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UN Starts with Gender Equality Focus Preparing for its 2014 DCF and Post 2015

FRIDAY FILE: Almost twenty years after the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, the Vienna Policy Dialogue entitled “Advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women: the role of development cooperation”, took place in Vienna, Austria from 13 to14 December 2012[1].

By Anne Schoenstein[2]

The dialogue was the first in a series of consultations in preparation of the 2014 Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) and to contribute to the UN post 2015 development agenda. It brought together international organizations, senior representatives and experts from national and local governments, women’s organizations and other civil society organizations (CSOs) and the private sector. The aim was to develop concrete policy recommendations to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women in response to the shifts in international development cooperation. AWID participated, together with other women’s rights advocates and organizations.

The need to address the underlying causes of gender inequality

In her opening speech Hon. Barbara Prammer, President of the Austrian National Council, stressed that, “Gender equality has long been recognized both as a human right and a core development goal; therefore the post-2015 development agenda must not only address the elimination of gaps, but also transform the structural factors that underpin the widespread persistence of gender inequalities, gender-based violence, discrimination and unequal development progress between women and men.”

Several women’s rights advocates and organizations participated in the dialogue. Wendy Harcourt, from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), highlighted in her key note address the need to look at the underlying problems that are causing and increasing inequalities, and the need to recognize that the world has changed in these last 15 years, in ways that the old Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework fails to address. She noted that patriarchy is alive and that it is important to call it out more forcibly in different political, economic, social and cultural arenas. And, as new players come onto the global scene that we need to consider what post-colonial decolonized development would look like. She made key points around the fact that there are new types of political citizens, stressing the importance of listening and respecting other cultures and knowledge and not imposing predefined models and prescriptions, and that sustainability has to be at the core of the post 2015 agenda.

Human rights are key to the post 2015 development agenda

Lydia Alpízar Durán and Mayra Moro-Coco who participated from AWID spoke to key aspects in relation to the post 2015 development agenda, and on multiple accountability and transparency for gender equality. Alpízar said that it is outrageous that some actors and countries are resisting the inclusion of human rights as a key framework to inform the post 2015 agenda. The UN - and as such also the DCF - with its normative framework of human rights, has a key role in taking leadership over its process and should push for a human rights framework as the basis, along with social justice and environmental sustainability.

There are goals that have been clearly set and agreed by UN member states and that are included in CEDAW and other international human rights agreements and outcome documents of key UN Conferences such as Cairo, Vienna and Beijing, to name a few. We need UN member states and other actors to reaffirm their commitment to meet these goals and to move from rhetoric to implementation. For this, we need agreements on how to accelerate their achievement, with clear targets and allocated resources.

The UN post 2015 development agenda process is an opportunity to redefine development and seriously address the structural issues that have remained untouched in most government responses to the financial crisis and economic recession. Part of this is ensuring that development cooperation really works to advance women’s rights. First, macroeconomics needs to be redefined, reforming global economic and financial regulations and institutions in line with human rights. Second, addressing sustainability means that a new set of rights, the rights of the future generations and the rights of our planet need to be agreed and coherence between the post 2015 process with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is really important. Third, policy coherence for development needs to be central to the post MDGs framework. Fourth, new ways of defining and measuring development that take the care economy and unpaid work in account, are needed. And finally, moving beyond gender mainstreaming is required to advance women’s rights. This means making gender equality and women’s rights central to each and every goal and outcome, as well as continuing with women’s rights specific work. We need specific agreements that go beyond language that simply says ‘gender should be mainstreamed across’, and a clear accountability framework to monitor the implementation of the outcome document and, which makes all relevant actors accountable. This is essential to ensuring that the whole development agenda really responds to women’s needs and advances women’s rights and gender equality.

According to Moro-Coco, as we reach the end of the MDGs, begin negotiations for the SDGs and review of the so-called 20+ processes, toward the definition of the post 2015 development agenda, increasing policy coherence for development, matching resources with rhetoric and linking aid and other financial resource commitments with women’s human rights will be central tasks. It is important to note that there is not yet a tool available that looks comprehensively at donor performance and accountability on financing for gender equality and women’s rights. Most of the efforts have commonly focused on so called ‘partner countries’. Transparency is key to democratic ownership and accountability and ensures CSOs’ meaningful participation in policy and political dialogues. It is therefore crucial that all development partners, including the private sector, adopt policies of automatic and full disclosure of relevant information and submit to the norms and direction setting of the UN, including human rights agreements. We need a multiple accountability approach that fully recognizes the range of development cooperation actors and the power dynamics shaping interaction at different levels.

Learnings and recommendations

John Hendra from UN Women identified four key requirements in relation to gender equality and development cooperation - political will and implementation; robust country and international systems; knowledge building and sharing; and vibrant CSOs. There was discussion about how development actors could make a more strategic use of available human rights mechanisms of accountability, such as the CEDAW or the ESCR Committees, in the transparency and accountability framework for development cooperation.

Andrea Cornwall from the University of Sussex highlighted in her key messages that gender budgeting is an important rights-based means for citizens to hold governments accountable to what they have signed up to. However, she also made clear that enabling individual women to be better accommodated within a highly unjust and unequal patriarchal society is not enough. Budgets can play a role in transformation, but much depends on how this tool is used. If it is informed by a gender transformative perspective - ie. not just an instrumentalist perspective in which women are put to work ever harder for development, without development doing much for them and not much leisure or pleasure in sight – then it can be transformative.

In her closing statement Irene Dubel from HIVOS recalled from several interventions at this dialogue, the need to build on historic achievements: the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, CEDAW, Vienna, the Cairo Programme of Action, the Beijing Platform for Action, the UN SCR [3]on women in conflict, the ILO[4] Conventions and the instruments of special rapporteurs and Universal Periodic Reviews. Human rights for all needs to be at the centre of the future development agenda: not as one goal, not as being mainstreamed with a few indicators here and there, but in each and every sustainable development domain.

A key recommendation during the dialogue was to organize a High Level Symposium on gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment in development cooperation prior to the 2014 DCF in order to ensure that the discussion continues with high level delegates, ministers and other decision makers, women’s rights advocates and CSO representatives. And in addition, to hold a dialogue on forms of accountability at different levels in the development framework, also linking the human rights framework as a tool for accountability of the development agenda, including its financing.

This meeting, together with the previous debates on gender equality at the DCF, provides a helpful base to build and draw upon on the path to the 2014 DCF in order to overcome the situation that, as Mr. Wu Hongbo Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs had highlighted in his opening remarks, that “[t]oo often discussions on women in development take place in silos”.

For additional information:

  • The official summary of the dialogue is forthcoming and will be accessible here, where also the official background documentation and some of the statements, presentations and the video message of UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet are available.

  • The 2ndInternational Development Cooperation Report is planned to be launched in March, and should then be available online. Three High Level Symposia (HLS) are planned for the path towards the 2014 DCF, as well as technical meetings, studies and other.

For further background information, read AWID's two previous Friday Files on the DCF:

Also, see the summary of the 2010 Helsinki HLS.

The forthcoming AWID primer 12 will focus on the DCF. Please stay tuned!


[1] The dialogue was organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), in partnership with UN Women and the Government of Austria.

[2] The author thanks Mayra Moro-Coco and Lydia Alpízar for their contributions to this piece and for sharing their reflections on the dialogue.

[3] UN Security Council Resolution.

[4] International Labour Organization.