Will We Be Central, or Will We Be Sidelined?


By Helana Reyad

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have enthusiastically followed the General Assembly (GA)’s 70th session. I also attended an event hosted by the Joint Advocacy Group for the Girl Declaration (JAG), the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Advocates for Youth, and Let Girls Lead at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) headquarters called “Central or Sidelined, Examining How Girls Fared in the 2030 Agenda.” As I listened to the member states speak at the Sustainable Development Summit and the General Debate, the question posed at the UNFPA headquarters event kept replaying in my mind: Will we be central or will we be sidelined?

The comments of Member States overall were not very encouraging. Member States focused primarily on issues they had the big stakes in, like topics related to the economy and financing. It was more encouraging, however, when Member States did take time out of their address to talk about issues that often receive less attention because they are not considered imminent threats or are controversial, like climate change or women’s rights. Some Member States tackled such issues head on, reminding world leaders that although the actions we take today may not yield instant results, they are critical for future generations. Speaking on climate change, the president of Finland, Sauli Niinsto, said we will either leave behind a “legacy of hope or despair” and the outcome is in our hands.

Similar to the slow and often resisted advancements in climate change mitigation, advancing the rights of women and girls is a complex process that takes time. It is, however, critical to ensuring a better, more equal world for the future. President Niinsto spoke to this in his address, advocating that “to invest in gender equality is to invest in poverty reduction.” We cannot make progress, he continued, while keeping half of the worlds’ population out of leadership positions and subordinate to the other half.

The importance of gender equality in discussions about sustainable development did not escape the General Assembly. The first speaker at the GA Summit was President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. President Grabar-Kitarović emphasized this point, and used it as an opportunity to bring the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), gender equality, to the attention of Member States and civil society. She expressed her conviction that the SDGs are not far-fetched or unattainable, but are the necessary steps to take in order to ensure that no one is left behind. When she spoke again at the General Debate, she clarified that those most left behind are girls and women, and reminded us that children are not born with prejudice – prejudice is learned. In order to be able to deliver on the SDGs there needs to be first a change in mindset and behavior. She was frank in her approach, and maintained that it is not enough to make plans; we need to get the job done. She stated, “We have the tools and we have the ways, now it is the time to find the will.”

Whether or not member states find the will, and whether or not girls will be central or sidelined, are questions that can only be answered over time. Nevertheless I am optimistic because of world leaders like President Grabar-Kitarović and President Niinsto, who are willing to shed light on issues like climate change and gender equality and make the call for action. We should look to these figures as leaders, and encourage them to keep Member States accountable. But we should also look to local women and girls – like VGIF grantees – as leaders. It will take collective action - commitments and follow-through of Member States, mobilization of resources, and grassroots movements - to ensure that sustainable development rooted in equality and human rights is the legacy we leave for future generations.