for gender equality

These three interrelated and mutually reinforcing paths encompass enabling issues requiring dedicated and innovative investments to build the foundation for achieving overall gender equality.

Canada recognizes the multiple identities, roles, challenges, views and interests of diverse women and girls, men and boys, and non-binary people. Canada’s approach explicitly recognizes the importance of addressing gender equality from the youngest ages when gender norms are learned, and of targeting efforts that promote the rights and empowerment of the girl child, including adolescent girls, who face a double burden of discrimination based on both sex and age.

Cutting across these three priorities is the engagement of men and boys as key stakeholders and allies for achieving gender equality and for supporting the empowerment of women and girls. Harmful masculinities perpetrate gender-based discrimination and violence. Social norms and gender stereotypes also restrict men and boys to specific roles, impeding them from reaching their full potential.

Canada recognizes the risks inherent in championing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in certain contexts, as it involves challenging power dynamics. Canada’s efforts are conflict-sensitive to ensure that partners are not put in harm’s way, especially in fragile and conflict-affected situations. Canada’s priorities in this Action Area are aligned with and complement Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Further, Canada encourages innovation by considering new partnerships, perspectives, policies, approaches, behavioural insights and technologies to better understand the barriers to gender equality, and to achieve greater impact than traditional approaches may have allowed, including by supporting the capacity of local women and girls to innovate.

1. Addressing sexual and gender-based violence, including child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting

Canada’s objective under this priority is to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), particularly against women and girls. Achieving this objective requires strengthening the capacity of state and non-state actors to enhance and effectively implement prevention and response strategies. It also entails addressing the cultural, societal, legal and judicial barriers to ending SGBV by generating evidence on the drivers and root causes of violence and on strategies to prevent it; and by engaging women, men, girls and boys to promote positive behavior and social-norm change in favour of gender equality.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) includes any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm directed at an individual based on biological sex, gender identity or socially defined norms of masculinity and femininity. Such acts can occur anywhere: in public or private, at home, in urban and rural settings (e.g. en route to collect wood and water or access toilet facilities), at school, in the workplace, online and in conflict and crisis situations. SGBV includes harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation/cutting.

SGBV is rooted in unequal power relations and socio-cultural norms that condone, enable and perpetuate gender inequality and violence. It reflects patriarchal control over the bodies and sexualities of women and girls. Even where laws exist against SGBV, implementation and enforcement are often weak or inconsistent. The poorest, marginalized and vulnerable groups, including children and youth, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities and 2SLGBTQI+ people face greater risks of experiencing gender-based violence. Girls and boys face unique vulnerabilities limiting their agency to protect themselves against violence. They also experience violence in gender-differentiated ways. Women in public leadership roles, including women human rights defenders and women in politics, are threatened with violence at significantly disproportionate rates than men in similar positions, across all societies. 

To eliminate SGBV, particularly against women and girls, Canada:

2. Supporting and strengthening women’s organizations and movements that advance women’s rights, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls

Canada’s objective in this path is to increase the effectiveness and influence of women’s organizations and movements to bring about institutional and social-norm changes; and to hold governments accountable for their commitments to protect the rights of women and girls. This involves providing support for the delivery of their agendas and programs, strengthening their institutional capacity and sustainability, facilitating networks and alliances, and advocating for their role, participation and leadership in policy dialogue at all levels and as partners in the design and implementation of initiatives in all sectors.

Women’s organizations are civil society organizations founded and led by women and girls. They are active at the grassroots, national, regional and international levels and exist to bring about transformative change for gender equality and the rights and empowerment of women and girls. Their activities include advocacy, policy and budget dialogue, awareness-raising, service provision, research, and alliance and network building.

Ample evidence, as well as Canada’s own experience, demonstrates that women’s organizations play a critical role in bringing about change in policies, laws, services, social norms and practices. These organizations mobilize families and communities, engage men and boys, and reach out to influencers and decision makers from the public, private and civil-society spheres to challenge barriers to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, including social expectations regarding the societal and family roles of men and boys. Knowledgeable about their communities’ challenges and dynamics, they are best positioned to elaborate effective strategies and innovate. They provide platforms and networks for the engagement of diverse women and girls in decision making, supporting their leadership in society. They are also powerful in resisting regressive forces that attempt to reverse gender equality gains, a phenomenon known to be a precursor to fragility or violent conflict. They must be at the forefront of community building, conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.

Addressing the gap in funding and capacity-building support for women’s organizations and movements, particularly at the community level, is a cornerstone of Canada’s efforts to shift more power into the hands of women and girls and promote their participation as equal members of society. Canada recognizes that, to be effective, support to women’s organizations should reach nascent and informal groups, be responsive, flexible and reliable. In developing countries, humanitarian crisis situations, fragile or conflict-affected contexts, where civil society is often undermined and access from outside urban areas is difficult, supporting local women’s organizations may require partnering with established national, regional or international women’s organizations and funds to design, pilot, scale and champion new ways of working and funding mechanisms.

To increase the effectiveness and influence of women’s organizations and movements, Canada:

3. Supporting evidence-based policymaking and program delivery for gender equality

Canada’s objective in this path is to enhance accountable, effective and evidence-based policymaking and program delivery by national and subnational state and non-state actors to advance gender equality. This can be done by strengthening their capacity and systems to advance gender equality through policies, laws, budgets, programs and services as well as to generate, use and disseminate gender data and evidence; and by facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships and networks to foster dialogue and accountability on gender equality.

Public institutions at the national and subnational levels, including central ministries and agencies (e.g. finance, planning and public safety), sectoral ministries (e.g. health, education and agriculture) and legislatures, have respective and complementary roles to advance gender equality, as well as to promote and protect the rights of women and girls, but most face challenges in fulfilling their mandates. Ministries and agencies assigned lead responsibility for gender equality (i.e. national women’s machineries) have an important role to play as catalyst and support for other government entities to take up their responsibilities, yet they often lack resources, technical expertise and influence.

In addition, there is a lack of statistics, including civil registration and vital statistics, that adequately reflect the roles, realities, priorities and experiences of diverse groups of women and men, girls and boys–gender statistics for short–as well as sound quantitative and qualitative gender-based analysis, essential to inform policymaking and program delivery, and to identify effective solutions to achieve gender equality and the SDGs. Better and more accessible gender data and evidence also serve to strengthen the advocacy work and capacity of women’s organizations.

To enhance evidence-based policymaking and program delivery to advance gender equality across all Action Areas, including to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Canada:

Selected sources

General sources

Sexual and gender-based violence

Women’s organizations and movements

Evidence-based policy making and program delivery for gender equality

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