Power Lessons: What the Women’s Movement Can Learn from Recent Successes

Women’s rights are under attack in many countries, including right here in the United States. But the rise of marches and strikes around the globe signals that women are mobilizing to prevent threatened rollbacks. How do we take this further and organize to influence governments and change policies?

A timely new report sheds light on how the global women’s movement achieved a major victory with the landmark 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed to by 193 countries in 2015. With 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets, this blueprint will guide global investments for the next 13 years. Intense advocacy by the women’s movement ensured that there is a stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality and that women’s rights, welfare, and health underpin much of the agenda. In the face of conservative backlash, how did they achieve this victory, and what will it take to bring this ambitious plan to life?

In an effort to turn hindsight into foresight, the report, “Power Lessons: Women’s Advocacy and the 2030 Agenda” documents the role and strategies of the women’s movement in the process. Working with other members of the Women’s Major Group—comprised of more than 600 women’s organizations and networks from around the world—IWHC carried out this retrospective evaluation to unpack lessons learned. Highlights from this evaluation were also captured in a short film, which together with “Power Lessons,” makes clear that strong, fully-funded women’s rights organizations are essential to global progress and to holding governments accountable to their commitments.

The evaluation revealed that it took years of rigorous coordination, strategizing, and negotiation. Feminist advocates succeeded because they were able to:

  • Organize early, prioritize demands, link issues, and develop unified positions.

Women’s groups knew they had to mobilize early and develop clear and unified positions on issues across the agenda. They eschewed a “siloed” approach and worked across sectors, linking issues and reinforcing the call for gender equality. They recognized the need to use strategic and creative communication tactics to reach governments at the local, regional, and global levels. They employed a wide range of activities to make their unified messages visible and to maintain pressure on governments: holding meetings with delegates and allies, drafting language for UN documents, making presentations, and utilizing traditional and social media. Toward the end of the process, they used attention-grabbing tactics like wearing matching scarves that were color-coordinated by theme—highlighting specific issues during negotiations.

  • Link global advocacy to national advocacy and strengthen the movement at every level.

Women’s organizations took advantage of the structure and function of the existing Women’s Major Group, created more than 20 years earlier as part of the “Earth Summit” on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro. This allowed for a collective work environment, with transparent operations and diverse participation. They shared tasks and rotated leadership roles. Funding for women to come to New York from all over the globe—especially the Global South—during the negotiations was critical. For those who could not be in New York City, online organizing enabled virtual participation.

  • Find champions and build relationships.

The women’s movement skillfully mapped allies in government—identifying those governments that shared their views on specific issues, as well as specific individuals within government and UN agencies.

(For a complete list of lessons learned, please see the full report.)

The report also identified a number of challenges. Women’s advocates faced fierce opposition on a range of issues, including sexual and reproductive rights and a more transformative approach to global financial structures and systems. The advocacy leading up to the 2030 Agenda’s adoption required women’s groups to balance a bold approach with political pragmatism—they had to work within the boundaries of what governments realistically would accept, while still pushing the Agenda as far as possible. The constraints of limited funding provided yet another obstacle to achieving all that they wished for.

Despite some shortfalls, gender equality is woven throughout the 2030 Agenda. The processes that shaped the Agenda yielded valuable lessons in challenging and wielding power and provide guidance for future advocacy—including for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. As the geopolitical climate becomes increasingly unpredictable, we will need to draw insight from what we know is effective. The words of one advocate point the way: “We’ve built our solidarity in ways that others haven’t…we should recognize that and figure out how to sustain that power.”

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