09/23/2015 08:30 EDT | Updated 09/23/2016 05:12 EDT

Let's Leave No One Behind With the New Sustainable Development Goals

Four years ago I met 14-year-old Mary in her remote village in Chilenga, Zambia. Her story has stayed with me.

In accordance with long-held local tradition, Mary was taken away at puberty with other girls into a hut for two weeks and was taught by one of the local grandmothers how to manage periods and care for a husband. But she was taught nothing of sex education and birth control. So at a young age, she became pregnant. The father, a fellow pupil, offered to marry her -- but Mary refused as she wanted to go back to school.

When Mary told her parents she was expecting a baby they feared she would never survive. She told me she was frightened too. Many local mothers and their babies had died in childbirth. In the end, Mary was lucky. A local health worker trained by Plan was with her to ensure a safe birth.


Marie Staunton (far right) meets with Mary (centre) in Chilenga, Zambia.

Photos: Plan International / Paolo Black

Mary and her baby, Mathilda, have benefitted from a worldwide effort to reduce deaths of mothers and children, one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed at the UN in 2000. And progress has been remarkable; deaths of children under five have halved since 1990 and twice as many mothers now survive childbirth. More girls and boys are in school and millions more people now have access to safe drinking water. These ladder up to an unprecedented achievement followed by a concerted global effort that actually worked -- one which Canadians have contributed to, and one of which we should be proud.

But not all girls are as lucky as Mary. Pregnancy is still one of the leading causes of death of girls in developing countries between 15 and 18. Worldwide, 16,000 children under five die every day. Girls and boys are left behind because of who they are or where they live. Women and girls from ethnic minorities have fared worst, and discriminated against because of their sex and race. Girls living in towns or cities are much more likely to have access to a skilled birth attendant than young women living in remote parts. Children fleeing conflict, like that in Syria, are at even greater risk. And while more girls and boys are in schools, girls and boys still fare differently. Because she was born into a rural family, Mathilda is five times less likely to finish secondary school than a boy in the city, and 14 times less likely than a girl born in Canada.

2015-09-22-1442943477-504831-PB1_3858.jpg Leaving girls behind is bad for everyone. We have learned that economic growth is a driver of sustainable development and works best if everyone is included. According to the research body the Overseas Development Institute, "if all groups had benefitted equally from growth since 2000, extreme poverty would be eliminated by 2030.The economic potential of millions of people is being wasted."

Which is why the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all the more necessary and critical to build on the achievements of the MDGs.

This week, I will be in New York as nations of the world agree on this new set of goals

to end absolute poverty by 2030. These goals aim to leave no one behind and cover protecting our planet as well its people, supporting peace and achieving prosperity. But how do we make these ringing declarations in the green glass and marble tower of the UN come true in the hut on a smallholding where Mary and Mathilda live?

Practically we need to start doing five things straight away:

  1. Zero in on the hardest to reach and most vulnerable. In each country identify who is left behind for each development goal -- the villages with no health centres, the refugee children missing out on school, the girls who cannot graduate because they are forced into marriage.
  2. Set a target rate of progress for each of these groups.
  3. Collect data. The major data providers (including governments, programmes, international institutions and the private sector) need to commit now to providing data that is carefully broken down by sex and age to track progress.
  4. Engage young people in development and monitoring. Two out of three people in Malawi are under 25 and the demographics of other developing countries are similar. Engaging young people in development not only gives them skills but increases transparency and efficiency. In Malawi, young people were trained to use score cards to evaluate 200 education, water, health and agriculture services in their communities. The score cards gathered information on people's perceptions of services and assessed these services based on locally agreed standards of quality, efficiency and transparency. The process included monitoring teacher numbers and teacher-pupil ratios, which highlighted teacher shortages in rural areas. Local government responded by altering teacher allocations and making an action plan for resolving the other shortcomings identified by communities. In Cambodia, a survey by young people of families who could not afford to send their children to school persuaded the local commune to grant scholarships.
  5. Focus the attention of politicians at the global, national, and local levels to prioritize girls and boys who are most at risk and are being left behind in global progress. Globally, the Overseas Development Institute is suggesting a global summit in a few years to track progress. Canadian leadership on maternal, newborn and child health is saving lives, an example of a national effort that is moving the dial on a global challenge. And in the village of Chilenga, local political leadership has transformed Mary's opportunities. Mary was a bright pupil, but the policy at her school was not to re-admit girls who had become pregnant. 2015-09-22-1442942222-9161212-PB1_3894.jpg The local chief, Chief Zingalume, is a young and smart 20-year-old, and he persuaded the school to change its policy -- demonstrating a new, progressive generation of political leadership. As he says, "We used to think we should not invest in sending girls to school but should rely on boys to lead the country. Now we think that girls can lead the country, too."

The Millennium Development Goals have already helped Mary. Let's consider these five approaches so that the new Sustainable Development Goals can ensure Mathilda is not left behind.

Marie Staunton is the Interim Chief Executive Officer of Plan International Canada.


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