Can the Sustainable Development Goals deliver on their promise of gender equality and empowerment of women by 2030?

Speech by UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Public Lecture hosted by the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Malaysia


[As delivered]

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on the significance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the fight to end gender inequality; a fight many of you have been involved in for many years.

As you know, in 2015, United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They agreed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets. This is the most complex agreement by Member States since the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945.

The SDGs are an outstanding accomplishment of governments worldwide; a process in which civil society and the private sector, academics and different concerned interest groups also contributed and participated. The goals reflect a true universality, and aspirations driven by a consultative process. The fact that so many Member States agreed to so many goals and so many targets as a mechanism to measure progress is in itself a big step, given their diversity of views. In that regard the SDGs must encourage all of us to do our best in our countries to make sure that the SDGs are owned and implemented.

All 17 of the goals have significance for women and girls. Goal 1 is about ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. Goal 3 is about ensuring that healthy lives are a reality for the people of the world as well as making sure we address and promote wellbeing for people of all ages. Goal 4 is dedicated to providing quality education for all and promoting life-long learning. Goal 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. Goal 6 is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, while Goal 7 is to ensure access to affordable and sustainable energy. Goal 8 is about promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and employment. Goal 10 is about reducing inequalities, within and among countries, and Goal 12 is about ensuring consumption and production patterns are sustainable. Goal 13 is to take urgent action to address climate change and its impact. Goal 17 is to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. I hope this gives a sense of how rich and diverse the SDGs are.   

The goals deal with the successes and the limitations of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), taking on board their unfinished business. They have a scheduled period for implementation, which is 2016-2030, and they are part of an even broader agenda. This includes the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development adopted in 2015 in Addis Ababa, and the Paris Agreement on climate also agreed to in the same year. These agreements, together with the SDGs, give us a comprehensive vision for 2030. They should, together, enable us to substantively change our lives and the way we deal with each other and among countries.

The 17 SDGs are comprehensive and ambitious. We have in them an accountability framework; they are universal, applying to all nations, rich and poor. These are not goals for poor countries, these are goals for the whole world and all countries. The goals also have gender equality front and centre. Gender is mainstreamed in every goal in addition to the one comprehensive goal, Goal 5, which is about gender equality. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are recognized as a critical contribution to progress across all the goals and all the targets.

The SDGS are designed to produce structural change that will last. They are also important because they adhere to human rights principles.  These 17 goals are about people and leaving no one behind, especially ensuring that women and girls are a priority, because many are in danger of being left behind. They are about shared prosperity, within and between countries, in order to close the gap that is opened up by inequality. The goals also are about our planet and its protection and help us to culture a low carbon economy. The changes that are envisaged as a result of the SDGs would mean that all of us take responsibility for protecting the planet. The goals are also about peace and its protection, as well as prevention of conflict. They are about a partnership that makes Agenda 2030 a possibility for everybody, in all parts of the world.

The SDGs were a hard-earned victory for the women’s movement. The inclusion of SDG 5, specifically dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, is a critical victory for women. 

So, with all this being said, can these SDGs deliver far-reaching changes for women and girls? 

Can they give us a society with substantive gender equality? 

This is in our hands. But let us look at what is included in the SDGs to see whether there is the content for us to track the dream to travel this road.

When we fought for Goal 5, we wanted a goal to tackle the structural barriers of inequality. We wanted to make sure that some of the most pernicious and universal cultural barriers that impact on all the women in all the countries were in the forefront of the agenda. We wanted to make sure that the barriers that are transmitted from generation to generation are also addressed substantively. It is these cultural areas that in many cases erode the gains we have made, even as we move forward.

The focus of Goal 5 and its related targets builds on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The goals are not isolated from these iconic agreements. They come out of the lessons learnt from their implementation.  But the broad support for the MDGs, the Beijing Platform for Action, for CEDAW, has not given us the kind of progress that we wanted. There has been progress, but it has been slow, uneven and fragmented. With the adoption of these goals, we are trying to address the challenge of fragmentation, of the pace of change and ensure that the change itself is far reaching.

