“The Right to Equality in Post-2015,” a speech by John Hendra in Oslo


Speech by John Hendra, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director Policy and Programme, UN Women at FOKUS and United Nations Association of Norway (UNA), Oslo, 13 June 2013

Minister Heikki Eidsvoll Holmas, Excellencies and Ambassadors, Gro, distinguished panelists, ladies and gentlemen,

I’m very happy to be here in Oslo so soon after the 100th Anniversary of Norwegian women getting the right to vote and to have the opportunity today to discuss with you the post-2015 development agenda and particularly how we can ensure gender equality and women’s rights are at the heart of the framework. I’d like to just briefly touch on two main issues. First, where are we now in the process; secondly, perspectives on gender equality and broader inequality and some of the key challenges and tensions that are emerging in the discussion.

So where are we now? The High-Level Panel released its report two weeks ago, and I would say that the reaction has overall been quite positive. The Panel has provided what is in many ways an ambitious framework, and it’s my hope that it will provide a strong basis for the development of the agenda.

It’s very much welcome to see that the Panel makes a strong call for a universal framework, for sustainability, for the importance of governance, for a data revolution, and focuses on disaggregating indicators with respect to income, gender, age and so on. Also very important is the report’s recognition of the importance of peace and security for development, and in particular, freedom from fear, conflict and violence as a fundamental human right.

Overall, like the Minister, UN Women was pleased to see the strong emphasis in the report on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, in particular the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment among the suggested illustrative goals. Particularly welcome is the strong focus on ending violence against women, including ending child marriage. We were also very pleased to see the emphasis on women’s economic empowerment, as well as the target to ensure universal sexual and reproductive health and rights, which we hope, going forward, can both be reflected under any final Health Goal and under any final Gender Goal as access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is critical. Importantly, the report also maintains that beyond a stand-alone goal, gender must be robustly mainstreamed into all other areas.

Many of the concerns identified by the Panel, such as poverty, discrimination, violence and gender inequality persist because of structural inequalities. That’s why it’s so critical that as we build on this first iteration of a possible framework, we really address these structural constraints. In my opinion, the report doesn’t yet go far enough in tackling inequalities, and there’s no acknowledgement that the current growth model, and austerity policies in both developing and developed countries, have actually exacerbated inequalities, and stalled poverty reduction efforts in many countries.

While very happy with how gender is addressed overall, we would also have liked to see some other significant gender issues, such as women in decision-making, and women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and household work, be also addressed substantively. Nor is gender yet robustly mainstreamed in the suggested goals and targets. But, that being said, I think the report gives us a very good basis to build on. And importantly, it echoes a growing chorus of voices, including of many Member States, for a stand-alone goal on gender equality.

As you know, the report along with the reports of the SDSN, the Global Compact and the UNDG consultations, will feed into the Secretary-General’s report to the UN General Assembly this September. The Inter-governmental process through the Open Working Group (OWG) is meeting on a monthly basis, currently focusing very much on setting parameters and areas of focus for its work. UN Women is actively participating in the Technical Support Team, which is preparing issues briefs for the OWG, to ensure gender concerns are integrated. And the OWG will have a specific discussion on gender early next year.

Also due shortly is the final report on the UNDG consultations, now either held or ongoing in 87 countries as well as 11 thematic consultations. As the Minister said, this has been an incredibly rich and dynamic process, and has really engaged people across the world. Almost 750,000, three quarters of a million to date! In short, they tell us that people really want to see a transformative agenda, they are hungry for change. They’re calling for the promise of the MDGs to be fulfilled, but more than that, they want to see an agenda that squarely tackles inequalities in all their forms, ensures social and economic inclusion, and builds cohesive societies and communities. Decent jobs, social safety nets, and freedom from fear and violence – including violence against women – together with access to justice, and voice and participation, have all been identified as priorities.

As you know, there has been a very strong focus on inequalities in the consultations, both at the national level, and in the thematic consultation on inequalities which UN Women co-led with UNICEF. Some of the key emerging messages include:

  • First, two-and-a-half years shy of the target date for achieving the MDGs, and with the MDGs still unrealized for many people, the time has come to address inequalities in all their dimensions if we are to realize the aspirations of the UN Millennium Declaration and achieve the MDGs.
  • Second, inequalities are the result of structural barriers and discrimination in economic, social, environmental and political domains. Inequalities impede inclusive growth, constrain sustainable development, and undermine people’s wellbeing and human development.
  • Third, inequalities in all four domains are strongly interconnected and reproduce over time and through generations. Those who are income poor are also more likely to experience social inequalities, lack access to sustainable livelihoods, have less voice in decision-making at all levels, and are more likely to suffer the effects of environmental degradation and pollution.
  • Fourth, to tackle these issues effectively, the human rights framework, and principles of universality and non-discrimination must provide the minimum standards for the new framework.
  • Fifth, a life lived in dignity and freedom is every person’s right, and inequalities are among the most significant obstacles to realizing such a life. Any attempt to address inequalities in the post-2015 agenda outside the human rights framework will necessarily be partial, and likely to perpetuate discrimination and exclusion.
  • And finally, gender-based discrimination and the denial of women’s rights are being highlighted as one of the most significant drivers of inequalities.

