NEW YORK (August 4, 2017)

WEDO attended the 2017 High Level Political Forum (HLPF) at the United Headquarters in New York from July 10 – 19, playing multiple roles: facilitating women’s civil society space and active participation, building capacity on advocacy, and advocating for women’s human rights and a strong HLPF outcome, as well as holding governments to account for their commitments and challenging them on their progress with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We were there with feminists from around the world in solidarity and en masse to share expertise, build awareness and critique the process – aiming to ensure the HLPF is a space where rightsholders and feminists are heard and where the global community holds each other to the highest possible standards to achieve the universal Agenda 2030.

Together with the other Organizing Partners of the Women’s Major Group (WMG), WEDO facilitated the participation of scores of advocates and activists from the WMG through travel, advocacy and actions before and during the HLPF. We built and strengthened alliances with other organizations and constituencies to raise a collective voice on the fundamental need to hold women’s human rights at the center as we address systemic inequality and discrimination and transform the distribution of wealth, power and resources, including unpaid domestic and care work. For WEDO, this transformation must be fully integrated within a just and equitable transition to a low carbon society that is not based on existing corporate and extractive economics. Rather, a just transition will build from sustainable production and consumption patterns and will ensure decent work for women, men and gender non-conforming persons that transcends labor patterns long-based on socially determined gender roles, including in the energy sector.

Impact of the Official Sessions & the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs)

The HLPF focused on the theme “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world” and a subset of goals: 1 (poverty), 2 (hunger), 3 (health/well-being), 5 (gender equality), 9 (infrastructure) and 14 (oceans), as well as 17 (means of implementation) which is to be reviewed in-depth each year. The HLPF programme included sessions in week 1 for thematic reviews and SDG implementation reviews and in week 2 for the Voluntary National Reviews, as well as official side events and learning, training and practice sessions. The review sessions made space for Major Groups and other Stakeholders speakers and brought up some relevant challenges, successes and opportunities, but overall the sessions overwhelmed the agenda with too much presentation, leaving little room for dialogue and learning that will highlight HOW to move forward.

Even with a selected subset of goals, we expected governments to fully live up to their mandate to respect the interrelated nature of the three dimensions of sustainable development and to address the diversity of the agenda, especially through the voluntary national reviews (VNRs). Unfortunately, we primarily saw limited, narrow reviews that celebrated success in silos. In some cases, the reports were submitted so close to HLPF, it was nearly impossible to assess them. At WEDO, we know that gender equality underpins the whole Agenda, and that it is inextricably linked to health of the oceans as well as to hunger and nutrition, infrastructure, climate change and decent work, to name but a few goals. Clearly there will be challenges as countries explore how to link goals, policies, programming and reporting at national level, but the potential for co-benefits for people and planet will be worth the challenge. This is what needs to come out during the HLPF.

From surveys by the WMG and other groups, and conversations with WMG members and others in and around the HLPF, we already knew that most of the voluntary national review processes at national level were not as inclusive and participatory as they should or could be. And then HLPF accorded less than 30 minutes to each presenting country, which included approximately 10 minutes for Q&A sessions from Member States, the UN and MGoS. While the MGoS were invited to coordinate questions during the sessions, the process of distilling complex comments and analysis to 2 minutes shared among many was extremely limiting, and most countries did not respond meaningfully to the questions even though they had already received them. The current HLPF limits time for VNRs in a way that leaves little room for diverse expression and almost belittles the ongoing action and analysis, especially by the MGoS members.

It is crucial to point out that the quality of the HLPF agenda and the overall review process in 2017 cannot be a limiting factor for the 2018 reviews; WEDO fully expects that governments will learn lessons from each other and from civil society. We recommend that DESA and the office of the President of ECOSOC will work with the Major Groups and other Stakeholders to augment the review process, as an important aspect of the HLPF. We cannot wait for the designated revision year of 2019. Next year, we want to see much more meaningful dialogue between countries and with civil society to surface the challenges and the successes. This will mean increasing the time available for the VNR presentations. It will also mean incorporating more time into the preparatory/regional sessions to begin the interactions and strengthen the inclusivity. We also recommend changing the format of the presentations to create an atmosphere for dialogue. We suggest a clear process to collect and respond to suggestions, especially from MGoS, for improvements to the process and to the overall agenda of the HLPF.

