The UN Sustainable Development Goals: Let’s Step it Up For Gender Equality!

UNPhoto/Sylvain Lietchti

UNPhoto/Sylvain Lietchti

By Nicole Van Huyssteen, Women’s Human Rights Co-group

Sixteen years ago, 189 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the Millennium Declaration, which set out a series of eight time-bound targets with an overall goal of reducing extreme poverty in its many dimensions by the year 2015. These targets — which became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — formed a blueprint which committed all nations and leading development institutions to a new global partnership to galvanize unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

The final MDG Report found that the 15-year effort to achieve the MDGs had produced the most successful anti-poverty movement in history, with the number of people living in extreme poverty declining by more than half, the primary school enrollment rate in developing regions reaching 91%, and infant and maternal mortality rates declining significantly.

Yet there was still much to be done to ensure a further reduction in global poverty and the achievement of universal prosperity and equality for all. Which is why in September 2015, world leaders gathered at the UN Headquarters once again, this time to adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Building upon the success of the MDGs, these 17 new goals represent an internationally agreed upon set of targets to end poverty, protect the planet, promote gender parity, and ensure prosperity for all by the year 2030.

On the gender front, the 5th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) aims to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls within the next 14 years. It includes 9 targets – including ending all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls; ensuring women’s full and effective participation in political, economic and public life; and ensuring universal access to reproductive rights – that need to be systematically addressed in order to achieve this important objective.

Although the SDGs aren’t legally binding, countries are expected to take primary responsibility for establishing a national framework in order to review progress made in implementing the Goals. On this UN Day, which follows shortly on the heels of the first anniversary of the adoption of these goals, we take a look at some of the ways in which countries, UN agencies and other stakeholders have started implementing these targets, and those of SDG 5 in particular.

UN General Assembly General Debate: Country Updates

On 20 September 2016, UN Secretary-General (SG), Mr. Ban Ki-moon, shone a spotlight on gender equality by announcing at the opening of the General Debate of this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) that he is proud to call himself a feminist. With the SDGs forming the theme of this year’s General Debate, many country leaders reiterated the value of achieving these global goals and shared their efforts to integrate the 2030 Agenda into national policies and programs.


Malawi shared how it is collaborating with traditional leaders to tackle retrogressive traditional practices that are harmful to women and adolescent girls. Mexico has established a National System for Equality between Women and Men to ensure that its gender equality policy is upheld at the highest level and is reflected in the government’s national actions. Costa Rica, having co-chaired the High Level Panel on the Economic Empowerment of Women, highlighted the findings published in the Panel’s first report, which aims to shine a spotlight on discriminatory laws which hamper women’s participation. Zambia has enacted the Gender Equity and Equality Act of 2015 in an effort to strengthen its legal framework for gender equity and equality. And Croatia shared that it chaired the Equal Futures Partnership this year – an innovative multilateral initiative with a view to encouraging Member States to empower women economically and politically.

Other UN General Assembly SDG Updates

At the sidelines of the General Assembly, UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, unveiled the first HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 University Parity Report, which focuses on gender parity in leading global universities. The groundbreaking report lays out 30 concrete commitments by 10 universities spanning across 8 countries and five continents to fast-track gender equality in classrooms.

“Sustainable development is not possible and peace will not be lasting, without empowering every girl and woman,” said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, the UN Agency for Education, Science and Culture. “I see the face of the new global agenda as that of a 12-year-old girl, in school, not forced into marriage or work. It is the face of a 20-year-old woman, at university, creating and sharing knowledge. This is the importance of the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 Initiative.”

Another lesson learned one year into the SDGs is that insufficient gender-specific data makes it difficult to track the progress of gender equality and inclusive development consistently. In response to this challenge, UN Women has teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the government of Australia and the UN Foundation-led Data2X Organization, to launch a pilot project that will support 12 countries in regularly producing and colleting gender-specific data. In support of these efforts, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced earlier this year that the Foundation would commit $80 million over the next three years to close gender data gaps which will no doubt help accelerate progress for women and girls around the world in an effort to achieve SDG 5.

UN Women is also continuing its Step It Up For Gender Equality campaign, which asks governments to make concrete, public commitments to overcome gender equality gaps by passing new laws and policies or strengthening existing ones. To date, more than 90 member states have shared the steps they have taken to close the gender gap. You can read more about their various commitments here.

These commitments and efforts are indicative of encouraging progress taken in pursuit of achieving gender equality within the first year of the adoption of the SDGs. However, far more must continue to be done globally if we are to realize our goal of a world with 50-50 gender parity by the year 2030. Civil society and the private sector have a critical role to play in achieving these goals and we should all continue to urge the international community to spearhead efforts that provide opportunities for women and girls.

There are many ways in which Amnesty activists can contribute to the achievement of SDG 5, including by:

  • Staying engaged with Amnesty International’s work on helping to end early and forced child marriage in 2017 and learning more about child marriage and laws in the US.
  • Getting involved in initiatives such as Cities for CEDAW, which campaigns to protect the rights of women and girls by passing local legislation establishing the principles of CEDAW in cities and towns across the United States.
  • Supporting the Malala Fund, which aims to ensure every girl has access to 12 years of free, safe, quality primary and secondary education.

To learn more about the SDGs and the ways in which stakeholders, individuals and civil society organizations can contribute to their implementation and review, and support the UN in its efforts, take a look at Amnesty International’s Practical Guide for National Action and Accountability here!

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