SDG 5: Where are we and how far do we have to go?
Sustainable Development Goals (should) represent the best the international
development community has to offer. They are aspirational and inspirational,
comprehensive and inclusive. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the
SDGs include the public sector, the private sector and the individual. They break
down the most complex challenges we are facing into what seems like
manageable, bite-sized issues and give us hope that, if we all work together, we
will manage to change the world for the better.
As a gender and development expert, I keep a close eye on all of them, but
especially on Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
It was considered a great victory that gender equality got its owns goal, as well
as it being mainstreamed across other goals. Arguably, it is the most important
goal and without reaching its targets, all other goals are in jeopardy. Poverty,
climate change, education, sanitation – these are all gendered issues that have
different effects on women and girls, especially in the Global South.
The SDGs recognize that gender does not exist in a vacuum, but rather at an
intersection of other social, economic and developmental forces. This is the
biggest shift in thinking post- Millennium Development Goals, which adopted a
very narrow view of gender, one that was established on the thinking that
women are a homogenous group and that education is the silver bullet for all of
the issues women face across the world.
SDG 5 has the same shortcomings as all the other goals, as well as a few specific
issues. The very thing that makes SDGs so accessible is their biggest shortcoming
– they are inspirational and aspirational but not very concrete in the how
department. This is particularly an issue that SDG 5 struggles with: two of the
most forward – thinking targets of SDG 5, those relating to sexual health and
unpaid care and domestic work, seem to adopt the “lowest common
denominator” language. If you look at the unpaid care and domestic work target,
it does not mention anything about redistribution of workload and leaves it to be
discussed as “nationally appropriate”.
What this means in reality is that it does not address the cultural and patriarchal
structures that are responsible for women taking on a disproportionate amount of
These clauses that are left for countries to decide the level of engagement are
virtually impossible to track or measure, begging the question why they are even
included. The main feminist critique of SDG 5 is that for all its great aspirations, it
leaves behind the most vulnerable of women by not challenging the power
structures that make the women vulnerable in the first place. To be fair however,
there has been great progress on understanding gender equality as an issue of
power and agency that cannot be solved by simple theory of change solutions
put forward by MDGs.
The biggest opportunity for SGDs is the active involvement of all levels of society
and across all sectors. While we will not achieve gender equality by focusing just
on the issues that women face; in the corporate world but, in corporate
engagement and corporate capital but corporates do have the power to propel
change and bring it about much quicker.
We must be mindful that the same players that now promote gender equality
under SDG 5 are the same ones that have benefited greatly from the imbalance of
power and inequality and they have to be held accountable. Signing statements
and commitments is not enough, what is needed is a radical overhaul of
corporate culture and a strong system for measuring the impact and holding the
private sector accountable to their commitments.
The easiest thing in the world is to be a critic, but without criticism there is little
space for progress. Most of us working in the gender space appreciate SDG 5 and
the effort put forth by an intersectional group of experts who have worked on it,
but there is still a long way to go in mainstreaming impactful gender driven
One thing I would love to see included and emphasized is the role of men and boys
in preventing gender-based violence and achieving gender equality. Boys and men
play a vital role in dismantling the patriarchy and challenging the status quo and
they need to be included in the conversation.
There is no point in empowering women and girls if they are still expected to live
in a world of disempowered men. Hopefully, the post-2030 development agenda
will reflect that.