The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into effect on 1 January 2016, after it was adopted unanimously at the United Nations by world Heads of State and Governments in September 2015. With its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, the Agenda covers a comprehensive set of issues across the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.
In many respects, the 2030 Agenda is a significant improvement from the previous agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were supposed to have been met by 2015. It is universal in applying to all countries, rather than just ‘developing’ countries, and it covers a more comprehensive set of issues, therefore better addressing the complexities of sustainable development and reflecting the whole spectrum of human rights. The 2030 Agenda also has a central focus on combatting inequality, both through stand-alone goals (Goal 5 on gender inequality and Goal 10 on reducing inequality within and among countries) and an overarching pledge to ‘Leave No One Behind’ in implementation. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is recognised as a cross-cutting objective across all the goals (with indicators that are required to be disaggregated by sex), but is also included as a stand-alone goal with specific targets. The Agenda also recognizes the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, as among its foundations.
Whereas the MDG commitments on gender equality were limited to targets on gender parity in education and maternal mortality, SDG 5 includes more comprehensive and potentially transformative commitments for women’s rights, due to the effective mobilization of women’s rights organizations. It includes targets to: eliminate all forms of discrimination, end gender-based violence and child marriage; ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights; increase participation in decision-making at all levels; ensure women’s equal rights to economic resources, including ownership and control over land; and to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work (including through the provision of public services and social protection.) Moreover, there are gender specific targets in other goals, for example, to eliminate gender disparity in education (SDG 4.5); ensure women’s access to adequate sanitation (SDG 6.2); equal pay for work of equal value (SDG 8.5); and safe and affordable transport for women (SDG 11.2). As the inclusion of these issues indicates, the SDGs are therefore far more holistic and rights-aligned on gender equality than the MDGs, despite some weaknesses.
Yet, when dealing with issues of accountability, there is no major improvement over the MDGs. Under the MDGs, there was no clarity as to who was responsible for what, there was no institutional mechanism through which ‘beneficiaries’ could meaningfully engage in shaping or challenging decisions at the domestic level, and there was an inadequate, opaque system to monitor and report on progress. The lack of accountability for the MDGs was considered a primary shortfall. With a view to improving on these shortcomings, civil society organizations and many other actors involved in the discussions regarding the new development agenda made it a priority to push for robust accountability for the SDGs. However, during the political negotiations, there was resistance by many States seeking to systematically water down proposals for accountability. Consequently, the final text of the 2030 Agenda includes only a weak voluntary process of reporting to monitor compliance. In the end, the terms “follow-up and review” were preferred over “accountability”.
The implementation of the SDGs is a long and complex process, and the fear is that without stronger accountability mechanisms, States and other stakeholders might not dedicate sufficient efforts and resources towards their compliance. Moreover, compliance with gender-related goals and targets also requires gender-responsive accountability mechanisms. This means, at a bare minimum, that women should be full participants in any oversight or accountability process and that women’s human rights standards must be those against which public decisions are assessed. Without these mechanisms, governments may well focus their efforts on the achievement of goals and targets which are not aligned with the priorities of national women rights’ and feminist movements, or fall far short of their ambitions.