The post-2015 development framework and gender equality: Opportunities and risks


Speech by UN Women Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programme, John Hendra, Expert Group Meeting, Applying a Gender Perspective to the Post-2015 Development Agenda. 26 November 2012.

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Good morning. Let me start by saying how delighted we are to see so many leading experts on gender equality here with us for this Expert Group Meeting. As Madame Bachelet has already said, we are very grateful to you for dedicating your time over the next four days, bringing your collective wisdom, brain-power and expertise to think through how we can ensure gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.

I want to focus this morning on both the opportunities and risks we face in ensuring a gender perspective is fully incorporated in the post-2015 development framework. But before I do, I will just touch briefly on the broader context in which this discussion is taking place.

There is no doubt that the global context we are working in is challenging and changing rapidly. As advocates for gender equality - perhaps as never before - we have to be nimble, smart, and strategic in the way we position gender equality, in the alliances we build and in the arguments we marshal.

The world looks very different now than it did in 2000 when the MDGs were developed. The recent financial crisis, together with the threat of climate change and escalating natural disasters, are changing the way we think about sustainability and the resilience of individuals, communities and societies.

We are also continuing to see fragility and conflict between, and especially within countries, and with it a virtual epidemic of systemic violence against women and girls in conflict-affected settings.

It's no accident that no fragile state has achieved any of the MDG targets, or that, as Mark Malloch-Brown said recently in a Guardian interview, looking forward we are likely to see an arc of persistent poverty in fragile states.

We also know that in some countries that in 2010 were on track to reach the MDGs, such as Tunisia and Egypt, “democracy deficits together with unequal political and economic participation, have exploded in social unrest and social movements that were calling for, and will continue to call for, real change. At the same time, there is persistent poverty in some countries that have achieved middle-income status, as well as sharply rising inequalities and disparities in many countries that have seen rapid economic growth.

Related to this, and building on the work of successive Human Development Reports, a growing questioning of traditional measures of well-being and achievement, including the use of GDP as a measure of national progress, is emerging. Indicators which don't measure the quality of people's lives, the essential services they receive, or their voice and participation in the decisions which affect them are increasingly being challenged.

The shift in Official Development Assistance (ODA) trends, with declining funding from many traditional donors and the rising importance of emerging and non-traditional donors, is also changing the development landscape. The way we position gender equality and empowerment of women in a context where those donors who traditionally gave most in support of gender equality are giving less, and appear to be set to do so for the foreseeable future, is a very real challenge. What's more, those governments that are investing more in ODA are not always the foremost supporters of women's rights, either at home or abroad.

As you know, there is lot of push-back on gender equality and the empowerment of women in intergovernmental processes and fora. This was perhaps most in evidence at CSW this year, but we also heard it at Rio+20, and we can expect to hear it again at CSW 57, in particular in relation to sexual and reproductive rights.

We should not underestimate the forces that are arraying against women's rights, or the sophistication with which they now operate. We need to match their level of organization and their sophistication.

For all their limitations, which you will hear more about from other speakers today, the MDGs did crystalize the support and endorsement of the international community for a single set of goals and a measurable set of targets and indicators. Though uptake was slow in some countries and among some stakeholders, over time, commitment and momentum grew.

Where they worked best, in my opinion, the MDGs instilled greater accountability in governments to better serve their people. I have no doubt that if we are to ensure the legitimacy of the post-2015 agenda, we will need to push forward to achieve the current MDGs, including those where we are furthest from success, such as MDG5 on maternal mortality.

At the same time, while we have put in place a much more inclusive and participatory process this time around, we will still face some significant challenges in coming to agreement on global priorities and commitments. I will return to this point later.

Looking forward, there are a number of opportunities to put gender equality at the heart of the post-2015 agenda.

I believe we are already well placed to advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women in the post-2015 framework. There are serious weaknesses in the Rio+20 outcome document, as Irene Dankelman will highlight later this morning. However, the hard work that gender equality advocates, in partnership with UN Women, put in at Rio+20 did pay off: the Rio+20 report reaffirms the importance of women's role and of achieving gender equality in all areas of sustainable development. It also sets out the mandate of the UN system and in particular UN Women to ensure the linkages between achieving gender equality and women's empowerment and sustainable development are fully realized.

Further, the UN Task Team's report on post-2015, “Realizing the Future for All, recognizes that gender equality and the empowerment of women are central to development and to the post-2015 agenda.

What's more, there does appear to be a growing consensus that gender equality must be fully reflected in the post-2015 agenda. Many of the draft frameworks now under discussion, including those proposed by IDS, by Oxfam, by the Bellagio process, among others, include gender equality as a key issue, if not always as a stand-alone goal.

In my view we are also well positioned in the UNDG consultation process including the thematic and country consultations. As you know, UN Women is leading the inequalities consultation with UNICEF. Already we have received 100 papers; with a hundred more still to come. Very vibrant discussions are taking place online at, moderated by UN agencies and civil society representatives, with a substantive focus on gender equality, gender-based violence, and LGBT rights. Importantly, the aim of the inequalities consultation is not an “inequalities goal, but rather to identify principles by which inequalities, including gender inequality, can be addressed in the post-2015 framework.

