This was originally published on the Huffington Post.
We did it! After three years of intense debate and negotiations, on Sunday evening at the United Nations, 193 governments agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This robust, 15-year agenda promises transformative change for women and girls all over the world.
During the last two weeks of negotiations, the International Women’s Health Coalition, together with the more than 600 other women’s organizations and networks from all over the world that make up the Women’s Major Group, drew attention to critical priorities through a colorful campaign “What Women Want.” Each day activists wore a different colored scarf to highlight our key concerns. Tuesday was purple for gender equality. Friday was blue for climate justice. As the last agreements were hammered out in round-the-clock meetings, the campaign created momentum for women’s priorities and drew us together, amplifying our voices for change. Some diplomats were even seen wearing the colorful scarves themselves.
Women’s groups were deeply involved in this process every step of the way because much was, and is, at stake for the girls of today and tomorrow. If this agenda is successfully carried out, by 2030 fewer girls will experience unwanted pregnancy and become infected with HIV. Child marriage will be a thing of the past. Girls will be in school, and they will have access to essential and often lifesaving sexual and reproductive health information and care. They will be able to realize their human rights and lead lives free of violence.
Coming to this shared agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals has not been an easy road. Discussions began in 2012, when governments decided at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio to establish a global framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were set to expire in 2015. Developing countries insisted that the new agenda should be negotiated openly, unlike the MDGs, which had been developed behind closed doors by UN officials.
The International Women’s Health Coalition and our partners in the global women’s movement saw this as an opportunity. We insisted that gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights be prioritized in this new agenda. After all, the MDGs furthest from being achieved were those related to women and girls. We could not let that happen again.
We were met immediately by two kinds of opposition. The first was the familiar, well-organized and vocal opposition to women’s rights, led mainly by Saudi Arabia and the Holy See (the official arm of the Vatican at the United Nations). The other opposition came from governments, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, who initially thought the SDGs should focus primarily on economic development, rather than social justice. They told us that we did not need a goal on gender equality in the new goals, because “we had one in the MDGs.”
We set out to ensure that women’s and girls’ rights were recognized as a core principle of sustainable development. As an organizing partner of the Women’s Major Group, we held firm every step of the way—for three long years. Women would not be sidelined; our voices would be heard.
Our work paid off. Thanks to the perseverance and dedication of women’s rights activists, we have won impressive and detailed commitments to advance gender equality and empower all women and girls. Specifically, governments have committed to:
- End discrimination and gender-based violence;
- Eliminate child marriage and female genital mutilation;
- Ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care services and education for all;
- Protect women’s and girls’ reproductive rights;
- Eliminate gender disparities in schools and ensure equal access to education;
- Provide education that promotes gender equality and human rights;
- Expand women’s economic opportunities and recognize their rights to resources; and
- Reduce the burdens of unpaid care work on women and girls.
Governments also made strong commitments to reduce poverty, end hunger, increase access to energy, address climate change, and promote peaceful societies, among other key actions. All of these measures are critical for women and girls to be able to lead fully-empowered, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
For too long, women and girls have borne the brunt of economic, social, and environmental crises. This new global agenda promises to level the playing field. The framework is even more historic because it is universal, applying to developed countries as well as developing ones—meaning that even countries like the United States will be held accountable for carrying out these goals.
To be sure, the new agenda is not perfect. It does not go far enough in addressing the systemic imbalances in global finance and trade that tip the scales in favor of rich countries. Moving forward, we have to lessen the burden of debt on poor countries, who will undoubtedly struggle to achieve these goals otherwise. And we have to push for more concrete financial commitments from all governments to fund this ambitious agenda.
Heads of State will meet next month at the United Nations to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. The International Women’s Health Coalition will be there, as we have been for the last several years. Together with our partners we will continue to work to make sure this promise of a better world becomes a reality. Women and girls everywhere deserve no less.