Last month, the 78th United Nations General Assembly concluded in New York. Assessments of the meeting have been decidedly mixed, with some criticizing the U.N.’s fading relevance in global governance, and others celebrating its lasting value for coalition-building. The General Assembly’s outcomes with respect to gender equality were similarly varied. Several important commitments were reaffirmed, particularly within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But the greatest push for action came from smaller coalitions of like-minded States, highlighting greater fragmentation and challenges in finding global consensus on gender equality goals. 

Halfway to 2030: Taking Stock of Progress on Gender Equality Goals

This year’s General Assembly was especially important because it marked the mid-point of the fifteen years allotted for achieving the seventeen SDGs, first launched in 2015 as a global normative framework for ending extreme poverty and promoting sustainable development by 2030. A global SDG Summit held alongside the General Debate was meant to generate renewed political commitment for the years ahead. It was also an opportunity to address rising tensions between the Global North and the Global South over the financing of development and climate-related goals.

Heading into this year’s General Assembly, the U.N. itself was ringing the alarm bells. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with rising food prices, escalating conflict, and climate-related emergencies, have had devastating effects on global development, and only 15 percent of SDG targets are currently on track. As for SDG 5, the standalone goal on gender equality, none of the target indicators have been met or almost met. A 2023 U.N. progress report found that if current trends continue, 342.4 million women will still live in extreme poverty by 2030. Moreover, fifty-four percent of countries still lack laws in key areas of gender equality, such as equal rights to enter marriage and initiate a divorce, and only 61.4 percent of working age women are in the labor force. The report identified active resistance as well as chronic under-investment as key barriers to advancing gender equality: current expenditures leave a shortfall of $360 billion a year. 

In light of these challenges, the Summit’s adoption of a new Political Declaration underscoring member States’ commitment to the SDGs represents a welcome step. The declaration’s focus on reforming global financing structures – initially contested by the United States, United Kingdom, and other allied powers – echoes feminist calls for tackling the systemic inequities that perpetuate poverty and underdevelopment, even if it is weaker than what advocates had sought. The document also reaffirms global commitments to gender equality, calling on States to remove “all legal, social and economic barriers to achieving gender equality” and eliminate discrimination and violence against women and girls. More concrete gender-related announcements were made at various side events, including new efforts to reduce the global gender pay gap. A new U.N. report and accompanying event also drew attention to the grave violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including by labeling the Taliban’s actions gender apartheid.

Implementation: The Most Significant Hurdle

However, negotiations over the SDG declaration and other high-level summits underscored the growing challenges to reaching global consensus on gender equality goals. Like in other multilateral negotiations over the past several years, some member States contested long-established language on gender and human rights previously not considered controversial. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) once again emerged as a particular sticking point. During the negotiations over the SDG declaration, for example, several Muslim-majority countries pushed back against explicit references to SRHR in the SDG declaration..

There are other reasons to be skeptical about renewed political commitments to the SDGs spurring dramatic changes in government action. The goals set out in 2015 were always highly ambitious, and reaching them by 2030 remains unlikely, particularly since the new declaration’s commitments to “targeted and accelerated action” on gender equality are neither especially tangible nor time-bound. Indeed, one meta-review of 3000 scientific articles on the SDGs found that the goals have so far had a much clearer impact on governmental and international discourse about development than on legislative action and resource allocation. Persistent gaps in sex-disaggregated data makes accountability for gender equality goals particularly challenging: countries still lack 44 percent of the data required to track their progress on SDG 5. 

Member States’ rhetorical commitments to gender equality also stand in contrast to the persistent gender imbalance once again displayed at this year’s General Debate. Only 21 women spoke during the Debate, and only ten of them were heads of government or State (out of a total of 130 world leaders who participated). Although U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in 2017 launched a gender parity strategy that has helped improve women’s leadership within the upper echelons of the U.N. system, he wields little influence over senior leadership positions elected or appointed by governments. At the moment, only 24 percent of permanent representatives to the U.N. are women, and since 1946, women have held only 12 percent of top leadership in the world’s most influential multilateral institutions. Not surprisingly, this year’s gaps in representation have revived calls for a woman U.N. Secretary-General and a gender alternation system for the General Assembly. As the U.N. seeks to take on cutting-edge issues such as the global regulation of artificial intelligence, having women’s perspectives represented in negotiations remains more essential than ever. 

Bright Spots: New Coalitions Driving More Ambitious Commitments

But there were also signs of momentum over the past two weeks, with the strongest commitments to action coming from smaller coalitions of like-minded States. On Sept. 17, for instance, a group of governments and partners convened to mark the midpoint of Generation Equality, a global initiative launched in 2021 to counter stalled progress and regression on gender equality. Rather than aiming to be universal, it brings together governments, philanthropic funders, private sector actors, and civil society organizations that are already committed to gender equality. Over the past two years, Generation Equality has spurred 2500 new commitments and generated a total of 16.7 billion in new or scaled up funding. As usual, however, the devil is in the implementation, and only around 30 percent of stakeholders have reported on their activities so far.  It was therefore encouraging to see organizers place strong emphasis on accountability, including by launching a new platform to monitor progress. 

In another encouraging step, a group of nineteen governments signed the first-ever Political Declaration on Feminist Approaches to Foreign Policy. The document lays out six broad principles for prioritizing gender equality across different areas of foreign affairs, including a commitment to strengthening collaboration within multilateral institutions and with feminist civil society. Over the past several years, the group of countries that label their foreign policies “feminist” has expanded dramatically, from a small cohort of mostly Northern democracies to an increasingly global coalition that now includes Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Liberia, Mexico, and Mongolia. Even though the concept and its application remain contested, this year’s General Assembly highlighted that it has become an important framework for multilateral collaboration on gender equality and human security, including between countries in the Global North and the Global South. The declaration therefore represents a potential counterweight to foreign policy debates that are increasingly dominated by security concerns and geopolitical competition. 

Looking ahead, much will depend on whether and how governments translate their high-level commitments into policy and resource allocation decisions. Yet it is noteworthy that at a time of global fragmentation, geopolitical tension, and pushback against some gender equality goals, new coalitions are emerging that are seeking to model an alternative path forward: by fostering more inclusive partnerships with civil society, foregrounding the root causes of insecurity, and centering the rights and interests of marginalized populations in foreign policy debates. 

The author thanks Francesca Nyakora for her research assistance.

IMAGE: A video is displayed during the opening session of the second Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit in New York City on Sept. 18, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)