Goal 5 focuses on removing institutionalized discrimination against women. Legislative discrimination in many countries is among the greatest impediments to women’s economic empowerment and to women’s development, as well as to women’s equality and progress for girls. Discriminatory laws can be found in more than 150 countries of the world. 

Discrimination can also come about through far-reaching legislation that is not fully implemented, which means that the intended benefit is not felt. With the implementation of the SDGs, it is our aim to ensure effective implementation of the laws that have been adopted, and the policies. This requires the participation of government, of women’s organizations and of the private sector. There are also laws that have been passed that need to be amended because they erode rights that have been enshrined in some countries’ constitutions.   

I want to emphasize the importance of legislation because the United Nations is a body that is pulled together by normative agreements. If we fail to address legislation, we fail on one of the most helpful instruments that we have as an intergovernmental body. We have parliaments, municipalities, different forms of governance, all of which have powers to change rules and legislation.

Goal 5 supports us in ensuring that the laws that are somehow undermined by cultural practices and norms can work in the way originally intended.  This is a recognition that addressing norms and stereotypes is also part of the work of implementing the SDGs that we have to address.

Goal 5 also focuses on ending violence against women. One in three women and girls in all countries live with some form of violence. This includes sexual violence, harassment at work, sexual violence in conflict, early marriage, ‘honour killings’, as well as violence that is psychological. Goal 5 calls on all of us in all our countries to take decisive steps to end violence against women. In many countries this means ensuring that our law enforcement works effectively for women. It involves the prevention of domestic and other forms of violence through education. It means investing in services such as shelter, psychosocial support, and ensuring that we engage men and boys so that they too can become committed activists to end gender-based violence.   

Ladies and gentlemen, violence has a high cost for our countries. Intimate-partner violence accounts for some 5 per cent of the global economy. This is equivalent to a sum of USD 1.5 trillion. We must end violence, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because our countries are losing precious resources as a result of violence against women.

Goal 5 also focuses on ending harmful practices for women and girls, such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, but also other subtle practices such as the stereotyped portrayal of women in the media, all of which sustain gender inequality. More than 700 million women who are alive today were married as children before the age of 18. The numbers are not going down fast enough and substantively enough. If we do not take action to change this trajectory, we risk again having millions of women trapped in situations where their development is compromised and arrested.

Goal 5 also focuses on redistributing unpaid care work, starting with unpaid care work that is experienced at home, where women who are mothers take the bulk of the responsibility for care for children, elderly relatives and other societal care work. In many countries this care work stops women pursuing employment, and it can stop girls from following their schoolwork.

In addition, when women provide paid care work, such as domestic care work, it is underpaid, and unprotected. Women are 80 per cent of the world’s domestic workers, an industry with 67 million people in it. In most countries this work is unregulated, for example, 36 per cent of women who are domestic workers are not entitled to maternity protection. Addressing these injustices in the care economy could change the quality of life for many women. Women migrants who are domestic workers send remittances back home that support their families, provide shelter, education, and medical care. If we are able to stabilize this industry we can create a chain of positive impact.

Goal 5 also focuses on increasing women’s participation in decision-making. This is a problem and a challenge in all countries.  It is projected that unless we change the level at which women are participating in politics, it will take us more than 50 years to reach equality between women and men in political participation. If we do not take an active role in changing gender equality and women’s participation in the economy, it will take 170 years for women to achieve equal economic opportunity to men. Clearly we need to use the opportunity we have in the SDGs to shorten these time frames.

Goal 5 also addresses sexual and reproductive health and rights. It address the importance of reducing early and unwanted pregnancies, and ensuring access to family planning products. Access to these products for many women is a game changer. When women cannot pace when to have children, their lives are not in their hands. Women’s ability to make decisions about their bodies not only a right, it is critical for their health. Goal 5 addresses this critical area.

Goal 5 also addresses the need to guarantee the right to economic resources and full economic participation. Women’s economic empowerment addresses women in senior decision-making economic structures and also those in the informal sector who are not covered by policies that protect them. The achievement of economic empowerment for women working in the informal sector for example, can change their lives and sustainably alleviate poverty.

The holistic nature of the SDG framework means that the goals bolster and support each other. We know that a solid education leads to decent work and reliable income for both men and women. Decent work will ensure that many women have a predictable income and access to the labour market will give women choice so that they are able to remove themselves from harmful relationships once they can sustain themselves economically.

