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FRIDAY FILE – The priority theme for the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 58) taking place in New York from 10 – 21 March 2014 is Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Women and Girls. It presents an important opportunity to learn from the limitations of the MDG process and ensure that a new development agenda is premised on the universality of human rights, substantive equality, and a redistributive framework that reduces inequalities of wealth, power and resources.
By Susan Tolmay
Every year in March, Member states and women’s rights advocates and organisations gather at the United Nations Headquarters for the Commission on the Status of Women. The 2014 session (CSW58), which will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs for women and girls, will have important consequences for the future international development agenda that will come into force when the MDGs expire in 2015.
Some of the shortfalls of the MDGs
Almost 15 years ago, at the dawn of the new millennium, 149 heads of State and Government, gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 6 to 8 September 2000, at the Millennium Development Summit. The world leaders unanimously adopted the Millennium Declaration and made commitments to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty, setting out a eight time-bound goals, with a deadline of 2015 that became known, as the Millennium Development Goals. MDG3 specifically relates to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Women had made tremendous gains at the UN conferences of the 1990s[i] as well a through a range of declarations to protect their rights including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979) and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993). These gains were almost solely a result of the work of women’s rights advocates, organizations and movements. Yet in spite of this, civil society in general and women’s rights organisations, in all of their diversity, were largely absent from the process of developing the MDGs.
In developing the Millennium Declaration and goals no attention was given to the important role of civil society and women’s rights organisations were absent from the process. The far-reaching consequence of this was that many States from the Global South and civil society were not able to participate or influence priorities despite the impact of the MDGs on States and their peoples.
The focus on goals and targets ignored inequalities and disparities at the sub-national level and among those marginalised based on their gender, sexuality, religion, age, ability, ethnicity, language, nationality, class etc. And despite having reduction of poverty as its core principle, the goals failed to address the structural causes of poverty, and did not recognise the consequences and impact of the current global system, macroeconomic policies and financial architecture, that have hindered the achievement of the goals. Using market-led economic growth as the model for the MDGs, on the premise that wealth is a prerequisite for human development, has undermined attempts to develop and use alternative development models that are more sustainable for people and the planet.
The principle that human rights are indivisible, integral and interrelated was not reflected in the goals, rather, they were considered in isolation from one another and detached from already agreed international human rights commitments and obligations. The MDGs were also silent on key development issues such as ending violence against women, rising fundamentalisms, recognizing women’s unpaid work, and achieving sexual and reproductive rights, including comprehensive sexuality education for young people.
What’s at stake for women’s rights
As women’s rights advocates from around the world gather in New York for the CSW, they will seek to remind governments of the many limitations of the MDGs. They will be doing so in an increasingly regressive environment. While there have been great advances in women’s human rights over the past two decades, the current context is one of rising backlash and increasing regressive forces that use religion, culture and tradition to violate rights with impunity, with women’s rights advocates and organisations focused on holding the line on already agreed rights. Two years ago, CSW 56 failed to adopt agreed conclusions, largely due to polarisation of positions between more progressive countries and a smaller group of strongly conservative States. At last year’s CSW 57, while there were some important achievements, women’s rights advocates also had to push back against strong fundamentalist opposition attempting to roll back already agreed rights.
As the zero draft of the Agreed Conclusions shows, importantly, there is support to strengthen the enabling environment for gender equality to address the underinvestment in gender equality and women’s empowerment, which continues to limit progress on the MDGs for women and girls. There is also support for strengthening the evidence-base for gender equality; ensure women’s participation at all levels; strengthen accountability; and lay the ground for prioritization of gender equality and women’s rights in the post-2015 development agenda, including through a stand-alone goal and integration through targets and indicators into all other goals.
However, with 2015, the deadline for the MDG fast approaching, and a new development agenda being negotiated, women’s rights advocates will have to continue to work together to to ensure they are not sidelined in these crucial processes. At this year’s CSW, women’s rights advocates and organisations will be highlighting the shortfalls of the MDGs and appealing to UN Member States to take serious consideration of the lessons learned as the new development agenda is negotiated. Women’s rights advocates, organisations and movements have been organising in coalitions to influence the range of processes[ii] that affect the post-2015 Development process, including the Women’s Major Group[iii] and the Post 2015 Women’s Coalition among others, and will use CSW58 as important platform to push for a progressive new development agenda that is grounded in human rights with women at the centre.
What is important looking towards 2015
The post 2015 development agenda should be grounded in human rights, gender and economic justice and that it be clearly aligned with all established human rights agreements. One of the achievements of CSW 57 was the inclusion of specific language on protecting women human rights defenders (WHRDs), and the new development agenda needs to recognise of the crucial role WHRDs play in advancing the implementation of the global development agenda, specifically in relation defending the rights of Mother Earth, fighting against violence and militarism and promoting and protecting the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls. Women’s rights advocates are calling for an enabling environment for WHRDs to be able to carry out their work free of violence in accordance with international human rights standards. It is also essential to address conflict, militarization, and the rise in fundamentalisms and its links to violence against women.
Placing women’s rights and gender justice at the centre of development is key, which means strengthening the different dimensions of women’s autonomy, recognising the intersecting and multiple dimensions of gender inequality: economic autonomy; political autonomy; sexual autonomy; freedom from all forms of violence and discriminations (including those perpetrated by the State, non-State actors, at the community level and within families); freedom of movement; political participation and full citizenship.
Inequalities of wealth, power and resources are on the rise, according to Oxfam’s report ‘The cost of inequality: how wealth and income extremes hurt us all’, “The $240 billion net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over”. The new development agenda needs to eradicate poverty from the roots and transform the current unsustainable economic model and global governance structure. Economic models and indicators should reflect the value of people and the planet, and challenge existing neo-classical, patriarchal, unsustainable extractivist models of development. Global financial instability, inequalities, odious debt and unjust tax systems should be addressed through a human rights and development lens.
A gendered and intersectional analysis should be systematically incorporated into all aspects of the development agenda, recognising the role of women as key leaders and active agents in social and economic transformation, and not merely as beneficiaries. The new framework should be informed by the many grassroots innovations around the world, led by women, indigenous and young people, that are based on the values of human rights, environmental sustainability, solidarity and collective wellbeing.
Finally it important that financing for development go beyond Official Development Assistance (ODA) and advance women’s rights and justice. New mechanisms for financing for development need to be created to replacing the current problematic aid and debt system with one based on respect, solidarity, equity, inclusion, non-subordination and justice for all.
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[i] Including at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted;
[ii] Including the open working group on sustainable development, UN General assembly, see: Sustainable Development Goals: Where do Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Stand?; Women’s Rights Still Linger in Debates on Sustainable Development Goals; Reflections on the UN General Assembly 2013, Looking Towards the Post-2015 Development Agenda;
[iii] 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: http://www.womenrio20.org