By The Women’s Major Group Organizing Partners and Secretariat

Over one year from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls in all their diversity continue to be at the frontlines of the response. Through our paid and unpaid labor, women and girls keep homes, communities, and economies afloat. And yet governments, corporations, and non-State actors continue to undermine our ability to effectively and meaningfully participate in policymaking, including through threats, harassment, and violence against women environmental and human rights defenders.

Feminist activists and advocates took our message to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to highlight the need for systemic change.

To Build Back Transformatively, Feminists Want System Change

At the HLPF’s 2021 session, which just concluded in New York in July, the Women’s Major Group (WMG) brought the message that structural inequalities are shaping our pandemic responses in ways that derail us from achieving gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will continue to be the case without systemic change. After a year of advocacy around the ECOSOC/HLPF review process, at all five regional sustainable development forums, and during negotiations on the HLPF 2021 Ministerial Declaration, the WMG continues to call on States to place human rights and economic, racial, climate, and gender justice at the center of pandemic recovery and SDG implementation.

As we enter the second term of the HLPF, feminists are calling for political courage to address the impacts of COVID-19.

Addressing the official Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) session during the 2021 HLPF, Latin America and the Caribbean Organizing Partner and the co-chair of the MGoS Coordination Mechanism Mabel Bianco said, “We are in an historical moment entering the second term of the HLPF with the challenge to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19…Today more than ever we need to renew the ambitious program of Agenda 2030 and recommit to a strong collective pact, reinvigorating multilateralism and expressing strong political courage.” [Meeting recording]

This moment of intersecting crises is the consequence of the systems that patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, militarism, neoliberal capitalism, and authoritarianism have built. New and emerging strategies for systems change need to be adopted to truly recover from these crises and the pandemic. While the impact of COVID-19 makes a bad situation worse, it also presents a short window of opportunity to make real and innovative decisions for a more just, sustainable, and feminist world for everyone to thrive.

In a Moment of Crisis, States Stuck with Business as Usual

The pandemic has deepened and exacerbated multidimensional inequalities, including long-standing gender-based inequalities. COVID-19 worsened the already inadequate access to healthcare services, including sexual and reproductive health services, education, basic food security and nutrition for women and girls in most parts of the world. The crisis has also exacerbated sexual and gender-based violence, and increased maternal mortality, early and unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, female genital mutilation/cutting, human trafficking, and child, early and forced marriage. Women are further affected by the increased burden of unpaid care work and many, especially those who work in the informal sector, have experienced loss of livelihoods.

For these reasons, we need intersectional, feminist, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches to be deployed by governments for resilient recovery from the pandemic in order to realize the 2030 Agenda without leaving anyone behind. Operationalizing ‘Leave No One Behind’ means supporting dedicated processes to bring diverse groups together to incorporate our voices, demands, and analyses into official processes. Marginalized people’s right to participation – and the obstacles still in place to realizing this right – were the focus of the MGoS Coordination Mechanism’s side event on 14 July. [Meeting recording]

This year’s HLPF had the potential to be a first step towards better, human rights centered systems. Unfortunately, HLPF became a missed opportunity with many States refusing to let go of “business as usual.” We are disillusioned to have witnessed States’ discussions and disagreements during the adoption of the HLPF outcome document, the Ministerial Declaration, with many debating and questioning the human rights and most basic needs of people and the planet, including civil society’s right to meaningful participation and the cross-cutting and imperative need to advance gender equality. We were also concerned to see States looking for solutions that rely on contributions from the private sector, which concerns us regarding the corporate capture of multilateralism and UN spaces.

The Ministerial Declaration fails to reflect the need for transformation of our current systems. As the MGoS Coordination Mechanism, representing 21 constituencies, expressed after the adoption of the Ministerial Declaration, “reaffirming old commitments (which were patently insufficient before the pandemic) is not an adequate response to the pandemic. We are extremely concerned with the consistent refusal to address the root causes and systemic barriers to achieve a world where no one is left behind.”

Glimpses of a More Feminist and Transformative HLPF

In spite of the issues raised above, HLPF also offered glimpses of hope: we saw some Member States defending human rights for all and gender equality, an increased emphasis on the intersectionalities and cross-cutting issues in the 2030 Agenda, and a stronger narrative of systems change and development justice in the interventions of speakers in the official sessions as well as the side events, such as the Women’s Major Group side event on 7 July [meeting recording]. Moreover, on the technical side, we were happy to see that all sessions were translated into at least the six UN languages, improving the UN’s delivery of its commitments to language justice. 

The Women’s Major Group continues to believe in a multilateral system grounded in human rights, as we highlighted in the infographic series titled SDGs & UN Human Rights Mechanisms from a Feminist Perspective,’ launched during HLPF 2021. We do not believe in a multilateralism that races to the lowest common denominator, but one that fosters global solidarity and learning. Multilateralism is not an arena for geopolitical skirmishes, but for cooperation. Multilateralism should not be another space for the dominance of multinational corporations, but a space for the people, especially those most marginalized.

It is important at this moment to protect and expand the space for feminist and social justice movements to mobilize and demand action. With these in mind, we’ll continue to advocate at UN sustainable development fora, and in other UN policy spaces with our feminist ally coalitions, for  a transformative, just, and equitable sustainable development.

The authors of this guest article are the The Women’s Major Group Organizing Partners and Secretariat. The Women’s Major Group is a global, intersectional feminist collective and an official UN participant to sustainable development processes. We are one of 21 independent Major Groups and other Stakeholders that aim to bring the perspectives of the people to the UN sustainable development fora.