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Inter-sessional Expert Meeting on the full enjoyment of human rights by all women and girls and the systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective into the implementation of the 2030 Agenda

Palais des Nations, Room XII
2 May 2018

On behalf of the High Commissioner, whose warm greetings I bring, it is an honor to welcome you to Geneva, the Palais de Nations and to the HRC’s inter-sessional Expert Meeting on the full enjoyment of human rights by all women and girls and the systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective into the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Thank you for offering us your engagement, your time and your willingness to travel here –  for some of you – over a great distance, to share your wisdom and advice for this important purpose.

We are very grateful that you are willing to assist us in this way and thus help bring alive - fulfill the terms of - the decision of the UN Human Rights Council to call such experts together for such a purpose.

I want to thank specifically the Member States who prepared the path for these important discussions - including the Luxe-phone group and in particular, the resolution’s main sponsor Brazil.

We are called here so that world-class advice may be provided to the world’s leading human rights body – the HRC – concerning - as their resolution expresses it - “the respect, protection and fulfilment of the full enjoyment of human rights by all women and girls” in the context of the full implementation of all Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

The task before you thus, is both to undertake a gap/challenges analysis and to help identification of good practices that – in the context of the SDGs – may advance the full enjoyment of human rights by all women and girls. 

In shaping your advice, it will be important to recall that, of course:

  • The SDGs are not just more of the same – they are not business as usual

The 2030 Agenda is a game changer – if we care to make it so.  It charts a major shift in development’s center of gravity – from, crudely, a focus on the “developing-world poverty” to more profound a concern, universally, with “global and local inequality”. 

It makes of the SDGs neither a north-south nor a east-west agenda.  As indeed is the case for its principled corner stone - the UDHR, the Sustainable Development Agenda is a global agenda, as concerned by inequality within countries as it is with inequality between countries. 

  • The 2030 Agenda seeks to position rights at the intersections of peace, prosperity, and planet by placing people - their interests, their rights, their inclusion - at its centre.

The SDGs are our “operational plan” for realizing all human rights, all people in all countries - inclusively and universally. As an operational plan – for the UDHR over the next 15 years – the SDGs are a contract with all people everywhere - the international community’s compact – that these will be the ends that they, through their cooperation, shall serve.  

Member States affirmed explicitly, in the text of the 2030 Agenda itself, that it would be implemented in a manner consistent with international law. The drivers of the Agenda – the shaping of it - are the harsh facts of rights unrealized, of course. However, the entire 2030 Agenda must be read as grounded in rights and the international human rights treaties and obligations that flow from that.  

Accountability for delivery of the SDGs in a manner that upholds international law is key to the honoring of the intent of that contract.  So, a core questions must be, “How can we ensure that implementation of the SDGs will be accountable to those standards?” the rights of women and girls will be upheld

  • A person-centered agenda

It is critical that in their implementation of the SDGs, member states approach the person, who is at the Agenda’s centre, as always, without exception, a rights-holder – a rights-holder indelibly, with identity, with intersectionality. 
Across development’s diverse settings – inequality, and associated ignorance/s of hatefulness, by gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, indigeneity, disability, age and all the other identities by which we create fictional, often toxic stratification between people - exact a high price.  That price is being paid in currencies that no society can afford, at cost to social cohesion, to public health, to human rights and thus, also to hope.  And, at cost to women and girls in particular.  
Inequalities are at the heart of development’s limitations with discriminatory practices and unjust unequal distributions of power, voice and participation impediments to development’s progress.  Gapping disparities along the fault lines of bigotry, discrimination and exclusion are stalling access to dignity for millions, including specifically for women and girls.  And yet, those often realties – normalized and tolerate - are hidden in plain sight.  

That means we have a critical question to consider What can we do to be confident that gender-based inequality, and its intersections with other inequalities, will be thoroughly challenged – disturbed/disrupted - throughout its implementation?”
The Agenda’s commitment to “leaving no one behind” is indeed a promise to do just that: to dismantle inequality and tear down discrimination.  Thus, the results for women and girls in particular, their diverse and common experiences, are critical indicators as to whether or not the SDGs deliver on their promise:  the equal rights of all - across identities differentiated by gender -  to public participation, to non-discrimination, to protection from attack when defending their rights, to justice when their rights are derailed, delayed or denied. 

The journey of women and girls in particular over this next 15 years will be the key test of the extent to which the SDGs really do deliver. How can we best reveal that experience, the better to confront the ways in which women and girls have been or have not been left behind; the better to ensure they are not left behind yet again?

  • Data to enable disaggregation that reveals the facts of discrimination and exclusion are key

Recent analysis by UN Women points out that among the 17 Goals of the 2030 Agenda, 11 lack sufficiently gender-sensitive global indicators⁠1 

Gaps in data make it difficult to monitor and assess the direction and pace of progress for women and girls across the Agenda.  But we know enough to be concerned.  We also know enough to be sure that investment in information collection, discussion, analysis and advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights are essential if these Goals are to succeed as they promise.  For the Agenda to be delivered, we must track whether its outcomes are inclusive of women and girls and we must be able to raise alerts as to their exclusion sooner, more persuasively and more conclusively.

  • But this is not only about identity, it also about specificities:  help us guard against roll back on familiar gains.

