10/19/2015 05:38 EDT | Updated 10/19/2016 05:12 EDT

We Need a Canada-Wide Approach to Achieve Women's Rights

A good start would be a renewal of funding for women's groups both domestically and internationally. But then we also need an ambitious agenda that crosses all Canadian federal departments, as well as in federal-provincial priorities -- a new National Action Plan for Gender Equality with legislative and operational targets from 2016 to 2030.

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Diverse human hands showing unity

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

By Diana Rivington

There was a brief hiatus after the fall of the Berlin wall when some thought the "Cold War peace dividend" meant that the world could make major progress on human rights, equality (gender, economic, you name it!), and reducing violence in all its forms (political, economic, gender-based and so forth). It was to be a "new paradigm."

From 1990 to 1996, there were a dizzying series of thematic United Nations (UN) Conferences (on children, on the environment and development, on human rights, on population and development, on social development, on women, on human settlements).

I remember the exhilaration of being on the Canadian delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 -- how we celebrated "locking down" seriously progressive language. We made recommendations for achieving the rights and access of women and girls in all sectors: education, health, information-communication technologies, peace-building and agriculture, among other things.

The list was long. And the final chapter of the Beijing Platform for Action concerned measures for institutionalizing gender equality goals and analysis both domestically through the Ministries for the Status of Women, and internationally through development cooperation and UN agencies.

Out of the Beijing process came amazing energy -- strong linkages among women's groups in the south who used the internet as a new tool for organizing -- and tremendous hope, desperately needed to sustain the plodding attempts at "institutionalization" (or gender mainstreaming) that followed.

I watched as the overarching goals from the UN conferences of the 1990s were shrunk, shrink-wrapped and repackaged as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In this process, the world's nations "misplaced" their 1994 commitment to universal access to reproductive health care and to the right of women and men to freely choose the size and spacing of their families. But that was 15 years ago at the Millennium Summit in 2000.

Now, the 2015 UN General Assembly has approved a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide us through to 2030.

In terms of wordsmithing, attention to the rights and equality of women and girls are threaded throughout the 35 pages of "Transforming Our World," as well as more explicitly in the fifth goal of the 17 new SDGs -- a fundamental recognition of the interlinkages between women's rights and the capacity of the world community to deliver on the SDGs.

There are nine (oddly numbered) targets for goal five, including: ending discrimination, harmful practices and violence against women; recognizing unpaid care and domestic work; rights to economic resources and access to ownership and control over land; and full participation of women in decision-making, as well as legislation to promote gender equality and empowerment.

One of the targets is the "lost" Cairo MDG to "ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed" in various UN documents. The Cairo goal is also found under goal three on health, calling for "universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes."

Is this target in two places because negotiators wanted to anchor it well so that it won't get lost again? Or is it a true recognition that sexual and reproductive health and rights are vital both to ensuring a healthier world and to achieving gender equality?

If Canada commits to "internalizing" the SDGs, what should we expect?

A good start on goal five would be a renewal of funding for women's groups both domestically and internationally because research has shown that when women's organizations work together they have more impact on influencing government policy than female legislators or national wealth. Indeed, "women's autonomous organizing in civil society affects political change."

But then we also need an ambitious agenda that crosses all Canadian federal departments, as well as in federal-provincial priorities -- a new National Action Plan for Gender Equality with legislative and operational targets from 2016 to 2030 for Canada's actions domestically and internationally.

This must be a whole-of-Canada, whole-of-government approach. For example, eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls requires actions by the Departments of Justice, the Solicitor General, Indian and Northern Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), and the Canadian Census -- in order to plan, deliver and monitor progress domestically and internationally.

To deal with the target on reproductive health services and rights will require Health Canada to work with provincial ministries of health, and to include financial incentives in their respective budgets for decades to come. It will also require a strong mandate by DFATD to include sexual and reproductive health and rights in our country level dialogues, and in our discussions with the multilateral system on maternal and child health, refugees, humanitarian assistance, among others.

I may not be as optimistic now as I was after Beijing -- aspirational language needs to be matched with clear and measurable targets and timelines, money and political will. But if countries such as Canada can set clear and measurable targets for the SDGs, it might just mean making more progress on those 20-year-old gender equality objectives.

Diana Rivington is a Senior Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She enjoyed a long career at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) where her last assignment was as Director, Human Development and Gender Equality.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.


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