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Focus on Gender: SDG targets are no such thing

Copyright: Robin Hammond / Panos

Speed read

  • Many of the proposed SDG targets are unmeasurable activities not targets

  • Gender-related ‘targets’ are also not tied to wider development goals

  • The UK has shown the way by using interlinked outcomes for women and girls

A report published by two science organisations earlier this month criticised the current framework for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as being largely ill-defined, not based on the latest science, lacking in synergy and with no narrative of development.
The fifth SDG, “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, is a good case in point.
Some of the targets attached to this SDG are vague. One aims to end ‘discrimination’ against women and girls. But without a clear definition of discrimination how can this be addressed? Another aims to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work. Yet feminist academics have different definitions of unpaid care work, so which one are we meant to recognise and value?

“The gender equality goal needs to be linked to the other goals so there is synergy between the social and transformative concept of gender equality and the environmental and sustainable concepts that underpin this post-2015 framework.”

Henrietta Miers

This is the case with many of the SDG targets: they are not targets at all, they are activities. [1]
As the scientists behind the report pointed out, it is unclear what final scenario the framework is targeting. In the absence of a desired end result, it is impossible to monitor the impact of a list of activities.
Furthermore, the gender equality goal needs to be linked to the other goals so there is synergy between the social and transformative concept of gender equality and the environmental and sustainable concepts that underpin this post-2015 framework.
For instance, smallholder female farmers face specific barriers to increasing agricultural productivity, such as restricted access to technology, finance and knowledge. These barriers should be highlighted in the second goal around sustainable agriculture. Similarly, the role women have and the barriers they face mitigating the effects of climate change — such as managing food security and finding clean drinking water in recurrent droughts — has been well documented and should be reflected in the goal around climate change.
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has developed a clear strategic vision for girls and women. [2] Crucially, and unlike the gender SDG, this starts by envisaging an enabling environment for gender equality and sets out four interlinked outcomes for women and girls that will be needed to achieve this: girls’ completion of primary and secondary education; economic empowerment; an ability to live free from violence; and universal sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It’s immediately clear how each of these outcomes might be measured. For instance, economic empowerment is, in simple terms, increased income — and that is measureable. It’s also good that the outcomes cut across sectors, and so avoid ghettoising gender concerns. 
UK Prime Minister David Cameron is in a position to capitalise on this good work. He is co-chair of the high-level panel of eminent persons appointed by the UN secretary-general to advise on post-2015 development.
Cameron should use his position to build on DFID’s lead and push for a more sensible post-2015 approach to tackling gender inequalities; one that is practical, possible and avoids the pitfalls of overambitious and vague targets that cannot be measured.
Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women. 


[1] Open working group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals (Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, 2014)
[2] Stepping-up a gear for girls and women: Updates to DFID’s strategic vision for girls and women, to 2020 and beyond (DFID, November 2013) 
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