Demanding rights in the sustainable development agenda

In September 2015, world leaders convened at the United Nations for a landmark summit to adopt the 2030 Agenda, a robust set of 17 goals and 169 targets to achieve sustainable development over the next 15 years. If fully implemented, the 2030 Agenda promises to end hunger, improve health, strengthen education systems, safeguard the environment, and promote economic growth worldwide. The 2030 Agenda will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that governments agreed to in the year 2000.

Gender equality and women’s health and rights are central to this new agenda. Among other key gains, the agenda includes strong commitments to ending violence and discrimination against women and girls, ending child marriage and female genital mutilation, addressing gender disparities in education, and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Women’s and feminist organizations played a key role in the post-2015 advocacy processes to ensure that gender equality and women’s rights were at the core of this new global development agenda, both as a stand-alone goal, but also integrated across the entire agenda.

Katherine Austin-Evelyn, MPH, Program Officer in Learning and Evaluation, International Women's Health Coalition
Katherine Austin-Evelyn, MPH

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, which were seen by many as a prescriptive framework crafted behind closed doors by Northern governments and donors for Southern governments, the 2030 Agenda is a universal agreement that is equally relevant to all Member States. This means that governments like the U.S. are as responsible as any other for reducing maternal mortality, ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health, eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls, and protecting reproductive rights. It’s clear that the SDG’s call for real, sustainable change. The breadth and depth of the Agenda’s commitments across the three pillars of sustainable development – the social, economic, and environmental and the active participation of civil society throughout the process are indications of that.

How do we ensure that non-binding global commitments like the 2030 Agenda lead to meaningful change? How do we use these commitments to invest in building the enabling environments necessary for realizing their aims? Too often when it comes to women’s health we see governments reach for the lowest hanging fruit– family planning and a narrow vision of maternal health. The harder case to make is for the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health and rights. What about access to safe and legal abortion, post-exposure prophylaxis, emergency contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, high quality, affordable and humanized maternity care throughout pregnancy, labor and postpartum periods? What about addressing stigma, discrimination and violence in healthcare settings? Parental and spousal consent laws?

The United States government has made several commitments and investments in maternal health abroad over the years. Many programs have fallen short in advancing a comprehensive vision of women’s health that is grounded in human rights. Despite President Obama’s commitment to fully implementing the 2030 Agenda, few U.S. organizations know what the 2030 Agenda is and how they can use it. Domestically, the Affordable Care Act has created a unique opportunity to adjust the priorities and practices in the U.S. maternity care system to better meet the needs of women and families. In addition to improving outcomes, patient experiences, and cutting costs, the Affordable Care Act has the potential to tackle significant maternal health disparities in the U.S., where African American women experience three times the risk of maternal mortality as similarly situated white women. We must leverage the 2030 Agenda to advance these aims in the US, with a focus on equity and rights. To do this, we can start with conversations between health practitioners, with patients and in educational institutions like Johns Hopkins.

Sarah Gold, MA
Sarah Gold, MA

To achieve the holistic vision of maternal health that women deserve in an age of sustainable development, sexual and reproductive health and rights needs to seep into all of our conversations, interventions and individual actions. We need to be vigilant about applying a gender analysis and human rights lens to discussions about maternal and child health – whether we are working in New York City or Nairobi.


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