Last September, the global community agreed to an ambitious set of goals and targets known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a bold agenda aimed at, in the United Nations’ own words, “transforming our world.” Yet only six months later, governments assembled at the UN for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) dragged their feet on implementing last year’s commitments.
In a session dedicated to exploring the links between women’s empowerment and sustainable development, governments evidenced a lack of ambition at odds with their enthusiasm during the hard-fought SDG negotiations. As a result, the Commission’s Agreed Conclusions represent the status quo and fall far short of what is needed to set all countries on the path to achieving gender equality by 2030.
From March 14-24, 2016, more than 4,000 civil society activists converged in New York, joining more than 80 government ministers from around the world for the 60th session of CSW. An annual meeting of UN Member States, CSW is a place to highlight progress toward gender equality, women’s human rights, and the empowerment of women and girls, as well as to discuss gaps in the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It’s also the venue for governments to commit to further, concrete steps toward achieving global targets on gender equality.
As usual, several conservative countries (including the Holy See, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Russia, Pakistan, and the Gulf States) sought to roll back previous commitments. The Sustainable Development Goals include a commitment to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.” Although reproductive rights have been consistently agreed to in previous years’ CSW outcomes, the usual suspects continued to try (unsuccessfully) to remove the term from this year’s agreement.
Sadly, these same countries were able to block commitments on sexual rights and any mention of the rights of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Equally and perhaps more troubling, however, was the lack of enthusiasm of many progressive countries for commitments to fund gender equality and the women’s movement.
The links between gender equality and sustainable development are clear. Goal 5focuses specifically on gender, but the rights of women are embedded throughout the 2030 Agenda. None of the goals, from ending poverty (Goal 1) and hunger (Goal 2) to addressing climate change (Goal 13) and promoting peaceful societies (Goal 16), will be achieved without the full realization of women’s human rights, and women’s and girls’ active participation in the process of building sustainable communities and societies. By not making firm, new commitments to implementing gender equality, governments failed to move the SDGs from an ambitious piece of paper to a concrete set of actions.
Countries also negotiated a resolution on HIV in an extremely secretive process. The final HIV resolution recognizes the need for a gender-responsive approach to combatting the HIV epidemic and acknowledges that the disease disproportionately affects women and girls, in part because of uneven power dynamics in sexual relationships.
However, in a triumph of politics over science, the resolution fails to recognize that comprehensive sexuality education has proven an effective method of lowering the risk of HIV among girls and young women. The resolution also falls short of recognizing the right of adolescent girls to control their own sexuality free of discrimination and violence (recognizing this inherent right only for adult women). And while it recognizes that some groups of women and girls face higher risk of HIV infection, it fails to name the most marginalized groups, namely sex workers, transgender women, and intravenous drug users, thereby increasing the stigma these groups face.
As a whole, the 2016 Commission on the Status of Women was a missed opportunity for governments to make concrete commitments to support the promises of the 2030 Agenda for women and girls, to ensure that political language on HIV accurately reflects realities on the ground, and to advance the human rights of women and girls, in all their diversity. We have to do better next year.
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown