from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

A Strategic Approach to the New Global Goals

March 25, 2016

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This week, at the sixtieth meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, delegates from around the world will consider the link between women’s empowerment and sustainable development. The discussion comes at a timely moment—on the heels of the adoption of an ambitious new sustainable development framework, and as nations turn to the hard work of implementing its seventeen goals.

The sustainable development agenda, which was forged with an unprecedented level of collaboration by the international community, has been heralded as a promising leap forward from its predecessor framework, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This is especially true with respect to Sustainable Development Goal Five, focused on gender equality, which for the first time creates time-bound targets related to a range of issues—from property rights and financial inclusion, to political participation, to ending violence against women, to child marriage and FGM—that previously were overlooked. Gender issues also have been woven into the entirety of the 2030 agenda, with targets related to women and poverty, hunger, health, education, water and sanitation, employment, safe cities, and peace and security.

And yet, while the scale of our ambition to achieve gender equality has grown, so too have questions about whether the world can realize this agenda in just fifteen years. Under a framework with seventeen goals and 169 targets, how will countries prioritize efforts? And how can we ensure that nations are focused on Goal Five as implementation gets underway?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of UN Women, recently addressed these challenges in a UN Foundation roundtable meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mlambo-Ngcuka noted that UN Women has identified women’s economic empowerment as a priority area of focus under the 2030 Agenda, together with ending violence against women and increasing women’s decision-making power. And she made the case that a concerted focus on women’s participation in the economy, in particular, stands to have a multiplier effect across all of the sustainable development goals.

Data support the proposition that women’s full economic participation around the world holds the potential to jump-start the rest of the 2030 agenda. A growing body of research from the World Bank and other organizations provides ample evidence that women’s economic empowerment and access to assets corresponds with macro-level poverty reduction and economic growth. Studies also confirm that women are more likely to invest income back into their families and communities in ways that improve livelihoods, health, and educational outcomes for others. Women often form the backbone of resilience to natural disasters and conflict, and can protect local economies against shocks when they have rights to assets like land, water, forests, and housing. In light of this evidence, some contend that a woman’s ability to provide for herself and her family will promote progress towards every one of the seventeen goals. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently put it, “[i]f the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need a quantum leap in women’s economic empowerment.”

Given the criticality of women’s economic participation to the SDG agenda, the United Nations has taken steps to bring this issue to the fore. The newly-formed UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which held its inaugural meeting last week, signals a commitment to women’s economic participation as a strategic imperative. The High-Level Panel brings together a diverse group of gender experts, economists, academics, trade union leaders, and business and government representatives from all regions of the world to spearhead efforts to eliminate structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment, promote their full inclusion in economic activities, and galvanize political will to improve economic outcomes for women and their families. The panel has committed to a yearlong review of the barriers to women’s economic participation worldwide and will emerge with a report in 2017 recommending steps for national and international reform.

Achieving the expansive sustainable development agenda by 2030 will require focus. Strategic implementation will be the litmus test of the new goals’ success. Given this, amplifying efforts to accelerate women’s full economic participation will be essential—not only to fulfill the targets under Goal Five, but also to advance progress against the entire sustainable development framework.

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