THE BLOG
12/09/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Girls Left Behind: Review of Secretary General's Report Leaves Much to Be Desired for Girls, Women

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

Late last week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon released his long-awaited report synthesizing various inputs to and, theoretically setting a vision for, the post-2015 development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the end of 2015. At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we had hoped that the report would set a forward-looking agenda, paving the way for the world's women and girls.

Our hopes for a strong position from the Secretary General on gender equality were well-founded. His 2013 contribution toward the process, as well as the report released by his "High Level Panel" of experts, both set the stage toward prioritizing the rights and needs of women and girls in global development. The High Level Panel explicitly recognized the centrality of universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the importance of ending child marriage and promoting women's social, economic and political empowerment. Even the July 2014 report of a member-state-led process, known as the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, was fairly strong on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

This week, we were ready to receive an ambitious agenda, set by the Secretary General, which would contribute to and advance the rights of women and girls even further. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

In his report, the Secretary General falls short of calling for specific goals and targets, possibly understandable, given the push for governments to lead negotiations on the goals moving forward. But this move could result in a re-negotiation of previous agreements, which is quite worrisome because we know how challenging it is to advance gender equality -- especially in regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights -- in inter-governmental negotiations.

The report lacks any reference to adolescent girls, who we know from decades of research are an important component of any effort to alleviate poverty. There was no mention of girls' education, which has broad and deep acceptance across the world as a critical element of global development. No call for civil registration or mandatory birth certificates, which would give girls a basic right to citizenship. No call to end female genital mutilation/cutting or other harmful practices that violate girls' bodily integrity. No commitment to ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, or to comprehensive sexuality education, essential to achieving global health and ensuring women and girls' basic human rights. No mention of inheritance rights for girls, or opportunities for girls to build and exercise voice and agency, or for communities to combat discriminatory social norms.

Women generally fare better. There are strong references to ending violence, providing financial services and property rights, and calls for data to be disaggregated by gender and age. However, sexual and reproductive rights are missing, as is language about fair pay, decent work, family leave, small business ownership, the time burden of domestic chores, and language about the need to tackle inequality at its roots by dismantling discriminatory social norms. Climate change is recognized as a top priority, but women and girls, who suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately, are left out of the conversation. And while the report does call for an end to child marriage, it does so solely under a justice frame, which leaves out critical health, education and empowerment precepts.

The Secretary General does assert several strong principles of human rights and equality under which there is arguably room to push for some of our key standards:

"Ensure women, youth and children have access to the full range of health services." Here, we can work to ensure that women and adolescents can access their right to the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health services.

"Zero tolerance for violence and exploitation against women and girls." This language can be the banner under which we call for the elimination of harmful practices like female genital mutilation.

"Right to education." The Secretary General was not explicit about the importance of girls' education, but we can, and we will insist that all girls deserve -- at the least -- a right to complete secondary school. We can also assert a fundamental right to a comprehensive education that teaches girls -- and boys -- about their bodies and their rights.

The omission of an explicit reference to key rights and standards related to gender equality is a missed opportunity, particularly given that we have successfully negotiated for them in UN conferences before, in Rio, Cairo, Beijing, Bali, and in Geneva and New York. Starting in January, when the inter-governmental negotiations begin anew, we will be there to remind UN leaders these rights exist, and that women and girls around the world are looking to world leaders to defend them, once again.

We must use these principles, as expressed by the Secretary General, as a starting point, through which we can build on proven ways to address the unique needs and rights of women and girls, who, for far too long, have been left off the agenda. And we must continue to ensure that the needs of the most marginalized, including women and girls, are not relegated to the chopping block, but are positively, explicitly and relentlessly affirmed in any global agenda that ensures equality, nondiscrimination, equity and inclusion at all levels.

An intentional focus on adolescent girls and their rights is nothing short of vital to achieving sustainable development. We can only hope that the Member States to whom the work of negotiating the next framework falls will now take up this important task.

Lyric Thompson is senior policy manager at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Washington, D.C.-based global research institute focused on women and girls.