What the Post-2015 High Level Panel Report Means for Women and Girls

The much-anticipated report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP) was released yesterday afternoon. In our first read, the report gets some things right, does not go far enough in some areas, and gets a few things wrong.

Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

We are pleased that the panel recognized the need to “empower women and girls and achieve gender equality” as an illustrative high priority goal. However, we wish it had placed a greater emphasis on promoting and achieving the full realization of women’s and girls’ human rights. After all, empowered women are those who know their human rights and can fully exercise them.

Under this goal, the report recommends four important targets:

  • Prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls;
  • End child marriage;
  • Ensure the equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register a business, and open a bank account; and
  • Eliminate discrimination against women in political, economic, and public life.

These targets address some of the key structural barriers to women’s and girls’ human rights and gender equality, respond to a number of women’s demands for the post-2015 framework, and go far beyond those included in the original MDGs. We are particularly pleased to see that the HLP heeded our calls for recommendations to end violence against women and prevent child marriage—two critical issues that were left out of the MDGs altogether. The report would have been stronger had the panel delved deeper in addressing the connections between violence and child marriage and other critical issues for women and girls, such as HIV infection or access to education.

Moreover, the High Level Panel could have gone further in its recommendations under this goal, specifically by recognizing the role women play in the care economy, the unfair burden of work they face as a result, and the impact this has on their ability to participate equally in society. A recommendation on increased access to public care services, including child care and elderly care, and ensuring quality and decent working conditions for care providers would help contribute to a fairer redistribution of unpaid care and domestic work.

A target to guarantee women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights would have also added depth to this goal and addressed an important structural barrier to gender equality. Without the ability to control all aspects of their sexuality and decide the number and spacing of their children, women simply cannot participate equally in education, employment, or political, cultural, and social life.

Beyond the specific empowerment and gender equality goal, the panel rightfully notes that that the rights of girls and women are a cross-cutting issue that should be addressed across development goals, and that indicators for achieving goals and targets should be disaggregated by age and gender to ensure that the needs of women and young people are being met. However, the panel fell short of meeting its own recommendation: neither the report narrative nor the illustrative goals and targets framework go far enough in identifying how women’s and girls’ experiences of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination result in greater experiences of poverty and social marginalization; unequal and unfair burdens on women and girls in sustaining the well-being of their societies and economies; or violations of their human rights.

For example, the majority of the world’s poor are women; they are more likely to die as a result of natural disasters, and they have far less access to social protection systems or rights to land and property. Yet women are not explicitly addressed under the goal to end poverty in either the narrative or the proposed targets.

Similarly, while gender parity may have been reached in primary education, girls are still far less likely to complete secondary education, which has far-reaching consequences for their own development and well-being, as well as that of their families and communities. These girls are more likely to be forced into early marriage or experience early pregnancy and childbearing, and are less likely to be able to exercise their economic rights, ensure sustainable livelihoods, or access employment. Yet, the panel offers no gender analysis or specific recommendations focused on ensuring girls can complete secondary and tertiary education or access employment training.

The proposed goals on food security and nutrition; water and sanitation; jobs and sustainable livelihoods; natural resource management; good governance; stable and peaceful societies; and creating a global enabling environment are all weakened by the panel’s failure to acknowledge how these issues impact women and girls differently and by not proposing specific targets to address those gaps.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

We congratulate the High Level Panel for recommending a target to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights” under the goal to “Ensure Healthy Lives.” This again builds upon and goes beyond the existing MDGs, which include a target to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015.

However here too, we worry that the High Level Panel did not get it exactly right. Sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are well-defined in international agreements, such as the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, but they tend to be a political lightning rod especially when government diplomats are not familiar with the terminology or just why it is so critical that they be addressed. The HLP could have strengthened this recommendation by being more explicit in the narrative about what exactly it means by universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services should include family planning counseling, information, and education and a full range of contraceptive services; education and services for pre-natal care, safe delivery, and post-natal care; prevention and treatment of infertility; safe abortion services and post-abortion care; treatment of reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, and other reproductive health conditions; prevention and treatment of breast cancer, cervical cancer, and other cancers of the reproductive system; and comprehensive sexuality education, among other things, that are delivered through the primary health care system in a way that respects human rights, including the right to bodily integrity and informed consent.

