NEW YORK (March 3, 2013)– by Eleanor Blomstrom, WEDO Program Coordinator 

March 2013 marks ten months since the conclusion of Rio+20, and many are wondering where we are now.  The Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is scheduled to hold its first formal meeting at the United Nations in New York in March. WEDO, partners, allies, and the thousands of organizations and individuals that participated in last year’s Rio+20 have been anticipating this moment since June of last year. The OWG has promise – it has the potential to drive the discussion around global development goals in a holistic direction, deepening the view of development to encompass the social, environmental and economic dimensions (the 3 dimensions of sustainable development) and to recognize that all are necessary to eradicate poverty and address the root causes of inequalities that drive the ongoing global crises. Importantly, the OWG also has the potential to ensure that human rights are fully integrated into global goals and not included only in a preamble/declaration that is forgotten. WEDO is committed to ensuring that human rights (and thus women’s rights) and gender equality are at the core of the OWG SDG discussions and proposals.

What is the OWG?
In The Future We Want (the Rio+20 Outcome document) governments resolved to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on SDGs open to all stakeholders, via a working group of 30 representatives. SDGs are to be action-oriented, limited-in-number, aspirational and universally applicable, and the process is to be coherent with post-2015 processes.

A decision on the composition of the OWG was delayed as numerous countries vied for a seat at the table and efforts to ensure it is properly representative of Member States proved very challenging. On the one hand, the interest in the OWG is a good sign – increasing the likelihood that governments will expend resources and dedicate personnel from ministries of finance and foreign affairs, making decisions more likely to be implemented. This is particularly important for any decision-making bodies following out of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which has historically been driven by environment ministries and has had implementation challenges. On the other hand, the desirability means that instead of 30 members, the OWG has 70 members, with 2 or 3 countries sharing one slot in a number of cases. More members will enhance transparency and inclusiveness but may also hinder decision-making.

In the interim, Member States have been working to develop their own positions on the SDGs to prepare for the OWG process. In a recent questionnaire by the Secretary General, several Member States responded  that human rights, women’s empowerment and/or gender equality were priority areas or key cross-cutting issues. WEDO and the Women’s Major Group (WMG) will be present at all OWG meetings and will follow up with member states to advocate for an integrated framework that ensures human rights and gender equality are core issues and that inputs are inclusive, especially of women’s priorities from the Global South. Priority areas that have surfaced from Member States in the last nine months are wide-ranging, from sustainable energy to food security to water and sanitation to gender equality to sustainable consumption and production.

WEDO is contributing to a WMG publication on the links between the SDGs and the post-2015 development agenda from a women’s rights and gender equality perspective, exploring the connections through issues relevant to women’s lives and sustainable development, such as climate change, energy, extractive industries, chemicals, decent work, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Each chapter is written by an expert from the Global South, offering a unique perspective. The WMG is not advocating that each become a priority issue or thematic area within the SDGs; rather the paper illustrates the interconnectedness of the issues and the role that women play as actors, activists and leaders.. The publication will provide some overarching recommendations for ensuring that women’s rights and gender equality are addressed and furthered through SDGs and the post-2015 development framework.

Within the women’s rights and feminist communities, the relevance of SDGs is still a point of discussion. Given the history of the MDGs and their reductionist view of development, there is concern that sustainable development goals will not go far enough to recognize the complex relationships among equality, rights, poverty, empowerment, economic development and human health and well-being. For that reason, WEDO remains active in the SDG discussions, to ensure that human rights and gender equality are at the center.

WEDO also supports an integrated development framework. It is false and counter-productive to separate poverty eradication from sustainable development or even environmental issues. But beyond the debate on content is the debate about universality and common but differentiated responsibilities. While developed and developing countries have different baselines and different priorities, creating separate agendas is not necessarily the answer. Parallel tracks for SDGs and a development agenda will not be effective for women, those most marginalized, or the world more broadly.  WEDO and many other organizations would remind the world of the Rio Principles, as an agreed basis from which to work. The Rio Principles should not preclude stronger principles, but they should not be rolled back. Moving into and beyond 2015, an interconnected world cannot forget its common responsibilities to humanity, to promoting and protecting human rights and to ensuring that all people have the healthy environment and resources that they need to ensure human dignity.

And now that the OWG will begin to meet and develop its proposals – to be presented in September 2013 – the role of civil society takes on high importance, and women must be leading and represented within those discussions. The challenge for civil society is that the OWG is under the GA, in which the modalities for civil society participation are minimal. However, the WMG and other Major Groups have been in communication with the UN and governments to ensure that civil society has the same (or enhanced) rights to participation and access during the OWG process as they had during the Rio process, and the Major Groups have drafted a proposal for a multistakeholder advisory group that is based on the nine Major Groups structure and outlines access to documents and participation in meetings. Without modalities for civil society, the OWG process will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international civil society community.

Civil society participation and the Major Group structure is important to WEDO and the WMG because it guarantees participation and access rights to groups most marginalized – women, indigenous, youth – and provides equitable footing with the business and industry NGOs or the large environmental NGOs, which typically have more resources and access.

Stay tuned for further information and updates as these parallel processes unfold, including dialogue on when and how these processes might come together. Working closely with women’s rights, feminist and social justice organizations around the SDGs and post-2015, WEDO will continue to challenge the global development paradigm and ensure a transparent and inclusive process, centered on a new worldwide agenda to promote human rights and a peaceful and healthy planet.

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