‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Maximising the impact of Goal 5 from the Sustainable Development Goals

23 September 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) are a new and universal set of goals, targets and indicators that the UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years. They are replacing and expanding upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and become applicable from January 2016. Included within the SDGs is an ambitious new goal for gender; Goal 5 – ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. This new, holistic goal, coupled with its comprehensive set of targets, will try to make progress on women’s rights where the MDGs failed to do so, making use of the lessons learnt since the turn of the century. Whilst the goal itself is important, equally vital to success will be the way this aspirational agenda is implemented. The international community must push for adequate indicators, rigorous monitoring and evaluation, concrete financial commitments and cross-country collaboration in order to maximise the positive impact of Goal 5 for women and girls by 2030.

Goal 5 and lessons learnt from the MDGs

Since 2000, the gender landscape has changed noticeably and positively as a result of the MDG agenda. Nevertheless, much still needs to be done as gender inequalities persist on so many critical fronts around the world. To mention just a few issues, one in three women report experiences of domestic violence, gender wage gaps hover stubbornly around 20% worldwide, and issues of sexual and reproductive health rights remain hotly disputed.

There is a broad agreement that the MDGs were too narrow in scope, focusing on alleviating few symptoms rather than aiming to make substantial change to the underlying roots of gender inequality. In contrast, Goal 5 reaches out to aspects of women’s lives beyond education, employment and Parliamentary seat levels. Its wide agenda makes more a more inclusive, far-reaching plan for achieving equality and empowerment. This is a welcome step up from the MDGs, as it recognises the essential role that increased gender equality plays in development. This is echoed in the UN rhetoric on women’s rights, who state that ‘gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world’.

A great example of this ethos in action is The Marol Academy, HART’s educational partner in South Sudan. The academy has long understood the holistic beneficial impact of working towards gender equality; it was founded on the belief that “to build healthy communities, states, and a nation, girls must be educated equally with boys”. The Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in Burma also regards women’s empowerment as key in building stronger communities and raises awareness of women’s rights as a vital subset of human rights. The Danish Institute for Human Rights has compiled an excellent guide that uncovers the human rights anchorage in each of the SDGs – click here to see how Goal 5 and gender equality is inextricably embedded within fundamental human rights.

The importance of implementation

This goal has strong potential to transform unequal power relations between women and men and address structural barriers impeding progress in this area. It can only do this, however, if it is successfully and fully implemented. This is one of the issues that hindered the impact of the MDGs and as such, the UN is now focused on ensuring successful implementation for the SDGs across the board. That the agency has recognised the importance of this is clearly reflected in Goal 17, which is devoted explicitly to strengthening implementation to achieve the goals.

The first way this can be achieved is through the development of the indicators which accompany the goals and targets, set to be finalised by March 2016. The indicators are crucial for directing and defining the agenda, which as it stands could be open to multiple interpretations according to actors’ interests. Because the national, regional and global targets will be measured based on the indicators, it is essential that the health, needs and rights of girls and women are properly reflected in them. They are a means of holding actors accountable for their efforts (or lack of) to implement Goal 5, as ‘what gets measured gets done’; the indicators represent a tangible ‘tick-list’ that success can be measured by, thereby incentivising member states to take action in these areas.

Just as important as the indicators will be concrete financial commitments and thorough action plans for Goal 5 from member states. The UN and other international actors have organised several ‘commit events’ events to push for a transformation from agenda to action on gender equality. These include The Global Leader’s Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action, dubbed ‘Beijing+20’, a replacement for 1995’s Beijing Platform for Action and the Women Deliver Conference, both to be held in 2016. Ambitious financial commitments were also hoped for at the Third International Conference for Financial Development, but the event failed to ease concerns that there will be enough funding to meet Goal 5. The promise of the SDGs gender equality agenda will only be realised if all relevant actors are held accountable for financing and implementing progress. To this end, it is important to support effective global partnerships, which would mobilise the political backing, resources and expertise needed to deliver the SDGs.

Finally, it is imperative that all signatories and development practitioners work towards the implementation of Goal 5. The MDGs applied to all member states in theory, but in reality the goals were considered targets for only the poorer countries to achieve, with finance from the wealthier states. However, gender inequality remains an issue globally, existing on multiple levels and in many different forms. For this reason, progress can and should be made, guided by national action plans drawn up by every member state.

A gender equitable future

On the 27th of September, the new SDGs will be formally adopted by world leaders at the UN. Goal 5, and the targets that accompany it, are much more ambitious than the MDGs, and the new agenda holds great potential for improving gender equality and empowering females around the world. However, the focus must now be on ensuring comprehensive and effective implementation by all member states and development practitioners. If this can be achieved, the success of Goal 5 will not only improve the lives of women and girls around the world, but will benefit societies and humanity at large.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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