COPENHAGEN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Data, once the domain of geeks, is being put at the centre of women's rights by campaigners arguing current statistics are sexist and need to have "soul" that reflects women's real lives.
While the 193 U.N. member states last year agreed a new set of 17 global goals aiming to end inequality and extreme poverty by 2030, campaigners are finding more and more holes in official data to track where and which women and girls need help.
The need for better data - which can be used to assess needs, monitor progress and hold governments to account - emerged as a key theme this week at Women Deliver, the world's largest women's rights and health conference in a decade.
Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, led the charge when it came to faulting current data for being sexist and failing to show the real challenges facing millions of women who are often invisible in statistics.
"We cannot know what to do for women and where to invest to have the greatest return unless we have good data .. and we really don't have the data we need," Gates said.
"We cannot close the gender gap without closing the data gap," she told Women Deliver, attended by more than 5,500 participants from over 160 countries, as she unveiled an $80 million, three-year initiative to boost data collection.
While the lack of information on women is not new, the problem has been highlighted by growing pressure on governments to show progress in improving the lives of women and girls under the U.N.'s new global goals.
A 2014 report by Data2X, a multi-partner initiative housed at the United Nations Foundation, identified 28 key data gaps related to women and girls in five areas: health, education, economic opportunities, political participation, and security.
Better data is seen as key for accountability, a major buzzword in the development world particularly since U.N. members agreed the new Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint to direct government policies over the next 15 years.
Leaders of organisations working to improve the lives of women and girls said a lack of information about key issues was as a major hurdle towards getting better services and investment.
"DATA WITH A SOUL"
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, chief executive of child rights organisation Plan International, cited as an example the massive data gap when it came to recording the number of girls aged under the age of 15 who gave birth each year.
Globally it is estimated over 2 million girls under the age of 15 become mothers each year, but the number is uncertain as official data tends to only track births of women aged 15 to 49 even though girls can get pregnant from age 11 or so onwards.
An estimated 70,000 girls aged 10 to 19 die from birth-related complications every year.
"Hopefully over the next five to 10 years we will start to get much more sophisticated about what we measure and make sure every data set has a soul, that we bring forth the voice," Albrectsen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There are human beings behind these statistics and if can connect smart data that captures some of the intangibles, the fear, the violence ... hopefully we can change the world as we can sit in front of policymakers and say this is the reality."
Plan International unveiled at Women Deliver a partnership with the International Women's Health Coalition, accountancy firm KPMG, ONE Campaign and Women Deliver, to find ways to compile better data on women.
Former Malawi President Joyce Banda told the conference how she finally escaped a 10-year abusive marriage but was quizzed on her lack of data when she tried to raise the alarm for other women who were victims of abuse.
Banda, who was president of Malawi from 2012 until 2014, said this showed the importance of data to back up arguments.
"It is important to track our achievements and also for those in leadership to be accountable," she said.
Eloise Todd, global policy director from the One Campaign, said it was not exaggerating to say the world was facing a "sexist data crisis".
"Data is about people but also about politics," Todd said.
"We know we can't argue with governments until we can show them data and show them what is going on .. and so much is missing to let us do the job."
(Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)