from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

The Business Case for Equality in the SDGs

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January 12, 2016

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Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Sarah Degnan Kambou, President, and Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy Manager, of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

UN Women recently hosted a dialogue with women’s rights advocates from around the world to discuss how to link the world’s new development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the world’s women’s rights framework, which was designed to promote and achieve gender equality.

The theme of the discussion was an acknowledgement that, as scholar and former UN official Anne Marie Goetz noted in her remarks, women’s rights activists did not initially mobilize around the SDGs. Despite a belated start, women’s rights groups ultimately conducted considerable advocacy through various forums, including the Women’s Major Group, the Commission on the Status of Women, and online and regional consultations with the goals’ drafters.

This effort bore fruit: with respect to women’s and girls’ issues, the SDGs represent a considerable improvement over their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when it comes to the inclusion of women and girls. As with the MDGs, there is a stand-alone goal dedicated to gender equality, but the level of ambition has increased considerably, from the previous promise to “promote gender equality and women’s empowerment” to today’s commitment to “achieve” gender equality and empowerment of both women and girls, which echoes what is outlined in the world’s women’s rights framework.

Under this overarching gender goal, there are a series of targets the world hopes to achieve in the next fifteen years. Importantly, these include numerous issues that were wholly ignored in the MDGs—violence against women and girls chief among them. As we mark the close of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, we should celebrate the inclusion of targets focused on ending child marriage, female genital mutilation, trafficking and exploitation, and violence against women and girls in the SDG framework. Other important women’s rights issues—such as the burden of domestic and unpaid care work, economic rights, sexual and reproductive health, and political participation—are also included. Additionally, girls, in particular, are referenced eleven times across the agenda’s seventeen goals---a big change from the MDGs, where girls’ needs were barely mentioned.

So where do we go from here? First, while the goals and targets of the SDGs have been adopted, a measurement and accountability framework is still in development—and this will really be where the rubber hits the road. The new goals will mean little if they are not tracked, measured, and financed.  In his final progress report last summer, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that the most neglected goals of the MDGs were those focused on women and girls. We cannot let this happen again.

To truly achieve the goals that are set under the measurement and accountability framework, however, we need to get creative. One as-yet untapped resource could be the private sector, which has been highlighted by governments as a critical partner in achieving the SDGs. Indeed it seems as if not including the private sector will handicap our efforts to improve women’s lives and spur economic development. Recent research has shown that India alone loses approximately $56 billion a year in potential earnings due to early pregnancy, early marriage, secondary school attrition, and under- or unemployment among young women. If we don’t fix some of the biggest barriers to girls’ and women’s empowerment and economic opportunity, we’ll see this trend of tremendous economic loss continue in other countries throughout the world.

The need for private sector involvement in achieving these goals and targets becomes even more salient when you consider that private sector financial flows dwarf official development assistance. As such, it’s critical that those in the private sector are tapped to support the women’s rights agenda. A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute found that if the private and public sectors worked together toward women’s full economic participation, the global economy stands to gain up to $28 trillion in the next ten years, providing governments and private sector actors alike with a solid case for investment. ICRW has worked with a number of corporate partners interested in supporting the social and economic development of women and girls, including mapping trends around private sector investment in women’s economic empowerment, which totals $300 million. We hope to see this interest and commitment grow.

This focus on the economic empowerment of women is a strong foundation on which to expand, and gives us the opportunity to look at the role the private sector can play in supporting empowerment across sectors and age groups. Studies have shown that investment in girls’ empowerment and reductions in early marriage rates have economic and social benefits to societies, and that they are relatively inexpensive to implement. For example, ICRW’s Planning Ahead for Girls’ Empowerment and Employability (PAGE) program works with the private sector to empower adolescent girls and prepare them to transition into adulthood. Considering how much India loses per year when women and girls can’t participate in the labor market, it is clear that this type of investment is a win-win, creating a skilled work force for employers and governments.

However, if the private sector is to be engaged in a greater role under the SDGs, our yet-to-be-developed accountability framework must speak to corporate actors as well as governments. So far, this has not been the case. The refining of the indicators and measurement framework presents an urgent and closing window to address accountability, so that we can ensure that this is a truly universal framework that leaves no one behind.

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