Women's participation and leadership in the SDGs: Moving from the 'what' to the 'how'

A young woman checks for her name in the voters list at one of the voting stations in Cairo, Egypt. How can women's full, equal and meaningful public and political participation be achieved in practice? Photo by: Fatma El Zahraa Yassin / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

However we refer to the new framework adopted by 197 countries in September — “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” or “The Global Goals,” for example —  one thing is for sure: locally led solutions addressing the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and discrimination will be crucial if the Sustainable Development Goals are to live up to their promise of “transformative change.”

A case in point is the opportunity the SDGs offer to galvanize the support needed to finally achieve women’s full, equal and meaningful public and political participation. A Millennium Development Goals indicator on women’s share of seats in national legislatures led to an increase in women’s numerical representation, but little attention was paid to the barriers to women’s meaningful participation — such as whether women are actually able to influence decisions once in post, or what happens at sub-national levels.

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With target 5.5 on women’s full and effective participation and leadership at all levels of decision making, the SDGs offer the chance to change this. Mainstreaming enthusiasts will also be heartened to know that this is backed up under target 16.7, on ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.”

So with agreement reached on the “what,” we have to get on with the “how.”

A timely new briefing from the Overseas Development Institute, titled “The power to decide: Women, decision-making and gender equality,” looks at key issues around women’s participation and leadership in public and political decision-making. Exploring the reasons for women’s increased presence in public life worldwide, why some women have less political power than others, and the key enablers of women’s participation and leadership, the paper is valuable reading for anyone looking for a succinct introduction to this piece of the SDG pie (or should that be puzzle?!).

The briefing also makes pertinent suggestions on steps the international community can take to better support women’s political leadership, with investing in in-country women’s rights organizations and movements identified as a priority.

With this in mind, we can imagine the transformative change that could be realized in the short, medium and long term if this advice is taken:

Short term (in the next year)

2016 starts strongly with the agreement in March of ambitious indicators to measure progress on target 5.5, which, in line with Gender and Development Network recommendations, take into account women’s ability to influence, as well as their numerical representation at multiple levels. Women’s rights experts are relieved, as they know that “what gets measured gets done.”

The international community starts to forge stronger links with women’s rights organizations, recognizing their strong connection with the communities they work in. Better understanding emerges of their role as technical experts providing advisory on the institutional systems critical to women’s increased representation — constitutional provisions and electoral or party quotas, for example.

Their crucial political role in carrying out strategic advocacy to make sure equalities laws are passed and challenging the discrimination and social norms that impede women’s full participation is recognized. Agreements to provide long-term, core and flexible funding to these organizations are subsequently made.

The first signs of concerted action at the highest political levels emerge: Ministers and senior government officials the world over acknowledge the need for gender-responsive policies and regularly seek the input of women’s rights organizations, and the world celebrates when the first ever woman secretary-general of the United Nations is selected.

Medium term (2-10 years)

As a result of sustained support to their work, women’s rights organizations have finally been able to scale up their innovative political apprenticeship programs — previously limited to small groups. Civic activity has blossomed, as previously marginalized women increasingly understand their rights, are more confident speaking in public, and regularly identify and articulate their priorities to local and national decision-makers. With some of their immediate practical needs now met, they turn their mind to the longer term structural changes they want to see.

The five-year SDG progress review reveals that in many places women now make up at least 30 percent of national and local government representatives in many places — largely due to quotas, women’s caucuses and sustained support to candidates and politicians. Many of these women chair committees, and increasingly report feeling able to influence decision-making equally to their male counterparts. Senior gender advisors are now commonplace in peacekeeping missions and militaries, and top-level women civil servants are found in almost all countries.

Long term (10-plus years)

Responsive, transparent and accountable governance means that women’s priorities and needs are now reflected in the policies and services at all levels — with tangible positive impact across their lives.

Some countries are now into the second electoral cycle since the agreement of the SDGs, and the 10-year SDG review shows the “leave no one behind” principle has been fully embraced. As a result, women from previously marginalized communities are elected in numbers proportional to their group’s total population share. Many of these women continue to be supported by women’s rights organizations as they navigate their leadership pathway from informal to formal structures. In the United Kingdom, the unprecedented collaboration between political parties and women’s rights organizations successfully fostered by the Women’s Equality Party led to a 50:50 parliament being returned in the 2025 general election.

A sustained “whole systems approach” to supporting women’s political power has made parliamentary culture unrecognizable, with family-friendly working hours the norm. Previously widespread sexist language and behavior towards women is now unacceptable, and women’s political influence is equal to that of men from local to national level.

Elsewhere, effective women leaders are found in board rooms and heading businesses of all sizes, and a number of long-running conflicts are being formally resolved with women making up just over half of signatories. Furthermore, peace agreements are only accepted where women’s rights and gender equality are reflected throughout.

Public opinion surveys show that negative attitudes towards women leaders are hard to find, and women routinely have an equal say in all decisions — including within the household.  

Life as it was before is hard to imagine for the current generation of girls.

Seems impossible? It doesn’t have to be if the transformative promise of the SDGs is fulfilled.

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About the author

  • Abigail Hunt

    Abigail Hunt is policy and advocacy manager at Womankind Worldwide. She is also co-chair of the UK Gender and Development Network Working Group on Women’s Participation and Leadership.