Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to the advancement of women and U.S. foreign policy interests. This article is from Daniela Ligiero, Vice President of Girls and Women Strategy at the United Nations Foundation.
Two months ago in New York, world leaders came together to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide development for the next fifteen years. In a historic moment that included input and participation from more governments, communities, and individuals than ever before, 193 countries agreed on a shared set of seventeen priorities that reflect the interconnectedness of today’s challenges—addressing social, economic, and environmental development.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to mobilize the world around a shared development agenda, yet questions remain over the implementation of these new global goals. How will countries prioritize their efforts? How will they be financed? How will progress be measured and evaluated? What roles will governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, or civil society play, and how will actors be held accountable for progress?
We are now faced with important decisions about how and where to start SDG implementation, and we must consider lessons from implementing the eight Millennium Development Goals—the need to move beyond operating in silos, or focusing exclusively on a single goal, while ignoring the relationships across goals. Implementing seventeen different agendas at once will be much more challenging and inefficient than doing so for eight. Moving forward, a new approach is needed.
One way to think about effective and integrated SDG implementation is to select a crosscutting issue, or lens, that can be a lever for change across the seventeen goals. Gender equality should be one of these. Empowering girls and women is one of the smartest ways to achieve all the new global goals. When girls and women are empowered, families, communities, and societies prosper, economies grow, and development becomes more sustainable.
In order to approach SDG implementation through a gender equality lens, it is helpful to begin with the goal on gender equality itself, Goal Five, and then expand the aperture to analyze the various goals and targets that could be achieved if we focused on empowering girls and women. To examine a concrete example, one important component of achieving gender equality included in SDG 5 is a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Going beyond this goal, there’s evidence that voluntary family planning, which is central to SRHR, can affect a number of different SDG goals.
When women and couples are empowered to plan whether and when to have children, they are better able to complete their education, women’s autonomy within the household is increased, and their earning power is improved, helping to reduce poverty (SDG1). The highest benefits from reducing the 74 million unintended pregnancies that occur every year would accrue to the poorest countries —with GDP increases ranging from one to eight percent by 2035. Globally, female labor force participation decreases with each additional child by about 10 to 15 percentage points among women aged 25 to 39.
Family planning also has a direct impact on health and wellbeing (SDG3). Family planning allows spacing of pregnancies and can delay pregnancies in young women who are at increased risk of complications from early childbearing. Adolescent girls who become pregnant are two to five times as likely to die during childbirth. By reducing rates of unintended pregnancies, family planning also reduces the need for unsafe abortion. Infants of mothers who die as a result of giving birth also have a greater risk of death and poor health, and infants of adolescent mothers have higher rates of neonatal mortality. Finally, family planning reduces the risk of unintended pregnancies among women living with HIV, resulting in fewer infected babies and orphans.
Family planning represents an opportunity for adolescent girls and women to pursue additional education and participate in public life. Adolescent girls who become pregnant are more likely to drop out of school (SDG 4). Additionally, smaller families allow parents to invest more in each child. Children with fewer siblings tend to stay in school longer than those with many siblings.
Investing in voluntary family planning services can also lead to a demographic dividend—the accelerated growth of a country’s economy (SDG 8). This occurs when fertility rates decline, changing the population’s age structure. When declining fertility rates are coupled with investments in education and other social policies, the next generation of highly educated youth contributes more to the workforce.
The adoption of the SDGs marks a new day in global development. This moment is filled with opportunity, but requires fresh and innovative thinking about how to tackle our greatest challenges. To support this, the UN Foundation will support a new roundtable series at the Council on Foreign Relations, focused on gender equality as a crosscutting lens to guide SDG implementation across all of the goals. By creating a vision for the world we want, the new global goals have united the planet in a common purpose. We have the blueprint in hand. Now it’s time to approach the work of building it in an innovative and strategic way.