Study shows encouraging progress in Commonwealth towards gender equality

23 September 2019

A new Commonwealth paper finds “impressive improvements” in women’s access to maternal health, enrolment in primary school and participation in the workforce. The technical paper was released at the 12th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

A new Commonwealth paper finds “impressive improvements” in women’s access to maternal health, enrolment in primary school and participation in the workforce.

The technical paper was released at the 12th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Findings suggest that in the Commonwealth, a girl is as likely to attend primary school as a boy is, and in some countries more so. In the parliaments of 13 Commonwealth countries, 30 per cent or more of members are women.

Against this progress, the paper highlights that persistent gender stereotypes and prejudices in policymaking, budgeting and service delivery are disrupting progress.

For instance, only one in five Commonwealth parliamentarians is a woman. Of every 10 girls, only seven attend secondary school. Thirty-two countries do not mandate equal pay for work of equal value.

Following the meeting, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said: “The paper summarises progress in the Commonwealth priorities for gender equality 2017–20, outlines the continuing obstacles and barriers to achieving women and girls’ empowerment and gender equality in the Commonwealth, and shares good practices from member countries which offer ideas and strategies that other countries may learn from and apply across this unique family of nations.  

“The paper also reflects our commitment to ensure that women and girls are regarded as equal partners with men and boys in shaping our common future.”

The Commonwealth undertook the paper to assess and inform ministers on the progress made in 53 member countries in four priority areas: women in leadership, women economic empowerment, ending violence against women and girls, and gender and climate change.

Women in leadership

The Commonwealth average for members of parliament who are women stands at 23 per cent which is still short of the global target of 30 per cent.

The Caribbean and Americas had the regional average of 24.51 per cent, which is relatively high compared to all Commonwealth regions.



Rwanda tops the list and is the only country to achieve gender parity in the Commonwealth. Over 55 per cent of seats are occupied by women in both houses of parliament in the country.

Ten Commonwealth countries have achieved the target of 30 per cent or more women ministers, and Canada currently leads with over 50 per cent.

Women economic empowerment

The paper highlights that longstanding gender gaps in enrolment and achievement in education have been narrowed but the ripple effect has not yet translated into women’s equal participation in the labour force.



The pan-Commonwealth average of female labour force participation is over 56 per cent. Rwanda leads with 86 per cent of women participating in the formal labour force.

Twenty countries do not have legislation on sexual harassment in employment while 23 do not have criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment in employment.

The paper identifies challenges girls still face transitioning from primary to secondary school, which are largely the cost of education, child marriage or labour, and violence.

Ending violence against women and girls

Out of all 53 member countries, 47 have laws against domestic violence; 20 have legislation that explicitly criminalises marital rape; 40 have legislation against sexual harassment; and nine have legislation that offers broad protections for LGBT+ people.

Gender and climate change

The paper emphasises women’s vulnerabilities to climate change including the impact of water and energy shortages on women’s reproductive work, the effect on food security due to drought, floods, etc., access to health services and caring for the sick.

Women are more likely than men to hold jobs vulnerable to climate change, at least 80 per cent of “green jobs” around the world are expected to be in the secondary sectors such as constructions, manufacturing and energy production – industries where women are already underrepresented.

In this context, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland referred to the Commonwealth Gender and Climate Change Working Group, which is part of the Common Earth initiative to encourage the implementation of regenerative models for development. The working group assists member countries with devising integrated national roadmaps for women and women-led efforts to mitigate climate change and support women's health and nutrition, education, and involvement in local decision-making.

The paper calls for closer attention and much more investment to address the inequalities between women and men in all areas of social, civic and economic life. It suggests gender equality will only become reality if it is mainstreamed across the political sphere, public and private sectors, and civil society.

Ministers and senior officials welcomed the paper who agreed that the findings will guide evidence based policy making, implementing and evaluation.

Note: Data against some parameters is missing in a few countries. The research analysis comes from the Commonwealth annual report on gender equality 2018/19, which will be released later this year


Media contact

  • Snober Abbasi Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat