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Sustainable Development Goals: Where do Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Stand?

Friday File: The eighth session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG8) that took place 3-7 February 2014 in New York is the most recent in the series of consultations with governments and civil society on how to shape a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[1] to merge with the new post-2015 development framework. AWID looks at the extent to which this intergovernmental process has included gender equality and women's rights in their deliberations, and what areas remain a challenge as negotiations begin.

By Alejandra Scampini[2]

One of the key issues addressed at the OWG8 was “promoting equality, including social equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment”. Women’s rights advocates and organizations, including AWID, participated via the Women’s Major Group[3] (WMG) in delivering key messages and recommendations.[4]

WMG messages[5] and actions

While the WMG supports a stand-alone goal on gender equality, the group continued pushing for conversations to go beyond a discussion on goals and targets, into structural and policy constraints that challenge the achievement of women’s rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. The group insisted on the need to challenge the neo-liberal economic structure and policies leading to a market-oriented and growth-based development model that promotes the commodification of life and nature through trade liberalization.

Alejandra Scampini from AWID, speaking on behalf of the WMG, says, "We joined these discussions with caution against developing another set of reductive goals, targets and indicators that ignore the transformational and structural changes required to address the failure of the current development model rooted in unsustainable production and consumption patterns, exacerbating gender, race and class inequities. Structural changes require policies that recognize and redistribute the unequal and unfair burdens borne by women and girls in sustaining societal wellbeing and economies, which intensify in times of economic and ecological crises." The WMG insists on promoting an enabling environment to achieve sustainable development through principles of universality, non-retrogression, and progressive realization. Among other recommendations, women’s rights groups called for progressive macroeconomic policies, effective regulation of International Financial Institutions (IFIs), regulation of corporations and businesses, strengthening States capacities, and more balanced power relations within and among countries.

The role and increasing influence of businesses and corporate power in development debates, policy making, and implementation is also a concern for the WMG, who called for strengthened accountability and transparency for corporations and large businesses. In her intervention, Bhumika Muchhala from the Third World Network reminded participants of the serious impacts that debt, intellectual property rights and free trade agreements have on women and girls’ lives in terms of access to resources. She also noted the need to strengthen governance mechanisms to effectively monitor and regulate corporations through binding commitments for equitable and sustainable development.

Conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building was another focus area of OWG8 to which the WMG voiced concerns about the failure to address the root causes of increased militarism and armed conflict, and the rise of conservative forces including religion fundamentalisms. Women's rights organizations with expertise on connecting conflict resolution and peace-building with women’s rights[6] released an open letter to the co-chairs and participating UN Member States of OWG8 urging them to continue to strengthen the link between the sustainable development processes and the conflict prevention and peace-building agenda from a gender perspective.

Reactions from government representatives

Some delegates voiced high hopes about how debates were moving forward and speeches reflected some consensus on having a Gender Equality goal and made concrete references to the UN women proposal. However, there was emphasis on the need to manage expectations in defining the composition of each goal. Given the challenges ahead, many cautioned about the limits in UN processes as we move into the next level. There is consensus that the main priorities of the SDGs should be to eliminate poverty, address inequalities, and promote social inclusion. There is call to define a more universal agenda that ensures justice, rights and peace in this process.

Delegates continued to grapple with how to ensure that the SDGs are more transformational than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework. Several government representatives recommended having “faith” in the private sector, using existing tools and thinking of partnerships not only with big companies, but also with small holders.

Room for dialogue and areas of commonality

The series of panels, workshops and bilateral conversations with governments that took place at OWG8 are evidence of room for dialogue and a common understanding of the need to keep the momentum following this 8th OWG session. Some of the specific requests from governments included a call for more new ideas; clarity on the use of terms such as care work, unpaid work; ideas on how to address contentious debates and politics of agenda setting. To help government delegates bridge the intentional and artificial divide between economic justice, environmental justice and gender justice, there needs to be more emphasis on using existing human rights mechanisms such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the review periods of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Regarding specific recommendations from a women’s rights perspective, some delegates have shown openness to hearing ideas and reflecting on targets around education, freedom from violence and discrimination, sexual and reproductive health and rights, property ownership, decision-making and quality participation beyond gender quotas in parliaments. All agree that more data is needed to devise targets and indicators to be able to operationalize the new framework.

