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Davos Agenda

Gender equality progress under threat at mid-point of sustainable development goals

Lack of progress on gender equality is threatening the entire SDG Agenda.

Lack of progress on gender equality is threatening the entire SDG Agenda. Image: Getty Images.

Delphine O
French Ambassador and Secretary-General, Generation Equality Forum
Alison Holder
Executive Director, Equal Measures 2030
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Davos Agenda

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  • Almost three-quarters of the SDGs are directly or significantly reliant on gender equality, yet action on the SDGs fails to sufficiently embed gender equality.
  • Progress on gender equality and the 2030 Agenda more broadly is held back by a growing backlash from anti-rights movements.
  • This polarity is threatening democratic and cooperative political and social systems in an already fragmented world and must be addressed at the upcoming SDG Summit.

“It’s time to sound the alarm.” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, is among many raising concerns as we reach the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Eight years after the world committed to end poverty, protect the planet, and deliver peace and prosperity for all by 2030, just 12% of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are on track to be achieved and almost a third are no closer to being achieved than they were in 2015.

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The 2030 Agenda is in peril and leaders will continue to fall short of their promises if they turn a blind eye to the significance of gender equality at the SDG Summit this September. Whilst gender equality is a critical accelerator of progress across the SDG goals, it has also become a battlefield in the age of increasing political fragmentation.

Lack of progress on gender equality threatens the entire SDG Agenda

Persistent gender inequalities threaten progress across the entire 2030 Agenda. Gender equality is the focus of the nine targets in SDG 5, but less often recognised is that it is also a critical determinant of progress for all 169 SDG targets. A recent assessment by Equal Measures 2030 found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of the SDG targets are directly or significantly reliant on gender equality.

Despite the significant role gender equality plays in the success of the SDGs, many governments fail to sufficiently prioritize, mainstream, or even acknowledge the importance of gender equality in sustainable development progress overall. At the UN in 2023, 38 countries and the EU provided summary key messages on their country’s progress towards the SDGs: just over half of them made no mention of gender equality, women or girls.

This silence is reflected in how countries around the world are performing on gender equality across the SDG goals. No country has achieved the promises they made and more than three billion girls and women still live in countries with poor or very poor levels of gender equality.

Progress towards a gender equal future

However, progress on gender equality is possible. We can find examples of rapid progress in some countries and on some issues, particularly in the Global South. For instance, Bangladesh has seen noteworthy advancements in girls’ education and women's financial inclusion and recent advancements in abortion access in Argentina, Benin, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and – just last week – Mexico are a beacon of hope for reproductive rights and gender equality.

A critical juncture: where do we stand and what is at stake?

The lack of significant progress in the fight for gender equality isn’t just the result of weak political leadership or insufficient investments from the international community. For many years now, the anti-rights movements have been growing their power, expanding their hold in all parts of the world and garnering more and more political and financial support.

Every step forward for gender equality seems to be met with increasing resistance, and every victory of leaders more sympathetic to feminist causes (including in Brazil and Chile) seems to come with electoral defeats elsewhere. In 2022 alone, policy-makers with overtly anti-gender and anti-choice platforms have been elected in numerous countries.

Even stalwart promoters of gender equality (such as Sweden) have been swept by the far-right wave, prompting the Swedish government to abandon its feminist foreign policy – a foreign policy that centres and prioritizes women’s rights. In the US, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade has had devastating consequences for millions of American women, but also ripple effects globally, where anti-choice politicians have felt energized and vindicated by the decision.

Türkiye's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the most efficient international treaty to prevent and punish gender-based violence, has left women victims of domestic violence deprived of legal protection. In South America, a battle of historic dimension is being waged before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights between feminist movements and religious, conservative organizations supported by politicians, to decriminalize abortion – considered homicide and subject to up to a 50-year prison sentence in many places.

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Anti-rights and anti-choice movements are not only stalling gender progress but are also compromising the broader 2030 Agenda. The increased polarization and the growing pushback against human rights writ large is threatening the very existence of democratic institutions and the social fabric of societies; it is an act of open defiance to multilateralism and the rule of law.

In spite of this pushback, gender equality actors have been coming together to defend the SDG 5 agenda and goals. Key initiatives such as the Generation Equality Forum, co-chaired by France and Mexico under UN Women’s leadership in 2021, bring together allies of all backgrounds and geographies. Recently, the Women Deliver conference in Rwanda also highlighted the paramount importance of convening and rallying against the rise of the anti-rights movements.

The urgency of now

As we stand at this precarious juncture, the stakes have never been higher. The upcoming UN Summits on the SDGs and gender equality, as well as the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, must be transformative platforms for a more gender equal future.

These convenings must elevate gender equality from a “nice-to-have” to a non-negotiable pillar of global governance and development. To realise a gender equal future, we must form a resistance against anti-rights and anti-choice movements. These agendas pose an existential threat to the whole of the 2030 Agenda.

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