If gender equality is 300 years away, we must harness innovation to achieve it sooner

If gender equality is 300 years away, we must harness innovation to achieve it sooner

If gender equality is 300 years away, we must harness innovation to achieve it sooner

If gender equality is 300 years away, we must harness innovation to achieve it sooner

We are 300 years away from achieving gender equality at the current rate of progress, according to UN Women, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Commission on the Status of Women in March.

If this projection is correct, drastic steps must be taken to pick up momentum. Today, as we celebrate International Day for Creativity and Innovation, UNFPA commits to scaling up innovation to accelerate our efforts on gender equality, by supporting young people in East and Southern Africa to become game-changers for a gender-equal future.

A leading initiative on innovation is the Smart Girls Foundation‘s ‘Girls With Tools’ project, founded by Ugandan activist Jamila Mayanja to empower young women and girls to develop innovative solutions that foster gender equality. The programme offers a variety of courses, including mechanics, carpentry and tailoring, which give them the tools they need to succeed in male-dominated industries.

“In my village, people were saying that women can’t do the same jobs as men, but I want to prove to them that it’s possible,” says Mary, 22, who has been involved with the Smart Bags project for over a year.

Mary, like her peers, joined Girls With Tools to chart a path for a brighter future: “Girls With Tools has given me hope. I am glad to be part of a group of young people producing smart bags to support other girls like me to have dignity in menstruation and to be able to learn at night,” she said. 

Ruth joined the Smart Girls project in 2020 as a seamstress to earn some money to support her family, and developed a strong interest in auto mechanics. During the COVID-19 lockdown, when the project temporarily closed, she fell pregnant at the tender age of 15. As a result, her father kicked her out of their family home.

A few weeks after delivery, Ruth returned to the Smart Girls Centre and enrolled in the mechanics programme, in January 2021. Through counselling and guidance from the Smart Girls team, she has become a source of inspiration for other young women.

“I want to learn skills that help me support myself and my daughter,” said Ruth, now 17, and a senior auto mechanics trainee.

Her story is one of determination and hope, and she represents young people’s potential to drive positive change in the world. With the support of UNFPA and the Smart Bags Foundation, Ruth is developing the skills and knowledge she needs to support herself and her daughter.

Young people as drivers of change

There are many stories like hers in Uganda and across Africa, where early pregnancy is an enormous challenge. According to the State of World Population 2023 Report, the average adolescent birth rate for the ESA region is 94 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. Whereas most countries have recorded decreases in their adolescent birth rates over time, in some countries the adolescent birth rate has increased. Factors contributing to high adolescent birth rates include limited knowledge of family planning, inadequate availability of contraceptives, limited access to skilled health professionals, and insufficient domestic resources allotted to sexual and reproductive health.

Adolescent pregnancy increases the vulnerability of girls, as pregnancy often ends their education. In Uganda, this is borne out by the low literacy rate of 37 per cent for young women aged 15 to 24 years. High fertility rates and high levels of adolescent pregnancy also increase the risk of maternal deaths.

Together with partners like the Smart Girls Foundation, UNFPA supports young people as drivers of change. Not only do Ruth, Mary and their peers at the centre benefit from UNFPA’s work in innovation, they are also active change makers producing innovative tools – Smart Bags – to support other young people. This embodies the aspiration of leaving no one behind.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – East and Southern Africa.