Let’s Keep the Sustainable Development Goals Strong for Women

I am at the UN this week for the final negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the political declaration that will be adopted by governments in September. It has been a long journey to get to this point. For the past three years, IWHC’s major priority has been making sure that the post-2015 development agenda delivers for women and girls. And as we enter the final days, I am optimistic that we will succeed.

The challenge we now face is ensuring that we have both a strong set of goals and targets as well as the political will and resources needed to implement them. Over the last few days, we’ve seen attempts by countries in both the Global North and South try to undermine different elements of the agenda, which, taken together, could jeopardize the outcome.

On the positive side, governments have agreed to a strong goal that commits to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The goal includes targets on eliminating discrimination and violence against women and girls, ending harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation, addressing women’s burden of unpaid care work, and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, among other things.

The latest draft of the political declaration that is currently under negotiation recognizes that gender equality is critical for all goals and targets, and that it is a prerequisite for sustainable development. It commits to increase investments to close the gender gap and to step up support for institutions that promote gender equality at all levels. There is also strong language on women’s role in peace-building and state-building, and a clear affirmation that peace and justice are core components of the post-2015 agenda.

Importantly, the draft political declaration affirms that realizing the human rights of all people, without any form of discrimination, is a key overarching priority for the success of the new development agenda. It also goes further than the draft SDGs in focusing on the specific needs of youth. Together, the SDGs and the political declaration represent a significant advance over the Millennium Development Goals because they address the key barriers to gender equality and the realization of women’s and girls’ human rights.

Moreover, the draft document also addresses broader, systemic, and structural issues that undermine the realization of women’s and girls’ human rights and that perpetuate inequalities within and between countries. There are strong commitments to address climate change, which disproportionately impacts women and girls in several ways; for example, women and girls must spend more time collecting water in areas of extreme drought, and some families pull their daughters out of school to fulfill this task.

It also has clear commitments to make sure that countries have the means to fully implement the SDGs. The draft declaration commits to provide official development assistance and increase domestic resources for implementing the agenda, and to help countries more effectively manage debt through relief and restructuring. Importantly, it also commits to expand the voices of developing countries in economic decision-making, including in institutions like the International Monetary Fund, where the balance of power currently sits with rich countries. It recognizes that countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities” to implement the agenda according to their varying levels of resources and capacities.

But these are also the issues that are major points of contention between developing and developed countries. Not surprisingly, countries like the United States are fighting hard for these issues to be left out of the final political declaration. They are pushing to replace the SDGs and targets that address financing with the lackluster Addis Ababa Action Agenda. But without strong and ambitious commitments to ensure that all countries have the resources and capacity to implement this agenda, our ability to achieve the SDGs will ultimately fail.

We are also disheartened by the efforts of a few countries, like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, to keep sexual and reproductive health and rights out of the political declaration. Gender equality can only truly be achieved when women are fully empowered to control their own sexuality and reproduction: Governments should not be shying away from language that protects these most basic human rights. These same governments are pushing hard for language that recognizes the need to strengthen and protect “the family”−meaning a man, woman, and their biological children−while resisting efforts to recognize that all families and the rights of individuals within them warrant the same level of protection and support.

With the deadline to achieve an agreement just days away, the pressure is on to ensure that the SDGs become a reality instead of a pipe dream. Governments must continue to fight for a strong focus on women and girls, while also committing to make the changes at a global level that are needed to combat inequalities and ensure that neither the most marginalized people nor the poorest countries are left behind.

We can’t afford to let this huge opportunity pass.

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