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After the Millennium Development Goals: what do women want?

Millennium Development Goals Icons

With less than four years before we hit the looming 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) the question of ‘what comes next’ is being hotly contested in development circles. For gender advocates like myself who have been frustrated by the lack of ambition of the MDG framework on women’s rights, this feels like a ripe opportunity to think afresh about our vision for a post-MDGs world and our strategies for getting there.

Do global frameworks deliver for women?

For me, one of the big questions is whether there is value in pushing for another – albeit more ambitious – set of global targets and indicators on women’s rights? Do global frameworks deliver for women? And if women’s rights organisations were meaningfully involved in shaping a post-MDGs vision, how might definitions and indicators of ‘development’ be framed differently?

These were some of the questions we grappled with at a session at the UN Commission on the Status of Women last year. Looking ahead, our biggest fear was losing ground and ending up with a framework much narrower still than the current MDGs. This is a very real risk in a darkening international environment marked by the resurgence of fundamentalisms and persistent attacks on women’s rights and women’s human rights defenders; there’s no doubt we’re facing a context much more precarious than that of 11 years ago.

How can women influence new frameworks?

For other gender activists, the pressing question is when and whether and how to engage in advocacy to influence a new UN framework – because participating takes up a lot of energy and time. Given the diminishing power of UN institutions to effect changes in the world, and the marginalisation of women within these institutions, perhaps it is better to invest our energies in the places of public visibility where women’s voices have more chance of being heard and influencing change. This might involve mobilising on the streets and grassroots activism, for example, or work with the media. In other words, it may be time to revisit the strategies that women’s movements have used successfully in the past where there was less accommodation with official structures and more activism.

International spaces remain important though – especially the multi-lateral, multi-stakeholder space of the UN. The downside of the UN’s multilateralism is that all too often we end up with the minimum consensus acceptable for all, which will always be disappointing for those of us striving for social transformation.

Choosing our goals

Mural calling for an end to violence against women in South Africa

Perhaps one of the challenges is to define what the core development goals are that we are not prepared to negotiate, to give up. For us at Womankind, and for women across the world, ending violence against women and girls is one of these absolute non-negotiables. Linked to this is the importance of not giving up on achieving one of the most basic yet contested of rights – women’s right to make decisions about what happens to our own bodies. Perhaps most important of all is to continue the struggle to tackle structural gender inequalities – the forces that keep women in subjugation.

Recovering substantive commitments from previous decades, like the Beijing Platform for Action, could be a fruitful place to start, particularly in a context where momentum is building for reorienting development to human well-being outcomes, including greater attention to equity. Yet a stark warning from a speaker at the Development Studies Association conference this week emphasised the need to be careful about loading everything onto a theoretical post MDGs framework. Simple measures have a much greater chance of incentivising action, she argued, than lobbying for more holistic, complex goals – even if these better reflect people’s realities ‘on the ground’. From this perspective, the key question is what reasonably can we achieve that’s going to take hold and have some traction?

There’s another reason not to load everything onto the MDGs – shaping a new development framework won’t yield the changes we are seeking on its own. Crucially we also need to influence the financial architecture and macroeconomic policies which keep people mired in poverty. Women’s rights advocates need to look beyond our usual suspects – for example, targeting transnational corporations and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for their role in undermining human rights and well-being.

Without this, the risk is that – at best – we end up with a nice new framework based on a minimum consensus for development, but the structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality remain untouched. Maybe now is the time to be radical, to move away from ‘business as usual’.

Women need to help shape development

Lastly, as we forge pathways towards 2015 and beyond, it is crucial to push for women’s full and meaningful participation in the process of ‘reimagining development’ – a process which goes well beyond questions about a post MDGs framework, to also reflect on the implications of the global financial crisis, the food and fuel crisis, the continuing challenge of climate change, shifting geo-politics and the rise of new emerging donors.

The narrow interpretation of gender equality in the current MDGs was attributed in no small part to the lack of participation by women’s organisations in their drafting and implementation. How can we ensure that, this time around, women’s organisations are meaningfully involved in setting the agenda and shaping a new development paradigm that puts rights and equality at the heart of what development is all about?

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Post by Emily Esplen