The discussion on whether and how the SDGs can accelerate progress towards gender equality has to be located in the context that gender inequality persists, particularly in the spheres of politics, economy, sexual & reproductive justice, and violence against women. Yet it is 100 years since the first International Women’s Day (1917) was celebrated. The key question is what is the international community is going to do to promote gender equality that is different, apart from devoting a SDG to the same (SDG 5) and integrating gender equality into few others - like end poverty, end hunger, ensure healthy lives and ensure equitable education?
One needs to agree that gender equality is central to all development issues - not just the soft SDGs listed above - and all development issues have a bearing on gender equality. Unfortunately gender equality is not integrated into the SDGs around clean energy, resilient infrastructure, sustainable consumption/production, conservation of marine resources and protection of terrestrial resources. There is much more progress required in understanding the interrelationship between gender and the SDGs on these ‘hard’ development issues, what I call the ‘gender interlinkage’ deficit.
A second issue is identifying culturally specific ‘critical factors’ that accelerate progress towards gender equality spanning several SDGs. For example, for decades, education of girl children has been emphasized as “The” critical factor in women’s/girls’ empowerment which would delay age at marriage, delay age at first pregnancy, empower the girl and strengthen child rearing practices. That is, these instrumental and intrinsic arguments were cited behind the ‘girl child education’ movement. Yet the impact of girl child education on empowerment of women and girls has not been unilinear. It is time to think of context/regional-specific factors like marriages by choice or 'choice marraiges' (which go along with no/less dowry, greater freedom for women to work, greater sharing of care and so on), combatting son preference, state, market and community support for 'care work' [caring for children, family, community members] and property rights of women as critical to achieving gender equality.
Many of these critical factors are multi-sectoral - as well as multi-SDG. Thus, there is the need to move from departmental gender-integration to multi-departmental gender integration. There are three approaches to such integration: bottom up, horizontal and top down. In Tamil Nadu, India, the Corporation for Development of Women had formed women’s self-help groups and federated them. In one of the federation meetings, the women wanted access to a women’s lawyer one day a week for legal services related to property rights and violence against women. The Corporation had to link with the Law Department for provision of such services. The above is an example of bottom-up driven integration. An example of horizontal integration is that of Local Government Engineering Department and Department of Women Affairs and which came together to form a market committee with women’s representatives participatiing in them. Every few months the two departments came together to monitor women’s leadership. In Nepal one can see an example of horizontal integration but of a different kind - with involvement of several departments and civil society organizations (including women’s rights organization). The National Planning Commission involved the above stakeholders for SDG planning and monitoring with disaggregated targets/indicators suited to their country - but keeping within the broad framework of SDGs.
To progress towards gender equality, gender integration across departments engaged in different SDGs is required here: i) policy and program levels; ii) structural level – focal points, committees; iii) budgets and expenditures; iv) staff capacities and agency on gender; v) gender transformative leadership. The challenge is to integrate gender across departments for gender-transformative reasons and not just instrumental ones. There is also the need to move from formal towards substantive gender and social equality - remove the hurdles that prevent women from making using of opportunities. With advocacy for gender equality, there is the need to advocate for minimum floors [of income and conditions] for working class women, and ceilings [of profit/gain] for the rich so that poor women have enough resources for decent work and livelihood. State, markets and civil society need to rise up to the challenge to make the dreams of (marginalized) women a reality.