Sexual and gender-based violence in the Sustainable Development Goals

UPDATE: How is sexual and gender-based violence reflected in the final Global Goals?

The SDGs will be finalised at the end of 2015, but is the proposed language on sexual and gender-based violence enough?

In July 2014, the 17 suggested Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) were presented to the world by a United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group.

The SDGs aim to build on the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which cover development issues such as poverty, education and health. Officially established in the year 2000, the MDGs have shaped the international agenda ever since but expire at the end of 2015.

In September 2014, the SDGs and post-MDGs processes officially merged to form a new intergovernmental process, which will culminate in a high level summit in September 2015. This is when the universally applicable SDGs will be finalised.

A global human rights issue

One of the topics that feminists want to see better reflected in the SDGs is gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). These terms have been broadly used to situate abuse within unequal relationships between men and women, but can also include violence perpetrated against anyone because of their gender or sexual orientation. While women are in the majority of those affected by GBV and SGBV, it also has an impact on men as targets, or through violence against a family member or loved one. Men can also play an important role in work to eliminate this violence.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced GBV and as many as 38 per cent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. GBV and SGBV can have multiple effects on individuals, households and wider society and communities.

“GBV itself emerges very much as a manifestation of structural inequality and that speaks to the need for stronger, better, smarter development,” says Elizabeth Mills, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The Institute's work with global partners has drawn attention to the power of collective actors and organised activism against GBV as a key way of creating transformative change on attitudes, norms and behaviours, as well as pushing for change in policy and practice.

Gender-based violence in the SDGs

As the SDGs currently stand, there is a standalone goal (Number 5) on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Underneath this is the target: “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”

“We would like to see explicitly a target on sexual and gender-based violence and all the indicators around that, whether it is about prevention, or services, or women’s empowerment,” says Rukia Cornelius, National Manager for Community Education and Mobilisation for Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa. “We would also like to see something about committing to shared care work or shared parenting and how that influences sexual and gender-based violence.”

For Mills, structural violence is an important area of concern which she thinks should get more attention in the SDGs: “If we only focus on gender-based violence as an issue of inequality between individuals – and often it’s between men and women, with men positioned as the perpetrator and women portrayed as the victim – then the individuals become the problem. When they become the problem they are also lumped with the responsibility of being the solution and that then removes responsibility and accountability from others, including civil society actors, international governments and donors.”

Mills emphasises the need to pay more attention to sexual orientation and gender identity. “It’s been striking to see how much contestation there has been about the language,” she explains. “Even the word ‘diversity’ has been pulled out of the text because it might indicate something towards sexual orientation and gender identity.”

She also argues that it is important to speak about sexual and gender based violence and not just GBV, in order to keep bring sexual violence back into focus: “It can too easily be lost under the rubric of gender violence, because gender – slightly more than sexuality – is a less contested issue in global and national policy making spaces.”

Cornelius, who has also worked with IDS on a case study around SGBV in South Africa, agrees: “We have slowly started see language shifting around sexual orientation and gender identity, or LGBTQI rights, and what this post-2015 agenda needs to do is put it front and centre. If the post-2015 agenda is human rights centred then this means rights for all,” she says.

Influencing the agenda

For many it is clear that work for equality cannot be pinned on the SDGs alone. They are just one tool in the toolbox of those working for gender equality. 

“Hoping that global frameworks are going to guide national policies and their practices isn’t going to work. I think we need to be coming at this from many different angles and the SDGs is one of them,” explains Mills. 

Nalucha Nganga-Ziba is the Managing Director of Grassroots Soccer Zambia and an experienced activist for women’s rights. She believes accountability is key and that a cross-sectoral approach is needed: “GBV is a human rights issue but it also has broader implications for development, we need to start looking at the economic costs of this – there is a loss of productivity due to domestic violence, which can account for about two per cent of GDP in most African countries... this is what will force our governments to pay attention to it.” 

Cornelius sees the SDGs as an opportunity for feminist movements to influence the conversations at the local and regional levels and to make sure that they have representation internationally. “I certainly think that we have a role to play when it comes to domestic resource mobilisation strategies for women’s empowerment and gender equality or just how governments are planning and spending,” she says.

Mills is more sceptical: “That way of thinking about development that it’s an international structure of goals that a whole lot of big organisations come together and agree on, and that’s going to have an impact on people’s lives is also slightly erroneous,” she explains.

“What we need to be doing is saying what does gender equality really look like... what does it look like from the view of partner organisations that we work with around the world who have a solid sense of what this means?"

It is crucial to recognise the perspectives and needs of those working on SGBV around the world. “What is really needed is not necessarily what is going to be heard at the higher level, at the global level," says Mills. "I see that around sexuality; sexual orientation and gender identity has been kept very far off the discussions. But, I know through the work that we are doing, that national governments and international donors are starting to hear about new smart, nuanced ways of bringing sexual and economic rights into their programmes in ways that maybe don’t require international global frameworks like the SDGs.”

The SDGs could still be a useful aid; according to Cornelius: “They resonate globally but they activate locally, they really do. If you have organisations that are resourced and that understand that government plans and how international donors decide on resourcing and channelling funding is all interlinked somehow, it makes a difference.”

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