Seeking accountability for women’s rights through the SDGs

While the dust of the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) settles, CESR and UN Women are proud to release a new briefing focusing on the challenges and opportunities for using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to improve accountability for women’s human rights.

In many respects, the SDGs are a significant improvement on their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, including in their commitments to gender equality and women’s rights. Yet there is no major advance when it comes to accountability: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the SDGs, provides only for a weak and voluntary process of “follow-up and review”. The 2017 HLPF, which concluded last week, unfortunately provided stark evidence of the shortcomings of these arrangements, showcasing official national reports of dubious rigor while civil society was offered only tokenistic opportunities to participate. There was little evidence of the transformative change necessary to achieve the Goals, while the Ministerial Declaration agreed at the HLPF once again short-changed the rights of women and girls, failing to reflect the full scope of the Goal 5 targets including reproductive rights.

Building on the work CESR and UN Women have each done on the theme of accountability, this briefing dives deeper into how these accountability deficits can be improved with a specific focus on women’s rights. At a bare minimum, it argues, gender-responsive accountability requires that women are full participants in any oversight or accountability process; and that women’s human rights are the standard of assessment against which progress towards gender equality is judged and decisions made. Otherwise, governments may focus their efforts on the achievement of goals and targets which are not aligned with their existing international human rights obligations, nor with the priorities of national women rights’ and feminist movements, falling far short of their ambitions.

The briefing explains how the SDG-specific “follow up and review” mechanisms foreseen in the 2030 Agenda need strengthening, in order to boost their effectiveness and inclusivity, and build links with women’s rights mechanisms and standards. At the same time, because of the limited reach and weaknesses of the SDG accountability architecture, it is also crucial to seek other complementary pathways and tools for accountability. To this end, this paper proposes additional mechanisms and venues that might be used to monitor compliance with the SDGs from a human rights perspective. These venues potentially offer additional channels for women’s rights organizations to influence development policy making and implementation in the long term, and to identify systemic failures as well as good practices. In particular, the briefing offers new insights and recommendations into how national, regional and international human rights mechanisms (including the UN treaty bodies, special procedures and the Universal Periodic Review) could contribute to SDG monitoring and accountability at all levels.

Given the widespread concern of women’s rights advocates at the shortcomings of implementation, monitoring and accountability efforts so far, they and other civil society organizations will be pursuing all available avenues for accountability to ensure that the SDGs’ pledge to “achieve gender equality” and “leave no one behind” is honored in practice.

The CESR/UN Women briefing Seeking Accountability for Women’s Rights through the SDGs was written by Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Senior Research Fellow at UNRISD, CESR Board Member and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. It builds on a paper commissioned by UN Women’s Research and Data Section as a contribution to its forthcoming report, Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: A Global Monitoring Report.