By Noel Schroeder, July 18, 2016 —

At the United Nations last week, we heard governments stress the importance of supporting women and girls around the world, but it’s going to take a lot more than talk to achieve gender equality by 2030.

Last year, 193 countries agreed to an ambitious set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that seek to end poverty and inequality (among other things) by 2030. All of these goals are important and interrelated. However, here at Women Thrive Alliance, we do play favorites. SDG 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” is so fundamental to goals like ending hunger, combating climate change, and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies that we believe it needs special attention.

Countries will develop and implement policies and programs to achieve these goals over the next fifteen years. Governments can’t do this alone, though. Coordination and cooperation with grassroots advocates who know the best ways to identify and overcome the barriers to economic, social, and political inequality will be essential. Furthermore, these grassroots advocates will play a vital role in monitoring governments’ progress and holding them accountable to their commitment to achieving the SDGs.

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) is a United Nations platform that officially holds governments accountable to their commitments (sort of). At this yearly event, different stakeholders like governments, international agencies, businesses, and civil society members come together to assess national and global progress towards achieving the SDGs. But, national reviews of progress are voluntary, not compulsory, and governments are encouraged, but not mandated, to involve civil society in their planning, implementation, and review.

This year’s forum is perhaps the most important – it sets the stage for the next 15 years. If governments can demonstrate a true commitment to transformative change (through funding and policy) and meaningfully involve civil society in the process, then we have a good chance of achieving the SDGs. However, if that doesn’t happen, then we’ll set a very low bar for success and may fall into the same trap with did over the last 15 years: progress and growth for the easiest to reach, but no change for the most vulnerable and marginalized. We must live up to the goals’ proclamation to “leave no one behind.”

The first session of the HLPF since adopting the SDGs started last week. We came together at the UN to examine what we’ve achieved in the last six months and what we plan to do moving forward.

Here’s what went well:

  • Countries recognized the interrelatedness of the goals and emphasized the need to work towards them holistically.All of the SDGs are linked in some way. We can’t end hunger without also addressing poverty, inequality, clean water, and women’s economic empowerment. We can’t give all people access to quality education without also ensuring healthy lives, providing safe infrastructure, and empowering girls.
  • Countries recognized the need to prioritize gender equality. Many countries and other stakeholders cited the achievement of gender equality as fundamental to achieving other goals.

Now, here’s what needs to change:

  • The national reporting process is lacking. National review processes need to be strengthened to be more transparent and participatory and must include civil society (not just as a token ‘consultation,’ but as full partners). 22 countries (out of 193) volunteered to report on their national progress. This number isn’t unusual, but here are some stats that worry us:
      • Less than ten percent of those countries included civil society (like women’s rights organizations and other gender equality advocates) in their review processes.
      • Only seven of those countries specifically addressed SDG 5 on gender equality in their review.
  • An interactive dialogue needs to be developed. Many of the panels and sessions during last week’s proceedings were described as dialogues or debates, but that simply wasn’t the case. At the national and global levels, more time and space needs to be given for civil society and government to meaningfully and constructively engage.
  • We’re not addressing the root problems. Some speakers at the HLPF recognized the systemic drivers of inequality that prevent the most marginalized (including women and girls) from accessing their rights. Unfortunately, there was little commitment to addressing these barriers and leaving no one behind.

We’re only six months in to the 15-year timeline set for the SDGs, but we really don’t have time to waste. These issues need to be addressed immediately so that governments and civil society can work together to achieve these goals. Hopefully, at next year’s HLPF, we’ll see a more inclusive, accountable process and follow-through on the commitments made this year.