Gender equality and women’s rights stand in the future SDGs framework

The call for a transformative framework to achieve women’s rights and gender equality comes in the midst of a global conversation about the legacy of the MDGs and next steps after they expire in 2015. Much is being said about assessing and accelerating progress on the MDGs, particularly MDG3 (Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women) and MDG5 (Reducing Maternal Mortality and Achieving Universal Access to Reproductive Health). The fifty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, (CSW58) taking place from 10 to 21 March, 2014, in New York will focus on "Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls" as a priority theme.

Further, the commitments made at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 cannot be forgotten. The outcome document, which reaffirmed the commitment to CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action , called for a new set of SDGs that provide a strong basis for including a comprehensive and transformative approach to gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment. Member States should uphold and fully implement their commitments to ensure women’s equal rights, access and opportunities for participation and leadership in the economy, society and political decision-making.

The current context is one that provides an unprecedented opportunity to infuse women’s rights issues into the global development agenda and contribute to shaping a more just development model that works for all people and the planet.

The Co-chairs summary and concluding remarks of the OWG8 session reflects some of the advances in deliberations. It reflects a sense of strong support from governments and civil society for an ambitious stand-alone goal on gender equality and women's rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), as well as addressing redistribution of unpaid work, eliminating gender based violence, and equal access and control of land and resources.

More than 50 countries joined the government of Argentina in a common statement on inequalities and gender equality that was well received by women’s rights organizations participating at the OWG8.

Still some way to go

In terms of official process, Governments can still send in comments to the Co Chairs summary, with Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Nigeria have already announcing reservations to some points in the proposed conclusion.

For Civil Society it is imperative that goals are aligned with non-negotiables, including women human rights defenders (WHRDS). Learning from MDGS, it is important to keep the aspirations of the goal in a set of indicators and targets that do not water down the achievements and gains already achieved and referenced in various conventions, declarations, etc.

While discussions showed commonalities, it is also important to be aware of the different contexts and realities, to ensure there is enough policy space for adapting to specific contexts and constraints.

Some of the challenges relate to how to avoid the “silo approach” and not lose sight of the interdependence of gender with other goals in the Post 2015 agenda and that discussions only on the specifics of the GE goal could divert attention from other demands, specifically related to economic justice and SRHR.

And despite the relative openness of certain governments to women’s groups, there is continued omission by governments to address structural issues such as finance, global governance and accountability. There is little reference to the global economic crisis, the neoliberal economic agenda or the policies that have led to privatization, commodification of life and nature. While a lot is said about the right to development, there is little on how trade, debt and systemic issues may affect this new development paradigm. Market led economies and corporate power control have increased inequalities, but few recognized the interlinkages between inequality, including gender inequality, and macroeconomic policies, so there seems to be a disconnect between the discussions on growth taking place at the OWG, and the issues addressed in the Gender Equality goal, including reducing inequalities, poverty and gender disparities.

Finally, there is the question of how to ensure adequate funding for GE priorities. AWID’s recently launched compendium of research on funding for women’s rights, including the qualitative study of the Dutch MDG3 Fund, lays out a range of recommendations for Donors from all funding sectors. It will be important to learn from past experience to ensure that the GE goal sets the priorities for Official Development Assistance and private funding flow to ensure adequately resourced women’s rights organisations and movements.

[1] One of the main outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, was an agreement by Member States to develop a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). A 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) of the General Assembly was tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs and thus conducted multi-stakeholder consultations from March 2013 to February 2014.

[2] The author gratefully acknowledges Ana Ines Abelenda for her contributions to this article.

[3] The Women’s Major Group comprises 400 organizations and individuals working on sustainable development from a women’s rights perspective at local, national, regional and global levels. See:

[4] Some of these were also captured in a timely policy brief produced by the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS).

[5] To read the full recommendations by the Women's Major group for OWG8, as well as interventions from the floor by Women's Major Group members, please go to

[6] The drafting team included the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Global Justice Center (GJC), the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), and the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP).