Women’s rights are human rights – now more than ever

To eradicate poverty and to achieve sustainable development, countries must first achieve gender equality.

Women labourers work in a brick factory on International Women''s Day in Jirania village
Women must be offered the same access to all aspects of life as men in order to reach equal status [Reuters]

In 1995, then-US First Lady Hillary Clinton said: “Women’s rights are human rights” at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing. Almost 20 years later, the challenge of ensuring women’s rights remains.
On May 30, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released its report, which contains a standalone goal on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. In addition, the illustrative health goal contains a target on ensuring universal sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Gender equality and ensuring universal sexual and reproductive health and rights are essential ingredients for sustainable development. We must maintain the momentum gained on these issues in the high-level panel through to the final deliberations at the UN General Assembly in 2014 on global goals for poverty eradication and sustainable development. Now more than ever, we need to recognise the centrality of gender equality. Now more than ever, we must end gender inequality as the grand objective of the 21st century.
Promoting gender equality in the post-2015 agenda includes finishing the work that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) started. Unfortunately, the MDGs that are most off-track are those directly linked to achieving gender equality, such as reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal reproductive health and rights. There is by now overwhelming evidence that gender inequality severely constrains women’s independence and freedom, control over their own bodies, sexuality and childbearing, and restricts their life choices and opportunities in terms of education and work. There is also abundant evidence that it significantly slows economic growth in both rich and poor countries.
Across the world, in all societies, women and girls consistently face a range of barriers to equality – such as wage gaps, gender-based violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation. The poor and otherwise socially disadvantaged are further marginalised through crippling combinations of gender discrimination and poverty discrimination. Therefore, tackling the gender inequalities and critical barriers that prevent women and girls from exercising their rights and empowering themselves must be at the heart of our efforts to create sustainable, prosperous and resilient societies. 

Gender inequality persists in Swedish boardrooms

Achieving gender equality – including women’s rights, women’s health and women’s empowerment – is not only a means to eradicating poverty and achieving sustainable development, it is an important end in itself.

Landmark documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action have long established that women’s rights are human rights. CEDAW, established in 1979 and ratified by almost every country in the world, places responsibility for ensuring equal rights for men and women with the state. Women must be offered the same access to all aspects of life as men in order to reach equal status.
We have not achieved this yet. Therefore, we are recommending that the UN General Assembly consider effectively tackling this challenge, and the unfinished business of the MDGs, by ensuring that gender equality and sexual and reproductive health are at the centre of the post-2015 development agenda, with relevant goals, targets and indicators approved.
This proposal has strong support among a wide range of stakeholders and development actors, including many governments, multilateral agencies and civil society organisations. The respective national, regional and global thematic consultations on health, inequalities and education in the post-2015 agenda, as well as the Rio+20 outcome document’s framework for action and follow-up, have all stressed the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The MDGs created an unprecedented mobilisation of political will and resources in recent years, not least around MDGs 4 and 5 related to reducing maternal and infant death. Both of these goals are inextricably linked to gender equality and the rights, health and empowerment of women and girls. It is essential for our common efforts regarding these to be carried over and further strengthened in the post-2015 agenda. Including goals on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights in the post-2015 agenda will highlight, once again, the central role of women’s rights as human rights. The panel report has given a strong momentum for these issues – now it is up to all of us global actors to maintain it, and make sure that it survives all the way to 2015.
We are at a decisive point in our common history when our policy intentions and actions will shape the future of human development and our planet in the face of both unprecedented achievements and persistent challenges. Let us ensure that the post-2015 agenda is truly universal and inclusive, and that the ultimate goal is a world where all – men, women, young people and children – are treated as equally worthy.

Gunilla Carlsson is Sweden’s Minister of International Development Cooperation and member of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Follow her on Twitter: @CarlssonSwe

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is a UN Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

Follow him on Twitter: @BabatundeUNFPA