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Picture: Lisa Maree Williams
Picture: Lisa Maree Williams

Leave no-one behind. This is the central transformative promise of the Agenda for Sustainable Development that all 191 member states of the UN agreed to achieve by 2030.

With less than six years left for every signatory country to work together towards securing the rights and wellbeing of everyone on a thriving planet, that promise is in jeopardy. Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will “become an epitaph for a world that might have been,” as UN secretary-general António Guterres lamented.

I recently attended the 68th Commission on the Status of Women Conference at the UN headquarters in New York. It is a large annual gathering of about 4,000 feminists, academics, policymakers, philanthropists, civil society and non-governmental organisations from across the globe.

At the onset of the event delegates reaffirmed their collective commitment to the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, considered the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s empowerment. It provides a framework for the achievement of irreversible and measurable progress towards ending discrimination, promoting women’s rights and advancing gender equality.

With a focus on sustainable development goal 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, this year’s gathering took place under the theme “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective”.

Delegates took stock of progress made towards realising this goal and recognised with deep concern that as a global community we are woefully lagging in our efforts. UN statistics indicate that 15.4% of goal 5’s nine targets are “on track”, while 61.5% are “at a moderate distance” and 23.1% are “far or very far off track” from the 2030 targets.

Progress on goal 5 has been marred by geopolitical tension, financial and economic crises, the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity, energy crises, climate change and natural disasters, biodiversity loss, armed conflicts, humanitarian emergencies and the forced displacement of people, which has had disproportionately negative effects on women and girls, proliferating hunger, food insecurity and poverty in all its manifestations.

A discussion point on the agenda was gender responsive financing, which serves as a crucial mechanism for empowering and enabling women to make contributions to society. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, when viewed through the lens of economic empowerment, underscores the pivotal role of women’s economic participation in achieving gender equality. Central to this objective is the removal of barriers, a pragmatic approach essential for realising the sustainable development goals.

During our assessment of the financing gaps for addressing gendered poverty it became apparent that despite progress in various sectors, gendered poverty remains a stark reality. Whether it’s the gender pay gap, limited access to economic opportunities or discriminatory financial practices, the repercussions are profound and pervasive.

I’ve spent time reflecting on the various initiatives, sustained actions and renewed commitments made by all delegates. And while we lamented the slow and uneven global progress, I asked myself whether SA is faring any better than the rest of the world. I took a 10-year view from 2014-24 and examined specific initiatives and outcomes across various sectors to assess our country’s progress in meeting the sustainable development goal targets.

• Target 1: End all forms of discrimination against women and girls. SA has enacted legislation such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination based on various grounds, including gender. However, challenges remain to ensure and monitor the implementation of the act, thus hindering progress to address and combat intersectional discrimination and societal norms that perpetuate inequality.

• Target 2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres. Our government has implemented several measures to address gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF), including the National Strategic Plan on GBVF and the establishment of the GBVF Response Fund. SA also ratified and implemented into law the International Labour Organisations Convention 190 on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work and aligned it to the code of good practice. Yet we continue to be challenged by the shift from policy to action, and monitoring remains a persistent issue.

With this in mind the fund is using its convening power and engages all stakeholders, encouraging constructive dialogue, turning policy into action, driving specific advocacy, best practice protocols and behavioural change campaigns to promote gender equality and eradicate GBVF in our communities and institutions. We prioritise the support of community-based organisations in identified, often underresourced areas, and this strategy has borne fruit and showcases the inherent power of collaboration that underpins our ethos. However, GBVF remains a huge challenge in our communities, requiring sustained collaborative efforts to prevent and respond to violence.

• Target 6: Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. SA has progressive sexual and reproductive health right policies such as the National Integrated Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights Policy and the national strategic plan on HIV, TB and sexually transmitted infections among others. These policies provide a framework to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services such as contraceptives, maternal healthcare, and HIV/Aids treatment.

We have the largest antiretroviral therapy programme in the world, with more than 3.4-million HIV-infected individuals accessing live-saving medication. Despite efforts to improve access, reduce maternal mortality and promote reproductive rights, challenges such as stigma and other access barriers persist.

• Target 7: Give women equal rights to economic resources, ownership and control over land and financial services. SA has successfully implemented several policies and legislation aimed at promoting women's economic empowerment, including gender transformative procurement policies, laws on land rights and access to financial services.

Our country is also the co-lead of the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Economic Justice & Rights, and a case study for the localised implementation is the Women Economic Assembly. It focuses on the transformation of the value chain ecosystems required to create pathways for women-owned businesses to participate in the mainstream economy. However, gender disparities to access economic resources and ownership of property persist, requiring ongoing efforts to address institutional and structural barriers to entry.

While some progress against these four targets has been made, a fundamental shift is required. There is vast room for improvement, particularly in addressing persistent gender disparities in access to education and healthcare, economic participation and more specifically, political representation.

Even though SA has never had a woman as head of state we have had a woman as deputy president, a milestone on the African continent. The country is often cited as a global success story, with women’s representation in parliament now at about 50%. During parliament’s current term issues of gender equality, transformation and women’s empowerment provoked vocal public debates and protest action, including campaigns against GBVF, placing these issues at the forefront.

A newly elected leadership team will need to prioritise poverty and inequality, which includes a grasp of the intricacies of women-specific issues and the holistic, societal benefit of addressing them. There is also a dire need to address barriers to women’s political participation and representation within their respective party platforms and structures. These are vital to ensure implementation of and compliance with the provisions of a range of global, continental and regional policies and national legislation aimed at advancing the rights of women. 

The journey towards gender equality stands at a crucial crossroad in our country’s history and urgent, concerted action is required to ensure inclusivity and tackle all forms of inequality. The road ahead demands our unwavering commitment, innovative strategies and collaborative multisectoral efforts to secure the rights and wellbeing of every woman and girl.

Let us heed the call to action and embark on this journey together, mindful of the challenges yet steadfast in our determination to realise the transformative promise of leaving no-one behind by 2030.

• Mojapelo is CEO of the GBVF Response Fund.

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