Gender equality is an issue in most societies in the world. Generally, it manifests as an imbalance of power between the genders, in favour of men. Lack of female empowerment results in higher vulnerability for women and girls to abuse and exploitation in society, as well as inability to defend themselves in the event they lose their societal protections, for example in times of war.

Therefore, while this SDG is not among the most essential physiological needs, it still sits at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy as it is about the need for safety and security. Unless security needs are met, people do not contribute to societal endeavours from a position of emotional security and trust, which is not conducive to sustainable outcomes. Half of society being in a position of insecurity is a great handicap.

That said, from my travels I’ve learned to appreciate that gender equality doesn’t have to take the form of sameness of gender roles. It just requires that men and women in a given society have evenly balanced social power. This can come through one gender dominating one type of authority and the other dominating another. As long as men and women have equal bargaining power in their community, it seems to function just as well.

I think all the targets under this SDG are important. Yet a development goal about gender equality implies two parties in relationship, but men are absent from the descriptions. I think this is a problem because improving women’s sense of security through empowerment should involve a societal conversation and negotiation between men and women. This is because that relationship also provides security, as well as other human needs such as love and belonging. Not acknowledging this could lead to achieving all the SDG targets, without improving women’s overall sense of security, and perhaps also worsening men’s sense of security and belonging.

Ultimately the point of empowering women should be the liberation of both women and men. Women are certainly more vulnerable to exploitation in the current societal norms. But it is not the only kind of exploitation there is. Women’s dependence on men for her economic livelihood also exposes men for exploitation.

For example, the original women’s movement mobilised to stop wars, and women’s labour movements sought better working conditions. Both are dangerous conditions ordinary men tend to accept being sent to for the sake of their families. Better security for both only happens with equal empowerment if the reciprocal relationship between men and women stays intact, so that women’s empowerment strengthens it rather than dissolves it. And this increased trust is a positive force for achieving other sustainability outcomes.