Women in the informal sector comprise as much as 50 per cent of the people who work in some countries.  Through the SDGs we encourage governments to deal with their macroeconomic and fiscal policies in a manner that addresses the informal sector. For example, in India, some 120 million women work informally. We cannot ignore this large number of women. In Mexico, 12 million women work in the informal sector. The absence of policies for women in these large numbers in these different countries means that we are losing an opportunity for the meaningful economic empowerment of women.

The SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are about leaving no one behind. The focus is on multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, for example, on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, location, disability or sexual orientation. If we fail to focus on this aspect of intersectionality, we risk leaving many people behind.

Women who are afflicted by conflict are often unable to benefit even when there are interventions or resources that are addressing their situation. Women living in war zones are victimized by war tactics such as sexual violence.  Yet women who are actively trying to bring about peace in their countries are often ignored as peace-makers and peace-builders. In the SDGs we make the case for effective participation of these women as part of the implementation of the many decisions on women and peace and security that are enshrined in UN Security Council resolution 1325.

In order to address and to use the SDGs effectively we need to be inclusive. In order to address gender inequality we need to broaden the base of stakeholders that are involved in addressing the issue.  We therefore have called upon significant involvement of leaders.

Last year we convened a meeting of Heads of State and Government. We discussed with them the role of global leaders in addressing gender inequality. More than 70 Heads of State and Government participated in the dialogue. This is something that we hope to sustain so that the issue of addressing gender inequality is not left only to women, but ministries of gender are also supported by their Heads of State.

We also have extended invitations for the participation of men and boys as partners in addressing gender inequality. Many are Heads of State, leaders of corporations, or principals of universities. Their role and effective participation is also critical.

At this time when we address gender-based violence during the 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women, we invite active participation of men. It is important that men are the ones who stand up and say ‘I will not beat up a woman’, ‘I will go to court and demand justice for a woman’, ‘I will not marry a child’, ‘I will not look away when I see an injustice being done to my daughter-in –law, my mother, my sister, my friend’, and ‘I will take action to end violence against women’.

As far as the private sector is concerned, we have also reached out them to address gender equality in the workplace. Through our HeForShe movement, which brings together men and boys as activists for gender equality, we have asked for commitments on action to address gender inequality. For Heads of State, their issues include taking on the ending of child marriage, issues of equal pay, or of ensuring that there is adequate access to girls’ education. In the private sector, the leaders that we are working with have taken it upon themselves to address the representation of women at senior levels of their boards, and bring together a pipeline of women that they are recruiting to position for leadership. In many companies they are also addressing the issues of violence, or harassment of women in the workplace. We have asked all the leaders who are participating to look at investing in this Agenda, as there is very limited investment in addressing gender equality.

Youth is an important constituency for implementing Agenda 2030 and addressing gender inequality.  We have reached out to young people, we have a Youth version of our Commission on the Status of Women, and we are developing more activities that bring young people together.

Ladies and gentlemen – we are considering the question of whether the SDGs address gender inequality.

All the actions that I have highlighted are do-able. We can do something substantive about ending violence against women, and addressing legislation that sustains gender inequality. We can address reproductive rights and health, and sexual rights and sexual health of women. We can do something about unequal representation of women, and we can do something about unpaid care work of women. We can ensure that cultural practices such as child marriages and female genital mutilation are ended in our lifetime. 

Between now and 2020, we are asking member states, and all of us, to focus on strategic interventions that will ensure that in 2020 we can see we are going in the right direction. By 2030, we are hoping that, if we all act and work together and implement these agreements that bind all of us, we should be able to see substantive equality.

It should be possible for a child who is born 10 years from now to ask us, ‘Is it true that women were so severely discriminated against?’ By that time inequality will be more of an exception than the rule, and the next generation will live in a world that is free from this form of discrimination. It is in our hands to achieve that. We are the first generation to have the possibility to make this a reality. All of the agreements that we make, and the mutually reinforcing Sustainable Development Goals, bring to us a diverse range of stakeholders that we never had access to before. If we harness that effectively, I think that we are on the right track, with action, commitment, and implementation.

Thank you.