OECD Observer
Progress for women and girls in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The UN Sustainable Development Goals could be a real game changer for gender issues, with wins in fraught areas such as reproductive rights. But there will be challenges, and opposing voices, to contend with in the years ahead.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Few words could have better captured the sentiment in the room when the Group of 77 (G77) and China quoted Nelson Mandela at the United Nations before announcing, “We are ready to adopt!” On 2 August, after three years of intense deliberations and negotiations, all 193 governments of the UN agreed what could prove to be a historic new agenda for people and planet.

There were times when an ambitious agreement seemed fanciful. Fault lines had surfaced on a whole host of issues, from human rights to climate change, not to mention how to deal out responsibility. But governments hashed it out and Agenda 2030–with the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its centre–will be formally adopted by world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September. While the real litmus test will lie in its implementation, could this new roadmap be as “game-changing” as proponents claim?

Take, for instance, the pledge that “no one will be left behind”, which encapsulates the essence of the post-2015 agenda. No goal will be considered met unless it is met for everyone–or almost: in the final hours of this hard-fought issue, language on the goals being met for “all social and economic groups” was watered down to “all segments of society”, reflecting a refusal from some governments to recognise the rights of LGBT people. This was a blow for many OECD and Latin American countries, including civil society supporters who campaigned tirelessly for its inclusion. A similar impasse threatened the inclusion of “other status” in the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination, although on this the EU and others held the line.

Despite this wrangling, the core imperative of reaching those furthest behind first remains intact and is the key leitmotif of Agenda 2030. Strong commitments to human rights were preserved, marking a fundamental shift from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the new goals replace. Under those goals, which expire this year, progress was based on national averages rather than equitability and failed to consider how specific groups fared within overall progress.

Will Agenda 2030 do any better? It won’t be easy, not least because the low-hanging fruit may have been picked during the MDG era, with the most marginalised groups harder to lift out of poverty than before. The impact of national decision-making through specific policies and actions to tackle inequalities will be key, for example through progressive taxation, the financing of essential services and social protection measures, legal reform, and affirmative action.

Within this, one of the most visible and transformative elements of the post-2015 agenda is the commitment to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Agenda 2030 tackles the structural drivers of gender inequality, which were left largely untouched by the MDGs, committing among other things to eliminate violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation. Agenda 2030 promises women equal rights to economic resources and equal opportunities for leadership, and a clear role in peace and state building. In addition to Goal 5 of the new SDGs, 11 out of 17 goals contain targets on gender equality.

Arguably the biggest win is the promise to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, which formed one of the thorniest issues on the way to Agenda 2030. Conservative forces are increasingly visible and vocal in their opposition to women’s rights at the UN. The fact that that agreement was reached at all on sexual and reproductive health owes much to civil society’s staying committed and some governments’ refusing to accept any removal, dilution or retrogression on gender equality.

The SDGs represent an indivisible agenda for people, planet, prosperity and peace: they all go hand in hand. For the OECD, this raises the question of how to support our member countries in developing policies that reflect the holistic, cross-cutting nature of the SDGs, rather than being drawn into 17 silos. What are the “integrators”, for example in the way that funding or monitoring mechanisms are set up?

Universal goals and targets are a key feature of the SDGs, signalling a transition away from the old-fashioned north-south paradigm. Yet there is still a long way to go to fully understand the implications of a universal agenda for implementation, especially among OECD member countries. The very fact that OECD countries will have to report on their progress towards meeting the goals domestically as well as internationally could help to change that mindset. Three areas for action could further contribute to translating commitments into reality:

1.         First, the development of national plans outlining how countries will meet the SDGs, which could include nearer-term targets as stepping stones on the way to 2030. National Action Plans will be particularly crucial to translate the commitments agreed at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 into specific financial commitments with deadlines. This applies to developed countries as much as developing countries, which will need to show how they plan to translate commitments into robust policies and action, at home and abroad. One example is the Addis Ababa Action Plan on Transformative Financing for Gender Equality developed by the OECD, UN Women and member states as a key tool for turning around historical underinvestment in gender equality (both reports available at www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development).

2.         A second priority is strengthening national data systems and accelerating efforts at all levels to plug data gaps and establish baselines for targets where they do not already exist. Honouring the commitment to leave no one behind will require much more and better data to track the progress of women and girls, and the most marginalised social and economic groups, for each target.

3.         Lastly, a more clearly defined framework is needed for monitoring and reviewing progress, which sets out what governments and other stakeholders are responsible for. The detail on this remains a little muddy, and a 2016 report of the UN Secretary-General will provide some clarity. In the meantime, the OECD could initiate a conversation among its member countries on how they might draw on peer learning processes and platforms, such as in the areas of gender equality, education and governance.

Agenda 2030 provides a foundation for making great advances in people’s lives, not least for women and girls. The stakes are high. Organisations such as the OECD must “SDG-proof” their work to maximise their contribution and help translate political aspirations of Agenda 2030 into a reality. Agenda 2030 really can be a game changer.           


Donald, Kate (2015) “Strong commitments to human rights survive in final SDG text, despite sordid final compromises”, Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), 5 August, http://cesr.org/article.php?id=1758.

OECD (1015), “From commitment to action: Financing gender equality and women’s rights in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals”, Gendernet policy paper, March, OECD Publishing, http://oe.cd/17b.

Watkins, Kevin (2015), “Leaving no one behind–it won’t be easy”, Post2015.org, , 21 July Overseas Development Institute.

UN (2015), “Transforming our world”, August, advanced unedited version available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/7891Transforming Our World.pdf.

UN (2015), Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (Addis Ababa Action Agenda), www.un.org/esa/ffd/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/AAAA_Outcome.pdf.

Visit http://www.oecd.org/dac/post-2015.htm and https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld

©OECD Observer 303 September 2015


Sustainable Development Goals