For their talent, creativity and contribution to be fully available to human progress over the next decades, adolescent girls specifically, must be allowed and enabled to make their way into adulthood fully free from the imposts of gender based violence including child, early and forced marriage and FGM, from preventable maternal mortality and they must have access to the information, resources and services that provide them the opportunity to decide on the number and timing of their children. 

The sexual and reproductive dimensions of the human experience are just so central to the dignity of women and girls specifically, not matter how convenient it is for certain governments to politicalize this in defiance of the facts of epidemiology and medical science. 

We must not allow the unfinished business of the MDGs (2015 Agenda) to be abandoned nor its hard-won gains expressly for sexual and reproductive health and rights, to be repealed, whether by design or neglect. 

  • But, occupy too – with gender scrutiny - the unfamiliar elements of the 2030 Agenda

High among the remarkable features of the 2030 Agenda is its intended indivisibility.  The system of support for the Agenda’s delivery asked to work across all the goals, not merely within them.  Further, there are “first timers” in the Agenda, new priorities - reflecting how rapidly our world has and is changing.  For the first time, we have been gifted global development goals for management of natural resources and industrial activities; patterns of production and consumption; relevant to urbanization, environment and ecosystems.  We cannot/must not assume that gender is without relevance to these dimensions.  CEDAW in their recent General Comment on gender and climate change have provided us leading evidence of just how important this is.  We cannot afford to lose sight of the likelihood that changes under and through those less “familiar” goals will be without their consequences for women, girls and for gender equality.

  • Give due recognition to people as partners

From Venezuela to Tunis to Cairo to Hong Kong and against the backdrops too of Bangui, Juba, Gaza and Damascus – people are acting; acting in and on their worlds – worlds marred by poverty and inequality, by exclusion and by alienation; characterized by claim and counter claim.   And they are doing so in ways that are increasingly far beyond the immediate reach of their formal (political) representatives.  Amplifying their voices through social media and by social organizing; telling their own stories about what about what is right and wrong, about what is happening around them and what matters to them; intervening in their worlds - sometimes creatively and sometimes destructively:  people want to, and people will, participate in development’s journey over the coming decades.  The critical question – specifically for women and girls – is how will they participate? After all, people are not only development’s ends; they are its key means.  They must be approached as partners for these purposes, not cast only as problems to be solved.

And this calls too for a focus on more than the state alone – important as it duties are - and extends far beyond concern with multi-laterals.  Non-state actors - private, traditional and civil society actors will have key determining roles in the fuller results – direct and indirect - of the SDGs.  We must celebrate, protect and enhance the role of civil society in promotion of and achievement for sustainable and inclusive development.  And with respect to must economic actors we bring our work for gender equality into their domains – for the interests of citizens, not just consumers; for the sake of communities, not just markets.   

Nowhere is this clearer than in respect of young people. Our investments in adolescents and youth, now and throughout their life course, will define development’s trajectories for years to come. 

That would be the case at any time.  However, perhaps this has never been more strategic than it is today. For, we have alive today the largest generation of young people that the world has ever seen, with 90% of the young concentrated in the world’s poorer countries. 

A core determinant thus of our global development journey will be degree of support that we provide to young women and young men so that they know, feel and have what they need to change our world for the better – including by not reproducing those narrow, confining, shame-based gendered identities that inhibit, rather than flourish, creativity and human expression.  How can we help them gather, organize, express and explore for the better? For it is their dignity, talent, compassion, creativity and engagement that we need if the challenges facing this fragile, finite planet are to be met in terms that will sustain our children, their children and the children that they too will want to raise in dignity and rights. 

Towards the end of his life, India’s founding father Mohandas Gandhi wrote: “Whenever you are in doubt … apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable … and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] life and destiny? … then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

Children and young people figure large among those with the least; among those with least power; left most vulnerable to decisions in which they play no part.  We are failing them.  


Two fundamental human processes pave our mental and physical human development journeys from childhood to adulthood – learning AND self-realization.  Every one of us has travelled down that dual-laned highway - on which we became ourselves – arriving in adulthood more personalized, gendered, sexual, intimate, talented, desirous …

For the purposes of the “learning lane” - a child’s education - we make policy; set standards; build universal systems – imperfect and inadequate as they may be - systems for children’s and young adults’ education are seen to be central; its popular - even fashionable - to call for education first - above all else. And, of course, we have set an explicit SDG goal for this purpose.  It’s just that important.

But the self-realization path?  Our provision of systems, information, support and services necessary for safe, sustainable, harm-free self-realization? For identity formation?  For healthy and dignified evolution into who we are – who we will emerge to be as adults - sexual, reproductive, intimate, loving, gendered?  To that path, by comparison, what do we offer?  More often than not, we provide mainly silence, shame, stigma.

How can it be that we should so readily abandon the child – specifically the girl – at the onset of puberty?  While puberty brings new risks for boys, the doors do begin to open for them onto a world relatively of greater opportunity, of more access to the public domain, of greater freedom of movement.  But for girls?  Socially, culturally, more often, her puberty is a veritable man-made disaster.

Perhaps this is the most important point after all.  That by demography alone, sustainable development today is aged ten and it is a girl.  And, it is her life over the next fifteen years that will tell development’s truest story.  Change her life, change the world.