Women take part in maternal health awareness and guidance training sessions at a health center in Bamako Sabalidougou, Mali. Photo Credit: UN Women, CNIESC (National Information Center for Education and Community Health) - See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/news/stories/2013/4/ensuring-mothers-do-not-die-when-giving-life#sthash.BlYEhEo4.dpuf

Will Women’s Rights Earn its Place at UNGA?

The 69th session of the UN General Assembly is officially open. One key issue that will be discussed over the next two weeks is what will replace the Millennium Development Goals once they expire next year. In UN Circles, this is called the “Post 2015 Development Agenda.” One aspect of that agenda that is sure to be contentious among member states is the role of women’s rights and gender equality.

Gender equality should be a critical element for the post-2015 Development Agenda. The MDGs included provisions for gender equality; however, they have been widely criticized by feminist scholars and policy practitioners alike for not moving far enough to promote women’s rights. In particular, frequent scholarly critiques of the current MDGs include a lack of focus on the economic barriers that impede gender equality, such as labor discrimination; lack of inclusion of protections for women’s property and inheritance rights; and for not addressing violence against women.

Sam Kahamba Kutesa, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, gave a nod to these frustrations in his opening speech to the 69th session, stating that “as highlighted in the outcome document of Rio+20, although progress in gender equality has been made in some areas, the potential of women to engage in, contribute to and benefit from sustainable development has not yet been fully realized.”

Rio+20 was a 2012 conference aimed to renew commitments made by UN Member States at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago. The first Rio conference was tremendous, with the international community making large commitments to sustainable development, human rights, social equity – and women’s rights.  The Rio+20 conference, however, was another story, resulting in a weak outcomes document and even some internal discussion of backing away from some of the promises made at the 1992 Summit.

However, a positive outcome of the Rio+20 Summit was the 30 member Open Working Group, formed of UN member states tasked with developing SDGs and their measurable targets and indicators. The group created a 17-goal list that will be likely adopted in connection with the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

The new SDGs include a new focus on gender equality, particularly within its standalone goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” It also seeks to end all forms of violence against women, discrimination, early and forced marriage, give women equal rights to land and economic resources, and ensure women’s universal access to sexual health and reproductive rights.

As the post-2015 Development Agenda is discussed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly over the coming weeks, Member States – particularly those who were not intimately involved in crafting the SDGs – will have interesting opportunities to deliberate over the content of the SDGs and contribute to the broader post-2015 Development Agenda.

Members of the UN General Assembly have been split over specific provisions within the SDGs, particularly over issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. At a previous UN conferences socially conservative countries have blocked reproductive rights language from being included in outcome documents and resolutions. In the coming weeks, we are likely to see speeches from these Member States advocating for a dilution or removal of this language.

Pushing back against them will be most of the countries of the global north, plus many other more progressive member states in Latin America and Africa.

So how can UN General Assembly Member States work to ensure that this language makes it into the final Post-2015 Development Agenda? Advocates in the region for sexual and reproductive health and rights should take charge by making speeches of their own, coping to bring more of the developing world into support of this action. Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri, already solicited the support of the G77 + China for gender equality efforts at this session in May. Staunch supporters of sexual and reproductive health and rights should take special care to promote their inclusion in the Post-2015 Development Agenda in their opening speeches. These words matter. And the world will be watching