The United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum (HLPF)—an 8-day meeting for governments, UN representatives, and advocates to review progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda—concluded last month. After intense negotiations and critical debate, countries adopted a Ministerial Declaration that reaffirmed their commitments to achieving the 17 Goals, and asserted that gender equality (specifically recognized by Goal 5) and women’s empowerment are necessary to do so.
The Declaration outlines key areas for action, with a particular focus on the six Goals under review this year, including those on health and gender equality. It recognizes the deep connections between human rights and social, economic, and sustainable development. It goes on to state that gender equality plays an important role in achieving all of the other Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda, which must be implemented in ways that deliver results for women and girls. However, the Declaration stops short of calling for the robust commitment to women’s human rights that IWHC and our partners demanded.
In important ways, the Declaration builds on the 2030 Agenda and makes recommendations that go beyond the goals and targets elaborated in the Sustainable Development Goals.
In particular, governments committed to:
- address the multidimensional deprivations experienced by adolescents and young people, and bring an end to intergenerational poverty;
- ensure that young people’s perspectives inform policies and strategies so that they address their needs and that they are engaged in implementation and review of the 2030 Agenda;
- protect the human rights of all children, adolescents, and youth, and address discrimination and violence again them, including harmful practices; step up efforts to curb sexually transmitted infections and antimicrobial resistance;
- create inclusive health systems and address the social, economic, and ecological determinants of health; address the structural barriers to gender equality, such as discriminatory laws and policies;
- establish institutional mechanisms and legal frameworks to prevent and respond to all forms of discrimination and violence;
- address the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that many women and girls experience, recognizing the particular challenges faced by women and girls with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the Ministerial Declaration falls short in a number of other respects. Instead of drawing out the linkages between the Goals under review (a strength of the 2030 Agenda is its recognition that its Goals are interconnected and mutually reinforcing), the Ministerial Declaration reinforces siloes. Its failure to elaborate on the specific links between gender equality and the Goals under review—in particular Goal 9 on sustainable infrastructure—is especially glaring. In March 2017, the UN Commission on the Status of Women recognized the importance of gender-responsive infrastructure—including water, sanitation, and transportation—toward reducing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work on women and girls. Gender-responsive infrastructure helps to overcome barriers to sexual and reproductive health care, reduces the time women and girls spend doing unpaid work, and increases women’s safety and mobility.
Finally, while the Declaration affirms the importance of human rights to the 2030 Agenda and recognizes that gender inequality deprives women and girls of their human rights, it does not outline what governments should do to fully realize women’s and girls’ human rights. For example, paragraph 16 of the Declaration recognizes the importance of “universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services” among other health priorities. However, it does not specifically elaborate on the need to protect women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights.
The weak Declaration is a result of the dynamics of the negotiation process, which took place in political blocs that obscured national perspectives. Over the course of the negotiations, the voices of many of the greatest national champions for women’s rights were subsumed by the collective position of the G77 and China. As a bloc, the G77 contains countries as diverse as Argentina, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Fiji, and exists to further their interests on trade and financing. Traditionally, the G77 does not take positions on issues such as gender inequality. During this process, these countries stayed silent or unsupportive of progressive gender equality language.
This left the task of pushing for a robust discussion of the components of Goal 5 to other countries, like Japan, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, and Switzerland, and to other groups like the European Union. These countries deserve credit for ensuring that the Declaration covered so many aspects of gender equality. Canada and Australia, in particular, emerged as strong leaders on women’s rights throughout the negotiations. In these global spaces, however, Canada and Australia alone cannot advance commitments on women’s human rights without the voices of progressive countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is especially true when US leadership on these issues is conspicuously absent.
Before the HLPF began, we asked whether government representatives assembled in New York would demonstrate the political will needed to achieve gender equality. The answer is, unfortunately, still uncertain. Governments said that advancing gender equality was not only an imperative in and of itself, but was necessary to realize the full 2030 Agenda. However, they failed to recognize the specific needs of women and girls across the agenda, and to speak with one bold voice. Women’s groups, who were present and active throughout the HLPF, are now heading back home to take them to task.