The planning, drafting and “word-smithing” of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals must have occupied vast amounts of time of many, many people – and for someone largely outside the process, it is quite a mind-boggling one. I write “largely” as in truth I have had the opportunity to contribute in a very small way to the inputs of those representing Switzerland in the gender-related discussions. Switzerland has in fact played a strong role, as part of a three-country group with France and Germany, in drafting and supporting the stand-alone goal number 5 on gender equality. An early version placed particular emphasis on combatting violence against women and girls; supporting economic empowerment; and promoting women’s voice (agency) in decision-making that affects their lives. At a recent informal meeting of interested professionals organised through the University of Bern’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies, we discussed the most recent draft proposal of the Open Working Group, dated 1:20 pm Saturday 19 July (it seems these meetings never close on time)…
There are now six specific targets under the goal of “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, and three suggested means of implementation. Summarised, the targets are to:
- End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
- Eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls
- Eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations
- Recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work
- Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making
- Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.
The reason that equal opportunities for education and employment are not specifically mentioned is that these are covered in the relevant separate goals. Indeed, the text of the proposal has clearly been screened overall to ensure “gendered” wording.
Whilst the Open Working Group recommendations are considered to be a significant step forward compared to the MDGs in addressing women’s specific needs, the Women’s Major Group (representing civil society) highlighted “8 red flags”, regretting that the document is insufficiently ambitious, and fails to uphold human rights as a central theme. Clearly one “hot” issue is that of reproductive rights; the Women’s Major Group notes that “the SDGs explicitly limit State’s responsibilities to protect and promote reproductive rights to those already limited in existing agreements.” Yet “Sustainable development will only occur when young people understand their bodies, know their rights, and have the freedom and skills to negotiate on important aspects of their lives.” In other words, reproductive rights are an integral part of the full bundle of human rights. Here it may be noted that an unfortunate but presumably unintended consequence of defining separate goals for education and gender equality is that the well-known correlation between girls’ education and their use of family planning as adult women is not made explicit.
During the recent informal meeting that I mention, I was asked if the wording of the SDGs is ultimately of any importance to Helvetas. I replied that indeed it is, in serving as a clear reference for the orientation of our programmes. Actually the stakes are high, because the final document will undoubtedly influence where national governments and donor agencies allocate future funding for development initiatives.