Sexual and reproductive rights, on the other hand, include the right of everyone to decide the number and spacing of their children and have the information and means to do so; the right to the highest attainable standard of sexual and reproductive health; the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion, and violence; and the right to control all aspects of one’s sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion, and violence. We fear that the lack of clarity may lead some governments to sideline this target or call for its removal when negotiations about content of the post-2015 development agenda begin in earnest.

Adolescents and Youth

The HLP acknowledges that the world’s 1.8 billion adolescents and youth are “shaping social and economic development, challenging social norms and values, and building the foundation of the world’s future” and are critical agents of change. But, again, the HLP failed to follow through with strong recommendations.

Unemployment and access to jobs is represented as the primary priority for youth, along with education and training. These are important, but young people themselves have outlined many other priorities. The panel acknowledged that the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents is a problem, but failed to propose measures that would address this gap. Consistent with the lack of gender analysis throughout the report, the panel failed to reference the specific barriers faced by adolescent girls in accessing health care, education, or employment. Critically, there is no recommendation on the rights of adolescents and youth to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.

Human Rights

We appreciate the panel’s emphasis in the narrative on the need for a transformative agenda that leaves no one behind and ensures that all people can enjoy their human rights, as called for by IWHC and other partners. We are pleased that the report recommends goals and targets for the protection and fulfillment of critical human rights, including freedom of speech, association, and peaceful protest; access to independent media and information; public participation in political processes and civil engagement at all levels; access to justice; and the right to food. The emphasis on civil and political rights in the report is a welcome expansion of the existing MDGs and will be important for ensuring transparency and accountability in the post-2015 era. We also congratulate the panel for including a target on covering the poor and vulnerable with social protection floors, although this could have gone further by linking it to governments’ legal obligation to provide minimum essential levels of economic, social, and cultural rights to everyone, without retrogression.

However, overall in the area of human rights yet again the report’s rhetoric is not consistently evident in its core recommendations. The panel missed an important opportunity to concretely frame its recommendations in terms of fundamental human rights: not just political and civil rights, but the full range of economic, social, and cultural rights that governments have already committed to, such as the right to education or the right to the highest attainable standard of health. It also failed to promote human rights-based approaches through the implementation of the post-2015 framework and link the strong the human rights accountability mechanisms that already exist at the regional and global levels with governments’ development obligations. Considering the prominence given to the private sector’s role as a partner in implementing the post-2015 agenda, a particularly glaring gap is the lack of an acknowledgement of governments’ obligations to protect human rights through the proper oversight and regulation of private actors, especially business and private financial entities, to guarantee that they respect human rights and the environment, including in their cross-border activities.


The panel recognized the need to remedy fundamental inequalities and injustices, but it could have gone further by including recommendations that address inequalities from an intersectional approach and acknowledging the specific barriers to equality for specific groups, including people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, people with disabilities, and older people. The panel could also have strengthened its recommendations by including specific targets on addressing inequalities throughout the framework. For example, narrowing the gap in income between rich and poor could have been a target under the end poverty goal; or eliminating discriminatory laws and policies could have been a target under the goal of achieving stable and peaceful societies.

Overall, the report does point to the need for a fundamental shift in the way the world approaches development and makes some important recommendations that we can build upon as the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda continues. The stronger focus on human rights, the importance of good governance and strong institutions, the emphasis on peace and security, and the balanced approach to social, economic, and sustainable development are all a significant and welcome departure from the existing MDGs. The recommended goal on empowering women and girls and achieving gender equality is also much stronger because it addresses the structural challenges women and girls face to equality, rather than just addressing the symptoms of inequality. However, in the months and years ahead, we believe that governments can and must do better. Integrating a gender perspective throughout the framework, deepening the analysis of and response to inequalities of all types, addressing the specific and varied needs of women and young people in all of their diversity, and strengthening the human rights-based approach to development will be important to ensure a better and safer world for women and girls.


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