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Women’s Rights Still Linger in Debates on Sustainable Development Goals

Friday File – AWID participated at the Fifth session of the Open Working Group (OWG5) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[1] that took place from 25 to 27 November 2013 in New York, the latest UN meeting to discuss shaping a new sustainable development agenda in relation to issues of macroeconomic policies, among others.

AWID joined a group of women’s rights organizations in influencing this process, here is a short analysis of what happened and what is still needed to advance women’s rights and gender equality in a sustainable development framework.

By Alejandra Scampini

Debates around how to shape a new sustainable development agenda are currently underway within the UN, in a process that intersects with debates around a new post-2015 development framework that will succeed the MDGs when they expire in 2015. The need for deep systemic transformation has been a key debate since the consultation process began, and there is increasing recognition of the contradiction between an unrestricted economic growth model and the need for macroeconomic policies that put people, rather than profit, at the centre. Tensions related to this contradiction were evident at the OWG5, which focused on sustained and inclusive economic growth, macroeconomic policy questions (including international trade, international financial system and external debt sustainability), infrastructure development; and Energy.

© Women´s Mayor Group

The Women’s Major Group key concerns

Women’s rights advocates, organized in the Women’s Major Group[2] (WMG), have underscored this contradiction, and ahead of the OWG5 meeting, issued a thorough analysis including recommendations[3] that stresses that “growth, however qualified, is not the goal in and of itself”.

The group challenged a “linear and reductionist concept of development” that only focuses on structural change and industrialization, ignoring useful alternative approaches that are being proposed to challenge the weaknesses of this model, including buen vivir (good living), and other non-heterodox visions, including those coming specifically from women's movements. They emphasized the challenge that the current context of “aggressive financialization of the economy and the ongoing impacts of the recent global financial crisis and economic recession” has on inclusive and equitable development.

The group stresses that restructuring and regulating the “unfettered and volatile global financial flows” is the only way to reach inclusive economic growth and productive investment for the real economy, in other words: “transform the financial sector from bad master to good servant”. They point out that, “Industrialization does not always lead to growth when it is not rooted in the development of diverse and resilient local industries, domestic productive capacity and employment creation”. In relation to the industrialization, work conditions and increased wages, the WMG refer to the gender pay gap, “which is present in most countries around the globe” and “represents a vicious incentive for foreign direct investment in the global South because of their cheap female labour”.

One of the proposals ahead of OWG5 was for a goal related to “accelerating sustained economic growth that is both inclusive and sustainable”. From a feminist perspective, the WMG stressed that, “accelerating economic growth, however inclusive it might be, does not necessarily advance the aspirations of sustaining life. The critical question is which types of economic development are compatible and can foster the sustainability of life”.

Finally, the WMG referred to the need to measure poverty in terms of income and time, with relevant inequality indicators, and to ensure that unpaid care work is substantively recognized, valued and redistributed.

The WMG made two key recommendations based on the arguments above: “SDGs must be rooted much more in the goal of the sustainability of life, rather than on the sustainability of growth, however inclusive it might be. Growth should be a means towards the primary goal of the sustainability of life and the planet” and the “SDGs must also promote development-oriented fiscal and monetary policies that help facilitate public expenditure in social sectors, create urgently needed decent work, re-orient tax policies toward wealth redistribution for greater socioeconomic equality and manage monetary policy to serve the needs of the real economy oriented toward sustainability of life and the planet”.

Debates at OWG5

Despite efforts at an Intersessional Meeting between Major Groups[4] and other stakeholders where, women’s rights organizations, including AWID, raised the abovementioned concerns., the final summary of the Co-Chairs of OWG5 did not reflect that the concerns had been presented.

The meeting showed there is still a long way to go to achieve a change in development agenda setting. The words rights or human rights were barely mentioned in speeches of Member states, emphasizing that putting human rights at the centre will need a more radical and substantive intervention, other than speeches or additional language in texts. Strong arguments were made in favor of respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights as State obligations rather than voluntary choices. Experiences in applying a human rights based approach (HRBA) were shared by youth groups, environmental activists, trade unionists, women’s rights groups, and some Member states, however these too were excluded from the co-chairs in their final summary. Moving forward we must call for a bolder, more ambitious political consensus among governments, donors, business sectors, UN and other stakeholders to create mechanisms for accountability.

Diverse civil society groups called for the need to focus on people rather than on issues alone. The proposals to retain broad and issue-focused goals with targets that are specific to groups of people who are disadvantaged, marginalized or subordinate were not addressed by Member states that were more interested in issues related to infrastructure, industrialization and growth.

Feminists, women’s rights, disabilities groups and trade unions, among others, reiterated the importance of their participation in formal processes and, more importantly, called for meaningful engagement with different constituencies in defining the process, policies, and implementation of goals.

AWID accompanied these messages, specifically calling for the need to address financing for economic, social, environmental and gender justice, and the formulation of specific measures to ensure compliance. AWID is concerned about the instrumentalization of women and the language used when referring to women. Throughout the meeting there was little reference to women’s rights, gender equality or women’s empowerment. A lot more needs to be done to ensure that the all dimensions of women’s autonomy – including economic autonomy, political autonomy, sexual autonomy, reproductive autonomy and freedom from all forms of violence- are recognized. Despite the WMG being a key actor in the OWG5, women's rights and feminist organizations are barely mentioned nor recognized as key actors in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment on the ground. The politics of agenda setting towards SDGs needs to ensure that there is meaningful space for women’s voices, including mobilizing the resources needed for them to participate.

Further efforts required

As the session concluded, WMG members expressed their concerns with the Co-Chairs’ Summary Bullet points and the Draft Concluding Remarks of Co-Chairs, saying that they were “not sufficiently balanced, nor did they capture the diverse perspectives and recommendations that were put forward by Member states as well as by the Women’s Major Group and other civil society groups”.

Efforts will be made by civil society groups and other stakeholders to ensure that missions in New York, Member states, UN agencies and other relevant groups understand these concerns and challenges. As we move towards the last three sessions of the OWG, a strong call needs to be made for outcome reports, and future summaries of the co-chairs, to reflect more accurately and substantively the participation of women’s rights groups and civil society in all its diversity.

Women’s rights groups remain vigilant and committed to ensuring that to a sustainable development agenda is grounded in four main pillars: (i) transparent, fair and well-regulated economic systems; (b) principles of human rights, equality and equity with emphasis on poverty eradication, non discrimination and gender equality; (iii) regulation of private corporate power; and (iv) the full participation of movements and civil society.

[1] One of the main outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, was the agreement by Member States to launch a process to develop a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). A 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) was established on 22nd of January 2013 to prepare a proposal on the SDGs to be decided by the UN General Assembly.

[2] 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:

[3] The analysis and recommendations developed by the Women's Major Group were in response to a series of issue briefs prepared by a UN Technical Support Team (TST) for OWG5 that included a brief on macroeconomic policy questions and another on sustained and inclusive economic growth, infrastructure development and industrialization.

[4] Major group sectors included: Business and Industry; Children and Youth; Farmers; Indigenous Peoples; Local Authorities; NGOs; Scientific & Technological Community; Women; Workers and Trade Unions.