UN Women staked an important claim this month in the turf war that is the post-2015 development agenda. Its contribution, a note titled, “Stand-Alone Goal on Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Women’s Empowerment: Imperatives and Key Components in the context of the Post-2015 Framework and Sustainable Development Goals,” is a great start. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Those of us who advocated for a higher-profile and more consolidated UN agency to lead efforts related to gender equality and women’s empowerment hoped that UN Women would not only be taken seriously, but that it would also be a bold and envelope-pushing entity in the global development arena. With Michele Bachelet’s initial leadership, the agency was indeed taken seriously. And sometimes, under her leadership, it was bold. Now, as the international community sets the development agenda for the coming decades, and as it looks to UN Women to lead the discussion of where women and girls fit in that agenda, it’s time to push that envelope.
In the note that’s not yet publicly available but that has been making its way through various networks, UN Women argues for both a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment and for the integration of gender considerations throughout and across all other goals, as relevant. This is a smart strategy. On the one hand, because integration alone is not sufficient to provide the level of attention we need to ensure gender equality, we still need a specific goal with specific targets and indicators by which to measure progress. And on the other, we know that gender issues must be specifically identified and addressed across all development efforts if they are to be successful.
UN Women identifies freedom from violence, gender equality in capabilities and resources, and gender equality in decision-making power and voice as the three core areas of focus. They proceed to explain these targets in greater detail and even provide illustrative indicators which they indicate are “designed to measure progress towards transformative change in gender relations.” A good and aspirational first step. But as a community of women’s rights advocates, we need to not just step, but leap.
UN Women notes that the proposed indicators for the three target areas are based on internationally agreed standards, and for a UN agency, this is standard procedure – they’re not going to extend far beyond the boundaries of what their member states have agreed to (that’s why advocates are needed). But even within these self-imposed guidelines, there is room to demand more.
Adolescent girls, often highly vulnerable and overlooked in international development spheres, are only called out in relation to violence and education. There’s no mention of the needs of adolescent girls to access health information and services, no mention of their reproductive rights, and conspicuously absent is child marriage, a human rights violation which more than 14 million girls are newly subject to each year. Working towards ending the harmful practice should be indicated as a distinct target in this and other relevant development goals, as it profoundly impacts a community’s ability to transform gender roles and hobbles development progress.
Where UN Women does specify age groups, they mention only those “over 15 years old,” leaving out very young adolescent girls altogether. True, most data collected for national and international surveys, such as the Demographic and Health Surveys, start with girls aged 15 or even 18, but if we are looking at ways to truly “transform” international development and women’s lives for the next generation, we need to identify as a priority the need to collect data in order to better understand the reality of very young adolescents’ lives – and how that reality can impact the course of their adult lives.
Finally, sexual health and rights are left off the table altogether. Since its creation, UN Women has largely deferred to UNFPA on issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), though its conciliatory statements about these issues at the start of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women placed SRHR advocates, including many governments, on their heels.
We cannot achieve gender equality and women’s rights unless all individuals, regardless of age, gender, or where they live, have not only the right, but also the ability, to make informed decisions about their bodies, their sexual partners and their relationships, free from violence, discrimination and coercion.
As we proceed through the next phases of the post-2015 development agenda, all advocates of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment, including UN Women, should stand boldly and press forward courageously to ensure that the full and comprehensive needs and rights of both women and girls around the world are taken seriously.
Suzanne Petroni is the senior director of gender, population and development at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), the world’s premier applied research institute focused on women and girls. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in South Asia and Africa, ICRW provides evidence-based research to inform programs and policies that help alleviate poverty, promote gender equality and protect the rights of women and girls.