No sustainable development without feminism

A failure to empower women and girls will see the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come to nothing. This was the core message from the German delegation at this year’s UN Sustainable Development Summit.

Where does the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda currently stand? If we are to believe this year’s progress report on the 17 SDGs, the international community’s sustainable development goals, the answer is not a positive one: “Years or even decades of development progress have been halted or reversed”, writes Ecosoc, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in its latest progress report. Primarily to blame is the COVID-19 pandemic, but the growing number of conflicts and climate change are also responsible. Indeed, UN member state representatives expressed “alarm” in their closing declaration at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the annual UN sustainable development summit in New York in July.

Women and children are disproportionately suffering the effects of the pandemic, writes Ecosoc, noting that more than 100 million children have missed key learning milestones and that this generation stands to lose $17 trillion in lifetime earnings. Similarly, women were more likely to experience job losses, provide unpaid care for children and the elderly and suffer domestic violence. Accordingly, the German delegation made SDG 5, gender equality, the focus of its appearance at the HLPF. “We will not, without empowering women and girls, be able to implement all the other SDGs”, said German Ambassador to the UN Antje Leendertse at the start of a high-level panel discussion led by the German delegation. The side-event focused on three key aspects. First, that gender equality is fundamental. “Gender equality is not something [to] add on top, something [that’s] nice to have. Gender equality is all about human rights, and it’s about that all people – it doesn’t matter which background I have – that all people have the right to be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation or gender”, said Bärbel Kofler, Parliamentary State Secretary to the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The second aspect is that women worldwide are disproportionately affected by poverty and violence as well as by the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss. Renata Koch Alvarenga, founder of Brazilian NGO Empoderaclima, illustrated why this is the case: if, for instance, schools suffer from a lack of clean water and toilets, which is a particular issue in poorer regions, girls are often forced to miss school when on their periods. As such, they receive a lower-quality education than boys. This example demonstrates how the different SDGs are nevertheless mutually dependent: without clean water and sanitation, SDG 6, there can be no gender equality, SDG 5.

Alvarenga also drew attention to the aspect of intersectionality, namely that some women suffer multiple types of discrimination. For example, black or indigenous women are also affected by racism and structural, historic poverty. In Brazil, for instance, the percentage of black women living below the poverty line grew from 33 to 38 percent during the pandemic, while the share of white women increased from 15 to 19 percent. In addition, black and indigenous people are also less likely to have their voices heard. “We have a lot of amazing indigenous women and amazing black women who often don’t get to be a part of these stages because of educational barriers, language barriers”, continued Alvarenga.

Women most affected by climate crisis

Indian publicist and environmentalist Sunita Narain underscored the interdependency between the different SDGs and showed how women in particular are suffering the effects of the climate crisis and the pandemic. Narain is Director General at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. In 2019, Time Magazine named Narain as one of the 15 most influential women worldwide in the fight against climate change. “Always think of the last person”, she said, quoting Mahatma Gandhi. For her, when she imagines that last person, she sees the face of a poor woman, using her hometown of New Delhi to bring to life how the energy crisis affects the women living there. Many women living in poverty in the city cook with firewood or burn waste over open fires. The resulting smog is one of the primary culprits behind the city’s poor air quality.

“[This woman knows] that it has a hugely bad impact on her own body but without any choice. What is the pathway in which her energy rights will be secured?”, asked Narain. After all, affordable and clean energy, SDG 7, plays just as much of a role in gender equality. The transformation towards this must be pursued far more decisively, added Narain, explaining that climate change endangers the lives of the very poorest. “[They] already have no choice but to move, and they move from village to city to a different country, and that really is the crisis of migration today”, she continued. Of course, this impacts poor men as well as poor women, but migration has led to a rise in human trafficking, with young women and girls particularly at risk.

The third aspect as to why gender equality is vital in meeting the SDGs is that women will play a central role in achieving the transformation. “We would benefit so much if the experiences and priorities of women and girls were taken seriously and if women and girls from all countries were unhindered in helping us reach these goals”, said Bettina Hoffmann, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection. To her mind, men and women perceive and influence their environment in different ways.

In Germany, for instance, Fridays for Future are largely shaped by women, while in other countries too, women are taking centre stage in fighting for the very basis of existence for future generations. Take Brazil, for example, where, as Ana Toni, director of environmental protection organisation Instituto Clima e Sociedade, explained, eighty percent of environmentalists are women.

Feminists in power

So how can the situation be improved? A key factor here is education. But this is about more than just giving girls the same schooling as boys. Gender parity does not equal gender equality, explained Antara Ganguli, Director of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative. In many countries where the number of girls in school is equal to that of boys, many students report in surveys that they still consider it normal for men to be allowed to beat women. “[Schools must become] places where children learn to become adults different from what we are today”, said Ganguli.

What is needed is feminist education, the teaching of fundamental values. This includes people who define themselves outside the male-female gender binary. Ganguli described how their rights, too, are the focus of efforts to include them in curricula across the globe. “This often does put us in a difficult position”, she added, continuing to relate how many states still fail to recognise the rights of these people. In her view, this is where leadership from influential figures is needed to make a difference.

For women in business or politics, the same is true as in schools – ticking boxes does not cut it. “It’s not enough to have women in power. It is important to have feminist women in power”, stated Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director, UN Women. For this to work, men need to be involved too – they need to be just as committed to gender equality as women. “What we are really lacking there is political will to declare violence against women a public health crisis”, added Bhatia. She urged countries around the world to focus on targeting women with their stimulus packages. In her opinion, the private sector too must change, adding that if companies were making larger profits than the GDPs of entire nations, those companies’ actions on gender equality needed to be measured, monitored and reported.

The groundwork is in place, writes Ecosoc, but the world is still not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Instead, it is moving backwards. Against this backdrop, one thing above all remains a priority, said moderator Pamela Chasek, a politics professor at Manhattan College: we all need to work hard for change. That goes for women and men alike.