This year—2015—is an auspicious moment for global development. In September, as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire, UN member states will adopt a new framework that will guide international development over the next fifteen years. In advance of the fall summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—as well as the upcoming Third International Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—I hosted Thomas Gass, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens, deputy chief executive officer at the United Nations Foundation and former U.S. chief negotiator on the SDGs, to discuss gender equality and the future of the international development agenda.
It is indisputable that over the past fifteen years the MDGs have contributed to advancement for women and girls—particularly in the area of maternal health, where mortality rates have been halved, and in access to primary education, where the global gender gap has virtually closed. However, many argue that the MDGs could and should have done more to improve the status of women and girls. Several issues critical not only to women’s progress, but also to overall prosperity and stability—such as child marriage, violence against women, and valuation of women’s work—were overlooked.
The SDGs afford a critical opportunity to dramatically expand upon progress for women and girls and increase our collective ambition for achieving gender equality. Importantly, early drafts of the SDGs include a specific gender equality goal with targets that are considerably more comprehensive than those included in the MDG framework, and issues related to the advancement of women and girls have been integrated throughout the post-2015 goals.
Yet questions remain over the implementation of the proposed SDGs. The UN zero draft of the SDGs released earlier this month includes seventeen goals and 169 targets. Given the high number of goals and targets, how will countries prioritize their efforts? And how can global actors ensure attention to gender equality—an issue that is too often siloed or overlooked, despite considerable evidence of the connection between women’s progress and development?
There have been encouraging signs that the commitment to gender equality outlined in the SDGs is strong. During our conversation last week, former Ambassador Cousens noted that the goal on gender equality was the first on which government and civil society groups reached a consensus during the initial stages of the Open Working Group process that formed the basis of the SDG zero draft. But the real test of this commitment will be the extent to which gender equality targets are financed, and how member states are held accountable. Indicators of progress for the SDGs will not be adopted until next March, and although the current proposal includes many references to women and girls, it is unclear whether some potentially contentious issues—for example, female genital mutilation—will survive the negotiation process.
The comprehensive gender equality targets included in the SDG zero draft are a positive step forward for the post-2015 development agenda. The promise of this framework, however, will only be realized if member states and development practitioners are held accountable for financing and implementing progress toward the equality of women and girls.