Over the next months, WEDO will continue to follow up on the VNRs and draw connections with country commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. WEDO will also explore parallels with the implementation of Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the New Urban Agenda and numerous multilateral environmental agreements – all of which should be working from a solid gender equality perspective, through the rights-based approach, with a justice lens to foster and lead on the structural transformation needed in all sectors and from all actors.

Success of the HLPF depends on how you measure it

Was it successful? Here are some of the numbers that show the multiple kinds of participation at the HLPF (see the UN’s infographic):

  • 8 official days
  • 44 countries signed up to present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) – 43 presented
  • 2458 civil society participants registered
  • 16 Speaking opportunities for WMG members (in official sessions and VNRs)
  • 2 official WMG side events & 1 Women human rights defenders exhibit and launch
  • 6 speaking/learning/outreach events with WEDO presence

But do those numbers point to a success? What is the impact of the participation and is it meaningful? Let’s look at some other numbers:

  • 1 seat per organization registered to HLPF was allocated to Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) to attend the sessions in the official room
  • A handful of the 43 Member States meaningfully responded to questions from MGoS
  • A handful of the 44 Member States made efforts to constrain MGoS autonomous participation during the HLPF
  • 29 minutes per Member State were allocated for VNR presentations, including questions and answers
  • 21 of 64 women’s groups and networks responding to the WMG survey (33%) on the VNR process reported that they were not involved in any way in the VNR process in their country
  • 25 of the 43 remaining groups responding to the WMG survey were invited to participate in the process, had access to the official report and were engaged in drafting some parts of the report or were asked to verify some information.
  • 1 day of the 5 days of Learning, Training and Practice was dedicated to the private sector, in addition to a separate business forum
  • 2 paragraphs of the Ministerial Declaration submitted for a vote (in the end, both remained in the document), but the Declaration itself seemed at risk – including on gender equality

Beyond the numbers

Numbers can rarely tell the whole story. Beyond the numbers, women’s rights groups made a splash through the Women’s Major Group and collaborating across Major Groups other Stakeholders with Indigenous Peoples, Children and Youth, Trade Unions, Science and Technology and NGOs to amplify voices in side events, VNR question and answer sessions, and elsewhere. The WMG in action: Priorities & press statement for the Ministerial Declaration; Color Campaign/Dresscode; Women and environmental human rights defenders exhibit and launch (IISD photos); VNR side event; structural issues side event; many interventions (videos on WMG site)!

WEDO made contributions in numerous events but also behind the scenes supporting WMG and MGOS overall. Co-Director Eleanor Blomstrom gave a lightning talk on MGoS reporting (paragraph 89) to the HLPF; moderated the WMG event “The Experience of Women’s Groups in VNR’s”; introduced advocacy training manual in the “Boosting grassroots participation in SDG implementation” learning session with WomenThrive and NGO CSW; led an advocacy training with NGO CSW and regional partners Dinah Musindarwezo of Femnet and Mabel Bianco of FEIM; and moderated a side event on a Feminist Accountability Framework, with multiple partners. The WEDO team also participated in the event honoring and calling attention to women human rights defenders who have and continue to risk their lives to defend women’s human rights and sustainable development in their communities.

These events, and the WMG/MGoS work, supported collaboration and learning, fostering dialogue to improve action toward realization of SDGs and transformation. That measures up to a success in itself, but it also opens up pathways to push for further concrete and transformative action from all of us involved.

Looking ahead

We expect the HLPF to be institutional and bureaucratic, but we also expect that the United Nations – as the only multilateral space and one based on human rights and peace – to uphold and fight for civil society space to bring ideas, support, critiques and accountability in all forms. WEDO firmly stands with the women’s rights advocates and civil society colleagues who will be demanding changes in the coming year of HLPF to better serve the expansive 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind and to respect human rights and ensure justice for everyone – every step of the way.


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