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Responding to the UK’s first Voluntary National Review of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the International Development Committee’s report on the UK VNR released yesterday.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Responding to the UK’s first Voluntary National Review of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the International Development Committee’s report on the UK VNR released yesterday.

Speaking on the presentation of the UK Voluntary National Review and the International Development Committee’s report on the same Review, Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Women for Women International UK Executive Director said:

“The UK VNR presented today and the International Development Committee’s report demonstrates that the UK government’s commitments to delivering on the 2030 Agenda for marginalised women and girls have not translated into enough concrete and meaningful action. Whilst the UK demonstrated international leadership during the development of the SDGs, including by championing the Leave No One Behind commitment and advocating for a stand-alone goal on gender equality, four years on, its progress report presented at the UN High Level Political Forum yesterday, shows that the government needs to do more, faster, and better if it wants to deliver on its promise to prioritise the needs of marginalised women and girls affected by conflict including preventing all forms of violence and increasing economic opportunities”.

Women for Women International welcomes the release of the IDC Report on the UK’s progress towards the SDGs, which coincided with the presentation of the UK Voluntary National Review (VNR) to the United Nations yesterday.

Whilst the publication of the UK’s first VNR is an important milestone in demonstrating a commitment to the 2030 Agenda, the Review – and the IDC report – show that the government must move from rhetoric to action if it is going to deliver on its promises – particularly for women and girls affected by conflict.

The UK government has long-stated its ongoing commitment to gender equality, and its centrality to all 17 of the SDGs, with its international approach on this issue, set out clearly in DFID’s Strategic Vision for Gender Equality – published in March 2018. Yet, the UK VNR report, as well as the International Development Committee’s report on the VNR shows that the UK is a long way from translating this into reality.  Whilst it is undeniable that the UK has led on the convening of important international policy dialogues on the SDGs including co-hosting the first-ever Global Disability Forum in 2018 and fronting a number of important initiatives including the Data Disaggregation Plan and Inclusive Data Charter Action Plan, it has so far failed to turn policy commitments, not least those set out in its Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, into concrete and substantive action and implementation plans.

For example, the UK has been keen to highlight its contribution to ‘filling the data gap’ within its VNR. However, the UK is currently not meeting its commitment to inclusive data disaggregation and a nuanced understanding of the realities for various marginalised groups – including women and girls – is lacking. The VNR also does not acknowledge that data disaggregation will only take us so far. At Women for Women International, we know from our evidence-base that the needs of the most marginalised women affected by conflict are not being met. Once we understand who is at risk of being left behind, transformative action must be taken to prioritise reaching them, addressing their needs and ensuring their participation in the decisions that affect their lives. Failure to do so jeopardises the whole agenda.

What is more, the VNR does not truly explore and address the implications of women and girls’ experiences of marginalisation, emergencies, extreme poverty, violence and exploitation, which are multidimensional and interlinked. For example, the Review only contains a superficial reference to the Women, Peace and Security framework while simultaneously claiming to “put women and girls at the heart of the UK’s work to prevent and resolve conflict”.

Similarly, whilst the UK government has stated its commitment to address the needs of marginalised women and girls, and in particular to challenge social norms and discriminatory practices, and eliminate gender-based violence against women and girls, the UK VNR and IDC’s report show that this commitment has not translated into concrete and outcome-focused implementation plans.  

This is perhaps most obvious in the context of gender-based violence in humanitarian settings, which we know is not getting the funding and priority needed. Whilst we welcomed the UK’s funding pledge at the GBV Oslo Conference in May 2019, it paled in comparison with other European donors and did not include a funding pledge for 2020.  Similarly, while the “Goal 5” chapter of the VNR focuses largely on eliminating violence and harmful practices against women and girls, the current approach from the UK government towards the forthcoming Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) International Conference provides a disappointing example of the lack of coordination and coherence across various policies and practices, undermining the UK’s approach to delivering on the full extent of this agenda, and not upholding the mission and principles of the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies which the UK co-founded in 2013.

Finally, as emphasised in the IDC report, we are disappointed at the detrimental shift in engagement of civil society in the development of the VNR. We are particularly concerned this could be a trend across government, which has been strongly felt by NGOs in the planning of the PSVI International Conference. We were glad to hear civil society referred to as a “real driver for positive change” during yesterday’s presentation, and hope that the UK government will implement the IDC’s recommendation to set up a mechanism for stakeholder engagement on the international implementation of the SDGs.

The Secretary of State for International Development spoke about the VNR as “an opportunity for us to reflect” when he made his initial statement. The VNR and the IDC report highlight the critical gaps in the UK’s current approach to delivering the SDGs, and where it needs to do much more to achieve the goals. The UK government must ensure that words finally translate into concrete actions. UK leadership on the SDGs must come from the highest level and, as recommended by the IDC, we urge the UK to give full responsibility for the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs to the Cabinet Office.

The UK IDC will publish a further short report on the UK progress on the SDGs later this year. The UK government should work towards making critical and urgent changes as well as action long-stated commitments before the release of the new IDC report. We also urge the government to make sure that women and girls affected by conflict are visible in its future SDG progress reports, including an explicit reference in its next VNR on how it is working to ensure that marginalised women and girls are not left behind.