And as we know, last time the MDGs were developed by a very small group - most of them men - in a windowless basement room here in New York. This time around, the open and consultative approach being taken to develop the post-2015 framework creates opportunities for gender advocates, CSOs, and for women themselves, to participate and have a voice in the process.

This includes the eleven thematic consultations, the more than 60 country consultations being organized through UN Resident Coordinators and UNCTs, as well as five regional consultations. Part of our task, and our responsibility as UN Women, is to ensure that these opportunities are maximized.

Nevertheless, there are also some significant risks ahead that we need to recognize and be ready to respond to. I would like to highlight six risks for you to keep in mind during your deliberations.

First, the substantive scope of the post-2015 framework is still very much debated. Already we are seeing strong push back from some quarters: to augment the current MDGs or establish “MDGs Plus by simply updating the existing goals; to have an inequalities goal with gender inequality subsumed within it; and to sideline a human rights-based approach that would explicitly tackle structural discrimination and inequalities. As one government stakeholder reportedly highlighted last week “pushing too hard on human rights in the next set of development goals could jeopardise agreement on the post 2015 agenda.

As we will hear from Radhika Balakrishnan later this morning, the human rights framework is absolutely key to the post-2015 agenda, which must be universal and transformative, with the explicit aim of realizing women's rights. At the same time, we will also need to be ready to argue for how best to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women in the different possible scenarios that may evolve - or frankly quickly present themselves - as the negotiations continue.

Secondly, while we hope for convergence, there is a possibility that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the post-2015 agenda may develop on parallel tracks, making it harder to advocate for gender equality - and in particular for a dedicated gender equality goal - in each process. We must be ready with gender goals, arguments, and an approach to gender mainstreaming for both the SDGs and the post-2015 agenda in case we do end up with two sets of goals.

Thirdly, it is indeed conceptually complex to bring together the different threads - human rights, peace and development, environmental sustainability, effective governance, equality including gender equality - into one framework. As other speakers will no doubt note, there is a risk that gender equality will be ‘traded away' as these competing priorities are discussed and negotiated.

Nor is it easy to establish a framework that is truly universal and applies to all countries - this is a particular challenge in regard to peace and security.

As gender equality is a universal issue we are well positioned in that regard. But we will need to continue to identify the ways in which gender equality is a precondition for achieving progress in all areas, and to clearly set out the gender dimensions of each of these thematic areas. Some interesting perspectives are now in the public domain including the Bellagio goal on “Security for Ensuring Freedom from Violence. I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on this following tomorrow's thematic break-out groups.

Fourthly, the push - which is already gaining ground - to begin to define targets and indicators which are both global and that can be localized - may not serve us well if definition of these targets and indicators is constrained by the availability of evidence and data. We saw what happened with gender-based violence in the MDGs - lack of data saw one of the most serious human rights violations excluded from the framework. It's critical that we use the post-2015 framework to push the data and evidence base forward, rather than allowing the data we have available to us frame the priorities we set ourselves.

Fifthly, the process has already been criticized in some quarters as being “too inclusive - and in others as not inclusive enough of the voices of the poor and the most marginalized. What is clear though is that there is a tremendous appetite to participate in the dialogue not, I believe, to simply tinker with a technocratic MDG+ agenda but because most people truly want to see transformative change and not just “business as usual come out of this process.

We have a responsibility - both in the UN system, and as gender advocates - to ensure the voices of women, in particular those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged, are consistently heard throughout.

Finally, there are genuine risks associated with the complexity and legitimacy of the process. The Open Working Group is still discussing its membership and functions and has yet to start its substantive work. High-level Panel reports have been sidelined in the past and this may happen again.

The outcomes of the national, regional and thematic consultations must be brought together and synthesized in a meaningful way to be useful and feed into the process. As gender advocates we can't afford to put all our eggs in any one basket - we need to engage on all fronts. In particular, we need to start now to engage with Member States, who have the mandate to determine the future development framework through the intergovernmental process that will kick off in September 2013.

In closing, let me stress that we are very much looking to you and the work you will do over the next four days, to make sure we are well positioned to respond to, and better manage, these risks. Most critically, we need to come up with a very clearly articulated conceptual framework for gender equality in the post-2015 agenda. We need to be prepared for the different scenarios that may emerge and be ready to respond swiftly and effectively. And we need to have a robust evidence base in place to argue our case.

Our advocacy and our messages must be as joined up as possible so that we are all - experts, CSOs and UN Agencies alike - on the same page as gender equality advocates in this process. And we have to be very focused: if we simply come up with a long list of ‘demands' we will find it very difficult to negotiate for what we want in the face of complex processes and competing priorities and positions.

Finally, we must continue to maximize every available opportunity to engage on all fronts, in particular with the intergovernmental dialogue as it gets underway.

Going forward from this Expert Group Meeting, we count on all of you to work with us to get the messages out and to advocate for gender equality in the post-2015 framework in every one of your networks and interactions. We have a challenging task ahead of us, but I strongly believe that if we work together we can achieve a new paradigm that puts gender equality and the empowerment of women at the heart of the development framework.

Thank you all again for making the time to be here the next four days - we really, really appreciate it.