Why measuring social institutions is important for assessing progress on gender equality?

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Written by Somali Cerise of the OECD Development Centre, for the January 2012 edition of the Newsletter on Measuring the Progress of Societies.

Discriminatory social institutions can help explain persistent gender inequalities

There is now widespread agreement that gender equality matters for development, economic growth and poverty reduction. In addition to the fulfilment of fundamental rights for women and girls, gender equality has been hailed as a ‘breakthrough’ strategy for achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. Improving women’s education, employment and health outcomes not only delivers benefits for women but for whole communities and economies. However, as has become apparent with the sluggish progress towards MDG targets, there remain significant obstacles to achieving equal outcomes for women and men on key economic and social indicators. This is despite the increasing investment from donors and promising progress made in many areas.

Discriminatory social institutions - defined as formal and informal laws, social norms and practices that restrict or exclude women and girls - have attracted growing attention as a framework for understanding the sluggish progress towards gender equality. Social institutions set the parameters of what decisions, choices or practices are deemed acceptable or unacceptable in a society and therefore play a major role in mediating gender roles and relations. Examples include practices such as early marriage, gender-based violence or discrimination in inheritance, access to land, property and credit, all of which significantly shape influence women’s economic and social role and consequently hinder development.

The OECD Development Centre Social Institutions and Gender Index

The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), launched in 2009, is the first attempt that has been made to capture, quantify and measure social institutions that discriminate against women and girls. The SIGI is a composite index which scores countries on twelve variables that are grouped into five sub-indices: family code, physical integrity, son preference, civil liberties and ownership rights.[1] As a composite index, SIGI and its sub-indices provide useful and interpretable tools to compare the level of underlying discrimination against women across 102 non-OECD countries, allowing cross-country, regional and sub-regional analyses. SIGI combines both qualitative and quantitative measures of social institutions. The scores and ranking of each country are also complemented with detailed country notes which set the context and describe how social institutions discriminate against women with country specific information. While other indices such as the UNDP Gender Inequality Index, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index and Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index measure gender inequality in terms of outcomes in areas such as education, employment, health and political participation, SIGI’s innovative focus on the underlying social institutions that influence gender roles and relations provides a fresh perspective on the causes of gender inequality for development policy-makers and practitioners.

What can the SIGI tell us about poor development outcomes?

By applying SIGI to issues as diverse as employment, hunger and achievement of the MDGs, the OECD Development Centre has shown that countries which display higher levels of discrimination against women are also performing more poorly on a range of development indicators.[2] For example, analysis using the SIGI variables has found that countries where women lack any right to own land have on average 60% more malnourished children. Where women lack any access to credit the number of malnourished children is 85% above average. This indicates that the level of women’s access and control over resources is associated with children’s nutrition. Further, the SIGI data indicates that net enrolment in primary education is, on average, lower in countries with high levels of early marriage. In the countries where more than half of girls aged 15-19 years are married (Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Afghanistan, Congo, Mali), on average less than half primary school aged children are in school. From this evidence, it appears that women’s lack of decision making power in the family and household is associated with lower enrolment in schools. This relationship holds when looking at school completion rates as well, even when controlling for the level of economic development (proxied by income per capita).

The conceptual challenge of capturing discriminatory social institutions

One challenge in relation to measurement is the conceptual difficulty of capturing social institutions and selecting appropriate and measurable variables. As social institutions are often based on community attitudes and informal practices, they are inherently difficult to measure. For example, while the existence of a law can provide a proxy indicator for efforts to address a discriminatory social institution such as inheritance practices, there may be a disjuncture between the law and practice or the attitudes of the population. Laws that provide equal rights and entitlements for women and men may not be adequately implemented, and therefore may not reflect the reality of practices at a community or household level. Capturing these differences between law, attitudes and practice is one of SIGI’s challenges. The good news is that prevalence data and data on public attitudes or beliefs can help address these gaps and this data is becoming increasingly available, for example, in the area of violence against women and women’s decision-making power in the family.

SIGI 2012: taking account of new data and changes

Over the past two years, SIGI has been increasingly used by researchers and policy-makers[3][4][5], and the importance of acknowledging how discriminatory social institutions affect development outcomes is gaining currency within policy and academic circles. Since SIGI 2009, data sources have been improving gradually, and there is a richer range of qualitative and quantitative information available on gender equality and women’s rights. The OECD Development Centre will be releasing an updated version of the SIGI in 2012 to reflect changes in law and practice and also take account of new data on discriminatory social institutions.

See also

Gender, Institutions and Development Database


Social Institutions and Gender Index

OECD Development Centre


  1. Branisa, B., Klasen, S. and Ziegler, M. (2009) ‘The Construction of the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI).’ Background Paper, OECD, Paris.
  2. OECD Development Centre (2010) Gender Inequality and the MDGs: What are the Missing Dimensions? OECD, Paris
  3. 1. World Bank Group (2010), Women, Business and the Law 2010, Measuring Legal Gender Parity for Entrepreneurs and Workers in 128 Economies;
  4. Jones, N., Harper, C., Watson, C. et al (2010) 'Stemming Girls' Chronic Poverty: Catalysing Development Change by Building Just Social Institutions', Chronic Poverty Research Centre, University of Manchester;
  5. FAO (2011) The State of Food and Agriculture – Women in Agriculture, Closing the gender gap for development, FAO, Rome;

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