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How do you solve a problem like gender inequality?

For most women’s rights advocates, the answer is obvious: adopt a human rights framework. At the global level this means using the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by 189 countries, which requires all states parties to themselves respect gender equality, protect against gender discrimination by others, and fulfill those human rights needs (e.g., right to adequate housing) that stand in the way. Women’s Property Rights Under CEDAW addresses those parts of CEDAW that protect, inter alia, women’s equal rights to access land, financial credit, social benefits, inheritance, and all forms of family property. While CEDAW has been subject to many critiques, my co-authored book defends it against criticisms that it privileges the experiences of Western women, fails to address salient issues (such as violence as discrimination), or marginalizes women’s rights. The book also rejects concerns that the CEDAW Committee’s property jurisprudence advances a “neo-liberal” agenda in favor of commodification, privatization, business deregulation, and economic globalization. The Committee’s outputs demonstrate how the Convention has evolved to incorporate domestic violence and nuanced positions on the male/female “binary,” the public/private divide, and the nature and causes of discrimination, subordination, and marginalization. There is a reason that CEDAW is specifically cited as a justification for progressive new laws around the world as well as in hundreds of national judicial opinions that use the treaty or the Committee’s jurisprudence to interpret existing laws and even national constitutions.

Nonetheless, the limitations that CEDAW shares with other global human rights institutions—from UN bureaucratic and fiscal constraints to a weak “managerial” approach to securing state compliance increasingly manipulated by rights-disrespecting states—encourages those seeking gender justice to seek alternatives or complements. The UN’s Development Agenda—specifically Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”—is one of them. Whereas CEDAW relies on a legal binding treaty under which states are obligated to implement at the national level equal rights of women, the SDGs’ 17 pledges are a political, aspirational effort, originating in hortatory General Assembly resolutions. They reflect a results-oriented model for international development for all—and not merely developing states—that set specific policy priorities, help steer action and resources, and use bench-marking backed by data. States’ progress towards achieving gender equality under SDG 5 is measured by nine targets and 14 indicators. This includes, under target 5.1 (to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere”), progress towards achieving indicator 5.1.1 which calls for the adoption of “legal frameworks . . . to promote, enforce, and monitor equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex.” SDG targets and indicators, subject to periodic review since the SDGs were originally adopted in 2015, are intended to inspire new development thinking. While the SDGs have been criticized for lacking references to human rights, that might be the point.

For governments now caught in bottom-up populist or top-down authoritarian backlashes against human rights, the SDGs offer an appeal not to abstract dignitarian values but to the need to tackle structural obstacles like poverty, hunger, and gender inequality because these hinder economic growth.  The SDGs appeal not only to “rule of law” states long accustomed to rights discourse at the domestic and international levels, but to governments—nearly all of them—that want to attract international financial institutions and market actors. They may particularly appeal to governments leery of “Western-centric” human rights or inclined to resist legally binding instruments that impose “sovereignty costs.” To be sure, the SDGs are not value free. Those who praise the SDGs see them as embodying Amartya Sen’s “human capabilities” approach grounded in the need to equalize life’s chances, satisfy basic needs, and level the playing field while paying greatest interest to those with the greatest need. Some may see them as yet the latest attempt to blue-wash the UN’s (and international financial institutions’) “civilizing mission,” notwithstanding the pretense of “universal” goals. Feminist critics of SDG 5 may emphasize what SDG targets/indicators fail to measure—namely enjoyment of LGBTQ rights, cyber or economic violence, women’s roles in peace-making and conflict, or the root causes of discrimination and violence against women. Those focusing on property rights might point out that while one SDG 5 indicator seeks data on the proportion of women who have rights to agricultural land, there are no requirements to measure many other kinds of property addressed under CEDAW, such as access to financial services, inheritance, or natural resources. The downside to the nostrum that “what gets measured gets done” is that under the SDGs what is not measured may get ignored.

Notwithstanding the SDGs’ weaknesses as yet another flawed attempt to impose global governance by indicators, advocates for gender equality searching for complements to CEDAW might consider their many other strengths:

(1) The SDGs encourage the collection of gender disaggregated data essential for naming gendered equality gaps and for measuring progress to resolve them.

(2) Many of the indicators (like 5.1.1 above) directly relate to lawyers’ efforts for law reform.

(3) The SDGs’ specificity may be useful for determining whether states are in fact taking “all appropriate measures” to combat discrimination against women as required by CEDAW’s Article 2; they may provide signposts that concretize states’ “due diligence.”

(4) The SDGs supply some useful data not typically demanded under CEDAW (such as, under 5.c.1, the level of governments’ resource allocations devoted to advancing gender equality).

(5) They embrace an integrative approach (suggested by the 54 gender-specific indicators apart from those included in SDG 5) that link gender equality to all the other development goals such as the alleviation of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation.

(6) They provide more specific rationales for educating governments and the public about why gender equality is necessary to, for example, better address the disproportionate gendered effects of climate change.

(7) By calling attention to the costs of gender inequality to individuals, groups of women, to societies, and to the world—and to the resources needed to redress them—the SDGs demonstrate that advancing gender equality in all its dimensions is not free and that states facing massive sums of debt need help to achieve it.

All of these suggest another formidable benefit: the interconnectivity of the SDGs may enable gender equality activists to bridge silo-ed domains within governments and among international organizations and NGOs. They may help convince those who foolishly think that women’s equality is not their problem.

Featured image by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash.

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