The United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda is the next phase of the Millennium Development Goals, which provided a 15-year road map to tackle poverty and foster development in the world’s poorest countries. But as putting together the new agenda moves forward, it is becoming clear that the critical needs of women may be pushed aside.
Currently, there are 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals to meet by 2030. Two of the draft goals address health and gender equality, which is good news. The bad news is that the two countries leading the process for developing these goals — Kenya and Hungary — have removed sexual and reproductive health and rights from the health goal and watered down the gender equality goal, a major setback for women.
Kenya and Hungary have made these cuts ostensibly because they are trying to cut down the number of targets in their proposal. They think that emphasizing sexual and reproductive health and rights under two different goals is repetitive and they contend there is no consensus on these issues among member states at the UN. But in reality, the importance of sexual and reproductive rights for all individuals — particularly women and girls — means that these issues should receive extra attention in any set of development goals, and more than 50 states have spoken up to agree.
Ensuring sexual and reproductive rights is crucial to promoting gender equality. Because women are uniquely able to become pregnant and are still expected to take on the majority of child-rearing responsibilities in countries across the globe, their ability to control their fertility affects many other aspects of their lives — employment, education, family life and civic participation. As such, we cannot ensure equal rights for every person if sexual and reproductive rights are not included in the new development agenda.
The UN and its member states recognized the importance of ensuring that women were placed on equal footing with men in all avenues of life when establishing the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Two of the goals — improving maternal health and promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment — attempted to address the deep deficiencies in women’s equality and their well-being worldwide.
But because these gender-specific goals were so limited in scope and did not include all member states or highlight the need to focus on the most marginalized women, and they were not adequately connected to each other, meager progress has been made to achieve substantive gender equality.
For instance, the goal on maternal health, which focused primarily on maternal mortality, addressed only one aspect of ensuring women’s reproductive rights — without paying enough attention to the range of sexual and reproductive health services that women need.
The goal on gender equality sought only to tackle disparities in access to primary education and public participation, ignoring the wider set of root causes that lead to gender inequalities and violations of women’s human rights. The MDGs also failed to make the link between gender equality and reproductive rights, a huge missed opportunity to assure women’s decision-making power over their bodies and their lives.
Though many developing nations have experienced drops in maternal mortality rates as a result of the MDGs, women in poor and rural communities still struggle to receive necessary and, in some cases, lifesaving reproductive health services. Moreover, countries and development donors have paid little attention to ensuring access to other reproductive health services — including contraception and abortion –that could prevent maternal deaths and promote gender equality more broadly. Women in these parts of the world face a 15 times higher risk of dying during pregnancy than women in developed nations face.
But denial of women’s sexual and reproductive rights does not just persist in developing countries. A study published in May by The Lancet found that the United States is one of eight countries — including Afghanistan, Belize, El Salvador and South Sudan — where maternal deaths have actually increased in the last decade. Low-income and marginalized women in the US also face wide discrepancies when they obtain reproductive health services, from the quality of maternal health care to contraception and abortion availability.
This is why civil society groups involved in securing better reproductive care access for women are pushing all member states of the UN to commit to such achievements in the new Sustainable Development Goals.
If the UN truly wants to combat inequality and poverty and improve lives, the post-2015 development agenda must be grounded in human rights and include reproductive autonomy and universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, information and education. Countries must take affirmative measures — like allocating adequate resources — so that all women can freely exercise their reproductive human rights.
The new development agenda must include and support women this way.
This is an opinion essay.
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Rebecca Brown is director of global advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Previously, she was deputy director of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), where she oversaw the organization’s program work and coordinated the Women and ESCR Working Group. Brown graduated cum laude from CUNY School of Law and served on the CUNY Law Review. She served in the Peace Corps in Gambia and received her B.A. in political science and women’s studies from Hunter College, also cum laude.