Executive Summary

In September 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Comprised of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 related targets, the “2030 Agenda” tackles a range of global challenges, including eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities, addressing climate change and promoting peace. If implemented successfully, this new agenda could transform the lives of women and girls all over the world. In the three years leading up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the Women’s Major Group (WMG), comprised of more than 600 women’s organizations and networks from around the world, undertook an intensive advocacy effort to put women’s rights at the core of this new development agenda. The WMG wanted the SDGs to include a comprehensive gender equality goal, but also sought to ensure that women’s rights would be featured across all the goals. They were successful on both fronts—achieving even more than most of them had expected at the outset. The 2030 Agenda includes a stand-alone gender equality goal with targets on critical issues affecting women’s lives, such as gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, harmful traditional practices, property and inheritance rights, and unpaid care work. In addition, gender equality is mainstreamed across all of the new development agenda. How was this groundbreaking result accomplished, and what can the women’s movement and other actors learn from this experience?

To answer these questions, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), in collaboration with other members of the WMG, carried out a retrospective evaluation of the role of the WMG in shaping the 2030 Agenda. It sought to examine the following questions: What did the women’s movement achieve, which strategies were most successful, and what did they learn from the process? This report outlines the findings of the evaluation; in particular, it documents the advocacy strategies utilized by the WMG and distills lessons learned, in the hope that these can inform and strengthen future women’s rights advocacy.

The evaluation found that the WMG achieved most of its objectives because the members recognized the need to agree on a common set of priorities for inclusion in the SDGs. They successfully organized to influence the intergovernmental negotiations process, beginning the process early—initially at the regional level—which helped the WMG to prioritize demands and develop unified positions. They built a transparent and inclusive approach to information sharing and decision-making with the various strands of the women’s movement at local and global levels. They built a cross-movement, cross-sectoral alliance across a full range of issues affecting women. They identified gaps in their own expertise and worked collectively to share knowledge and build capacity. They analyzed opportunities for advocacy, painstakingly mapped and identified allies in government and within UN agencies, and consistently interacted with delegates during months-long negotiations to influence language in UN documents. The WMG also utilized position papers, public events, visual messaging and social media to communicate their positions, often relying on creative approaches to sustain interest and energy. They recognized that robust participation of advocates, especially from the Global South, would be critical and raised funds for them to come to New York for the negotiations. They took advantage of existing features of the process, such as the “major group” system that had been created more than twenty years earlier to facilitate civil society participation, and a structure for governmental negotiations that made it easier for women’s organizations to engage with supportive governments and make headway with others. And they sought to link global to local advocacy by communicating through the diverse WMG membership to women activists around the world. It is this last point that especially resonates as women’s rights advocates seek to advance implementation of the 2030 Agenda. This evaluation made clear that the SDGs will only be realized— and make a real difference for women and girls—if women’s organizations at national and local levels are able to hold their governments accountable. Those interviewed stressed the need to maintain a cross-sector approach, and they urged donors to take this into account. They saw a continuing need for global coordination and an ongoing role for the WMG: following what governments are doing at the global level and informing activists at the regional and national levels. Implementing the Agenda requires tracking meaningful change at the national level, as well as globally, and women’s rights advocates will need to participate in measuring progress. As they did throughout the negotiations process, women’s rights advocates can use existing and emerging mechanisms to hold governments accountable, including annual meetings of the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, established to monitor progress on the SDGs, and other intergovernmental meetings and processes. Effective advocacy by women’s rights organizations and movements was essential to achieving a broad and ambitious set of goals for sustainable development. Now it will require strong, supported and funded women’s rights organizations to hold governments accountable for their commitments to an Agenda with the potential to transform the lives of women and girls.