You will quite possibly never have heard of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5). Recently I gave evidence to a committee of MPs looking at progress towards achieving it. Until then, I must confess it had barely come to my attention. Judging by my conversations with other organisations in the voluntary sector I am not alone.
So here's a brief explainer: SDG5 is one of 17 "Global Goals" promoted by the UN to cover a range of issues including ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education and, number five, achieving gender equality & empowering all women & girls. You may be more familiar with the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) which focused on setting targets for the developing world. The big difference - the SDGs applies to countries in the developed world as well.
In total 193 countries are signed up to achieving the goals by 2030 and the UK is one of them. The theme of the 2030 agenda is No One Left Behind. This feels particularly relevant when talking about gender equality for, while we have made some significant strides in recent decades, too many women have not benefitted. Too many are left behind. Too many still face economic, social and political inequality and discrimination.
Agenda campaigns for some of the most socially excluded and marginalised women in society. These are women and girls who have suffered extensive violence and abuse, are deeply traumatised and face multiple problems like severe poverty, poor health and problems with drugs and alcohol.
For these women, sexual and physical abuse often starts in childhood and goes onto weave in and out of their lives. Too many end up homeless or in prison. They are at the sharpest end of gender inequality and most need action. Yet their needs are not consistently thought about in policy development and service design and they can end up falling through gaps in support.
Agenda's own research found that only one mental health trust had a women's mental health strategy and few took women's particular needs into account. Homeless and addiction services are about 75% male, meaning they are intimidating and sometimes unsafe places for vulnerable women. When women are unable to access support or accommodation not only do their needs go unmet but action against the perpetrator is unlikely and women can become trapped in abusive relationships or in other insecure and precarious situations.
Without resolving these issues, we will not tackle gender inequality. If we are to stand a chance of achieving SDG5, women's specific experiences and needs must be considered by all relevant government departments in policy design and service development. Policies across a range of areas (including mental health, housing, substance misuse or employment support) must respond to women's needs including the impacts of violence and abuse in their lives but also considering their experiences and needs more broadly.
We need a cross government approach and strategy for tackling gender inequality, one that includes addressing the complex needs of marginalised women.
We need to stop thinking about gender equality only in isolated pockets, for example, around gender-based violence or political participation, and instead think about it across the piece and recognise how issues of inequality are intertwined. There must be a recognition that public policy is likely to impact on men and women differently in a wide range of areas and that a great number of policy tools across government departments could be used to advance gender equality.
There are things we could learn here from international development work. Gender mainstreaming - the concept of assessing the different implications for women and men of policies and programmes - is commonplace at an international level (a resolution to this effect was adopted by the UN in 2001). Yet it does not happen consistently in public policy development in the UK. We need to change this and make gender equality core business.
International treaties and commitments like SDG5 can help drive action and indeed international co-operation can be important, for example for migrant women crossing borders and fleeing violence. But without national leadership and commitment, we will never make the progress needed towards equality and empowerment. Witness what is happening in the USA (a fellow signatory to the UN agenda) around, amongst a terrifying array of other issues, women's rights. Global commitments are good but national leadership is crucial.
If we get this right, it is women at the sharpest end who most stand to benefit. But of course gender inequality benefits us all. We are all stronger when we are more equal. And equality has to mean leaving no one behind.
The Women & Equalities Select Committee continues to take evidence on the implementation of SDG5 on Wednesday, February 8th.
For more information about Agenda visit: www.weareagenda.org