SDG 5 – Advancing women’s rights and strengthening global governance: the synergies

This article references content included in the 2019 Spotlight Report, available for download at There will also be a side-event at the HLPF on 11 July, 9:30am-11:30pm at Baha’i International Community, 866 UN Plaza, New York. See the invitation here.

Analyses from the many global civil society organisations which contributed to the Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2019 make it clear that to meaningfully tackle the obstacles and contradictions in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals needs more sweeping, holistic shifts in how and where power is vested.

Cecilia Alemany and Gita Sen of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) Spotlight SDG5: Advancing women’s rights and strengthening global governance: the synergies

Taking gender equality seriously in global governance is essential to advancing gender equality and women’s human rights at both global and national levels. Equally important, advancing gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s human rights are critical to strengthening global governance, particularly with regard to debt relief, global trade, technology transfer and institutional coherence.

 The pervasiveness of gender inequality and violations of girls’ and women’s human rights, despite variations across countries and regions, co-exists with national level governance systems that are highly uneven in how they tackle this challenge. Half of the world’s people cannot be left to the vagaries of national governance systems without clear commitments, institutional mechanisms and funding at the level of global governance. Such central elements of women’s human rights as the recognition and valuation of unpaid care work, and the rights of informal sector workers including in global production and value chains where women predominate cannot be adequately addressed at the national level alone.

Without substantive advances in SDG 17 that take seriously trans-boundary effects such as migrant workers and refugee women, sexual violence in conflict situations and responsibility for family survival in climate change, existing efforts to advance SDG 5 could be undermined. The incorporation of women’s rights and gender equality in global institutional frameworks, structures, rules and regulations, and effective participation by feminist and women’s rights groups in international bodies governing development are essential.

Alemany and Sen acknowledged that the global ‘bully pulpit’ of the SDGs and greater global visibility through other campaigns and governments, as well as real changes in global governance, give institutional positioning and importance to respecting, protecting, promoting and fulfilling women’s human rights and can encourage similar changes at national levels. But many forms of gender discrimination remain unrecognised, much potential for change remains hidden while some women’s mobilisation has generated vicious backlash. The global governance picture for gender equality and women’s human rights remains decidedly mixed.

Substantive changes in global governance content requires changes in its institutions. But power is still very masculine everywhere, for instance it is hard to find women’s rights activists in international financial institutions. The advance of some international organisations to have more women at the table is no guarantee on its own but does push towards transforming the culture of all-male panels and bodies that remains in many spaces.

On funding, there were efforts including so-called feminist foreign policies involving funding for women’s organisations by some governments that have potential for engendering significant shifts in policies and participation, but they have not yet change the ways some governments hold their own corporations to account for abuses of human rights and negative impacts on women’s livelihoods.

Feminist and women’s rights organizations are not necessarily the preferred partners of funders, even when they mark their funding is a contribution to gender equality. Traditional funders or donors, and even UN agencies in the field, increasingly tend to partner with and fund women’s business organizations. In sum, many of the ‘innovative financial tools’ respond to a reductionist vision of gender equality as smart investments that eschew attention to how macroeconomic policies, trade rules and global value chains amongst other effects harm women.

The insignificant funding allocated to entities of the UN system, including UN Women, is a signal of weak political will to support multilateral institutions committed to and leading on women’s empowerment and gender equality. It also undermines the UN system’s capacity to partner and fund women’s human rights and feminist groups in the global South, and drives the pressure to partner with the private sector.

Strengthening participation and voice for women’s rights in global governance requires direct participation by women’s rights and feminist organizations in governance fora and bodies so they speak for and by themselves.

María Graciela Cuervo, DAWN

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