On the back wall of Committee Room 7 of the Houses of Parliament hangs a life-size portrait of a grey-haired man in military finery. The Duke of Wellington stares down with patrician severity at the group of (mainly) women, sitting on the padded green chairs embossed with the House of Commons emblem. We’ve been brought here by ActionAid, to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The inert tedium of the phrase is enough to make even the most dedicated activist switch off – but they do matter.
Successor to the Millennium Development Goals (which will not have been achieved by the time they expire at the end of this year), the SDGs are a series of aspirations for humanity. They are intended as a way for various humanitarian and environmental pressure groups to be able to hold governments to account – to remind them of the virtuous path they agreed to go down, rather than the one that might, in the short term, seem the most expedient or profitable.
To Wellington’s right, a temporary poster has been erected depicting another kind of warrior. It is a photo of Manu, 28, a member of Ghana’s “Combat Squad”. She stares straight out at us, hands on her hips. “Before we started the Combat Squad”, reads her quotation, “the way women and children were treated was very bad. They would threaten children and widows would lose their property, everything. Now, things are much better”.
Around the world, women like Manu are soldiers in a war. Unlike the wars fought by men, theirs has no formally declared enemy, no acknowledged battle lines. The borders they fight to protect are not those of countries, but of bodies – women’s bodies. They fight against a system that tells them they are worthless other than as vessels to incubate the next generation of male leaders. A system that tells them they exist only to obey their husbands, fathers, brothers – and eventually, sons. To be so many obedient and silent chattels.
At the end of this month, the UN General Assembly will meet in New York. At this meeting, the SDGs, three years in the making, will be formally endorsed. A list of 17 goals, with 169 targets, the SDGs provide us with a vision of a changed world – a utopian world in which poverty and hunger are a thing of the past, in which climate change is brought under control and oceans once again teem with marine life. A world in which gender inequality has been eliminated. And this world will all be in place, we are told, by 2030.
For ordinary women, even extraordinary women like Manu, the SDGs can seem far removed from their daily lives. The wording is impressive, but this is a world filled with countless resolutions, agreements, conferences, and they all talk the stuff of dreams, while the reality on the battleground is more often the stuff of nightmares. Women make up 70 per cent of those who live in poverty around the world, and two-thirds of the global illiterate. 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Over 125 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18, with one in nine being married before the age of 15.
This last figure is set to get worse as global turmoil increases. Back in Committee Room 7, Baroness Jenny Tongue, Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health, tells us about a recent visit to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 83,000 Syrians. The women there told her that not only was child marriage still going on, girls were in fact having to be married off much younger. The risk of sexual violence is so great their families are desperate for any man who will take them on and provide some semblance of protection – some semblance of consent. Eleven-year-old girls are being handed over to strangers. For their safety.
Azza Soliman, a human rights lawyer from Egypt, says the child marriage rate in Egypt is worsening too. Since 2012, she says, it’s been increasing, “the first reason is that there is no safety in the street. Parents are scared about their girls”. They don’t dare let them to go to school unaccompanied, “but there is no one to take them”. So they stop going. “Within six months, they are married”.
The situation for women in Egypt has rapidly deteriorated since the 2011 revolution, Soliman explains. Women who fight for their rights are imprisoned “for nothing”. Meanwhile, police are killing with seeming impunity. Soliman herself has felt the harsh edge of this reality. In January of this year, she sat in a cafe in downtown Cairo having dinner with friends. “I heard some noise outside and looked to see a peaceful demonstration, a group of about 27 people carrying flowers”. The flowers were to be laid in mourning for the lost goals of the revolution that had seemed to promise so much for the people of Egypt.
The protest was not to remain peaceful for long. “After about ten minutes police surrounded the demonstrators. I heard shooting – I think at first it was just gas. Then I saw a policeman put on a mask and follow somebody – I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman. The policeman shot, and the person fell. I saw afterwards it was a young woman. Then the police started arresting people”. Soliman later learnt that the young women was called Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, and she was a poet and activist. She was thirty-one years old when the police shot her dead for carrying some flowers in a procession.
In Egypt, the rule of law has broken down, says Soliman. “The Mubarak regime is back,” and it is cracking down on any gleam of human rights defence. This is payback for the revolution, and dissent will not be tolerated. Even dissent in the form of being a witness to a crime. When Soliman went to report what she had seen, she found herself stuck in the police station from 7pm until 6am the next morning – before being informed that she herself would be charged. “I laughed”, she says. “I’ve been a lawyer for twenty-five years, tell me the law I’m charged under”. She was met with silence – followed by a court date. Soliman has been living in exile since the charge and has missed two of her hearings. A judge has ordered her back to Egypt for her next hearing on 26 September.
The shooting of protesters, the charging of a woman, a lawyer, merely for witnessing a police crime, these are the hallmarks of a police state. A state in which civil society, where it exists at all, must creep through underground passages, whispering at doorways. It is in this kind of society, according to an ActionAid study, where women are twice as likely to experience violence. The free operating of civil society is a feminist issue. And it is an SDG issue – SDG number 16, to be precise. While the SDGs contain a specific goal to end gender inequality, an awareness of how gender is a factor in so many of the other goals – education, climate change, clean water. This mainstreaming of gender through the goals is a vast improvement from the Millennium Development Goals – and will be a boon to those who want to use it as a framework with which to pressure governments around the world to truly tackle gender inequality.
Nevertheless, it won’t be easy. It will require an unprecedented level of financial support. As Anne Quesney, senior women’s rights advocacy adviser at ActionAid, puts it, “We need David Cameron to put his money where his mouth is”. It will also require “developed” countries to look at their own affairs, rather than simply delivering sermons to others. In the UK, we are currently failing on a whole range of targets, from recognising the value of unpaid care, to the recent decimation of the women’s services sector through cuts to funding. The entrenched prejudices we will have to surmount are legion. But Quesney hangs on to hope. “Sometimes you have to be able to see the opportunities when they come”. And so does Soliman. “I have to be hopeful,” she tells me. “If I have not this, I die.”