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The Power of Women in Sustainable Development

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) failed to consider the root causes of gender inequality and the holistic nature of development. Fifteen years later, women are still fighting for their rights and equality. As the international development community turns toward the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must give special attention to gender equality and female empowerment.

The United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to reduce extreme poverty through global partnership. These goals, which expire this year, also sought to promote gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. Despite their successes on a number of fronts, the MDGs “failed to consider the root causes of poverty, of gender equality, or of the holistic nature of development.” As the international development community turns its focus toward sustainable development, the efficacy of the MDGs is under scrutiny, especially with regard to their impact on gender equality. Indeed, the MDGs did not sufficiently address the root causes of gender disparity. As a result, women are still fighting for basic rights and equality (itself a basic human right), an ongoing problem that must be addressed in the next round of development goals, lest ongoing inequities undermine the push for sustainable development.


Gender equality is critical to development and poverty reduction. Speaking at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated, “It is clear that we have not invested sufficiently in gender equality.” Noting that less than 10 percent of official development assistance (ODA) targets women and these targets are not adequately funded, he continued, “This has to change now if we are to achieve sustained, inclusive, and equitable economic growth and development.” Christine LeGarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), concurred in an interview at the Brookings Institution: “Empowering women and giving them the same access without restrictions…is an economic game changer.” Thus, if the world hopes to achieve sustainable development, gender equality must be at the forefront of the next round of development goals.

The third Millennium Development Goal specifically promoted gender equality and the empowerment of women through access to schooling, calling for the elimination of gender disparity in primary, secondary, and tertiary education by 2015. Progress was measured by the ratio of girls to boys in class, the number of women in paid employment sectors other than agriculture, and the proportion of female parliament members in national parliaments. In some ways, the MDGs did help empower  women and girls, as maternal mortality rates fell by half, the gap in access to primary education is virtually gone, and women now hold 40 percent of global paid jobs in sectors outside of agriculture.

However, many challenges remain. While equality in access to primary education greatly improved, the results for secondary and tertiary education were disappointing and the target of ending gender disparity in education will not be achieved by 2015. There also was not satisfactory progress in the third measurement of women in positions of government leadership. Although the percentage of female parliamentarians doubled since the early 1990s, globally women still occupy less than a quarter of parliamentary seats (21 percent in 2015). Moreover, MDG Goal 3—targeting only education parity—took a narrow approach to gender equality. Thus, it failed to address several key issues vital to improving the situation of women worldwide, including ending violence, recognizing the value of unpaid care, ensuring women fully participate in decision making, and guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) currently under discussion are a “new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators” that will guide the political policies and aid agendas of the UN members for the next fifteen years. As an expansion of the MDGs, with a strong focus on completely eradicating poverty, the Sustainable Development Goals “afford a critical opportunity to dramatically expand upon progress for women and girls and increase our collective ambition for achieving gender equality.” The draft text of the SDGs appears promising, seeking to “build on the achievements of MDGs while also addressing the dimensions that lag behind.” Unlike MDG Goal 3’s limited call for governments to “promote” equality, the fifth SDG requires governments to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

“It is critical that the SDGs learn from the successes and weaknesses of the MDGs, and place strong emphasis on the importance of gender equality within the context of inclusive, sustainable development.” Women make up half of the world’s population and their rights should be respected and protected unconditionally. A UN report aptly states that “Women should not be viewed as victims, but as central actors in moving towards sustainability.” Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, stressed that gender equality helps drive economic growth and can improve social justice: “When we promote true equality, including equal pay for equal work, we all stand to benefit because better educated mothers produce healthier children and women who earn more invest in the next generation.” It has become readily apparent, based on the experience of the MDGs, the next round of development goals must have more than a single goal with a single target if gender equality is to be achieved. There must be multiple targets geared toward empowering women given the multiple challenges women face.

Now is the time to act, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports, “to increase both the political will and the resources to achieve full and lasting gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights.” Gender quality is vital to sustainable development because better education offers more opportunities, easier access to paid jobs creates a more inspired and productive economy, and increasing the number of women in the public sector (i.e., female MPs and ministers) will guarantee representation and support on political decisions that affect women the most. Gender equality is, therefore, crucial to achieving sustainable development.

Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.


Kathleen Taylor

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