That’s why UN Women is in full agreement with the Minister in advocating for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights, together with substantive and comprehensive integration of gender equality across all goals, targets and indicators.

A stand-alone goal is essential to concentrate policy commitment and funding, and provide a rallying point for gender advocates. A gender equality goal must establish minimum standards, and in our view, push change forward in three critical areas:

  • First, freedom from violence is an absolute minimum condition to promote gender equality and women’s rights. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are simply not possible if we don’t end violence and fear of violence – and if societies still consider gender based violence to be acceptable.
  • Second, we must ensure women’s capabilities, bodily integrity and access to resources. We must ensure all human development areas give specific consideration to gender differences to enhance women’s capacities and allow them to make meaningful choices about what to do and be in their lives.
  • Finally, we have to ensure women have voice and participate in and influence the processes and institutions that shape public policies, and household and private sector decisions.

Looking forward, it is important that we now more substantively focus on gender mainstreaming, and what this will look like across any goals and targets that may be developed, on conceptualizing the links between gender and sustainability, and on evaluating the legacy of the MDGs for gender equality in the lead up to CSW 58. UN Women counts on Norway’s continued strong support for a stand-alone goal and for substantive gender mainstreaming, as well as to engage and advocate with other Member States, including those who remain neutral or unconvinced.

As gender activists, it’s also critical that we are fully engaged and clearly understand the implications of some of the “big-picture” issues that will be under discussion in the months ahead. Let me highlight seven key issues which have implications for how gender equality will be positioned in the new agenda:

  • First, is whether Member States agree to develop a universal framework that applies to all countries and holds all governments accountable, or whether we have, as we did with the MDGs, a “compact” in which the North monitors the commitments and achievements of the South. Gender inequality and gender-based discrimination are universal problems, and it’s absolutely critical that the new development framework is universal, and that all countries commit to promoting and achieving human rights and gender equality.
  • Second, is whether we end up with one development framework, in which the two current tracks – the post-2015 agenda and SDGs – come together in one coherent whole. It’s critical that there is convergence not least so that our efforts to promote human rights and gender equality in the framework are not divided – but also so that global efforts and resourcing are not fragmented.
  • Third is whether we have a framework that is truly transformative and which fully integrates human rights, and tackles structural discrimination and inequalities including gender inequality. Related to this is the critical issue of whether the new framework should set out to transform the current growth model which as we know has only deepened inequalities. In my view, the framework must squarely address macro-economic policies, and in particular the impact of the financial crisis and of austerity policies on human development and inequality, including gender inequality.
  • Fourth, and a very critical and challenging issue, is how we deal with the peace and security agenda, which is particularly important given that the arc of poverty is moving firmly in the direction of fragile states and the geography of poverty is increasingly one of fragility. It’s important that the framework addresses peace and security, including ensuring freedom from violence, which is greatly exacerbated in conflict and post-conflict settings, in particular sexual violence.
  • Fifth, is how are we going to ensure that we build on, and learn from, the MDGs, which were not aligned with existing human rights standards, were weak on accountability, did not properly address governance, peace and security or environmental sustainability, and did not address at all violence against women and girls – one of the most serious human rights violations today.
  • Sixth, whether we will have a framework that very substantively puts in place mechanisms to ensure participation, accountability and transparency, so that people can monitor and truly hold governments accountable for the decisions they make.

And a final and very critical challenge is how the new development framework will be financed, including any commitments made to gender equality. Already we have seen significant declines in ODA as a direct result of economic crisis, recession, and austerity policies in many donor countries. OECD-DAC funding for gender equality fell by almost 20 per cent between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. There have also been cuts in support to women’s organizations in both ODA and domestic budgets.

Funding for gender equality and women’s empowerment is critical and without it, the impact is serious. As we can see, austerity measures throughout Europe are hindering achievement of existing gender equality commitments. Wage and pension cuts, increased consumption taxes and cuts to safety nets and services affect women disproportionately due to their more vulnerable position in the labour market, lower average incomes than men, greater reliance on social protection and services, and primary responsibility for care-giving. This is the case in both developed and developing countries alike. Austerity has also undermined progress towards a more equitable division of care responsibilities in the household. Cuts in public care and health services have led to a re-privatization of work, and a return to traditional gender roles.

Against this backdrop, it’s all the more critical for all of us to increase investment in gender equality and women’s empowerment at the global and national level. As UN Women, we are very appreciative of Norway’s continued strong leadership in this regard.

Just as 13 June this year was a significant anniversary for Norwegian women, we must all ensure that 1 January 2016 will become a future milestone for women and girls around the world, when a new transformative development agenda brings social justice and an end to violence and discrimination in every sphere of life. Women and girls deserve nothing less. Together we can’t afford to fail them.

Thank you.

Listen to comments on the post-2015 High-level report by John Hendra (during his mission in Scandinavia):