[Youth Delegate Blog] A Gendered Lens on the Global Goals and Canada’s Current Plan

By: Alanya Dhalla

This blog post aims to give readers a general overview of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focusing specifically on their precursor goals (the MDGs), the gendered dimensions of both the MDGs and SDGs, as well as Canada’s current plan. 

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a set of eight goals developed to guide the world’s development agenda from 2000 to 2015. Critiqued for being a “North-South aid agenda”, the goals pertained mainly to countries in the Global South (Fukuda-Parr, 2016, p.44). Furthermore, the goals were created and driven by development ministers and heads of development agencies who were developing a new aid-agenda through a neocolonial lens. The goals were criticized heavily for providing a band-aid solution to poverty without addressing the root causes which are embedded in power relations and perpetuated by neoliberal globalisation (Fukuda-Parr, 2016). 

Leading up to the end of the MDGs, the UN Secretary-General organized a Post-2015 Agenda debate, a High-Level Task Force of Eminent Persons, a UN Task Team, and appointed an Assistant Secretary-General (Fukuda-Parr, 2016). In conjunction with this, the Rio+20 Conference set up an inter-governmental group to manage an agenda which included a plan to introduce the SDGs (Fukada-Parr, 2016). This led to the largest global consult ever conducted, which lasted over 2 years. Throughout these consultations which included input from peoples and stakeholders around the world, particular attention was given to “the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable” (UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2015, para. 6). This led to the creation of 17 Goals and 169 Targets which embrace people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships (UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2015).

Although significant progress was made from the development of the MDGs to the SDGs, it is important to note that the governing body of the goals (the UN) is still a neoliberal entity. While the consultations for the goals led the development of the framework towards greater collaboration, there are still problematic aspects that should be considered when working to implement them. 

Gender and the Goals

The third goal within the MDGs was ‘Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women’. Goal 3’s targets focused exclusively on education, wage employment in the non-agricultural sector, and proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (UN NGLS, n.d). Women and girls were also centered in Goal 5 ‘Improving maternal health’, and mentioned explicitly in one target under Goal 1 ‘Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’ (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016). Of these goals and targets, only Target 3 ‘eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015’ was achieved (UN NGLS, n.d). However, it is important to note that the target only relates to enrollment in school rather than completion, and women and girls are more likely to drop out of school for a range of reasons (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016). In addition, the goal was measured globally rather than regionally meaning that many regions still have a gender disparity at a primary school level. The goals and targets failed to effectively include an intersectional lens, and disadvantaged people measured unfavorably within the indicators (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016).

The MDGs were critiqued for lacking ambition and failing to incorporate a gendered lens throughout the framework (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016). Kabeer (2005) noted that in the MDGs, gender equality was viewed as “an end in itself rather than as an instrument for achieving other goals” (p. 13). The targets were too narrow, and overlooked a variety of critical issues such as violence against women and girls. Although Sustainable Development Goal 5 ‘Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls’ sounds very similar to MDG 3, the new goal views gender equality as a multi-dimensional process and the targets address a wider variety of gender-based issues (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016).

The SDGs are rooted in the notion of ‘leave no-one behind’ (UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2015). This idea recognizes that numerous intersections of advantages and disadvantages shape individuals’ lives and explicitly highlights that the goals need to be met for all people (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016). Although gender equality is primarily focused in Goal 5, the ‘leave no-one behind’ lens means that even the most marginalized groups need to be accounted for in every goal. 

Although there are vast improvements between the MDGs and the SDGs, there are numerous problems with the framework. Women’s rights groups have highlighted that the SDGs fail to provide a truly intersectional portrayal of gender discrimination. The structural and gendered power relations that uphold discriminatory social norms are not addressed through the framework (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016). Another major critique of the entire Agenda 2030 framework, but specifically SDG 5, is the exclusion of non-binary persons’ experiences of gendered oppression. This was specifically brought up by Canadian Youth through a youth engagement survey and is a major failing in the agenda (findings will be released in the next week-https://www.bccic.ca/sustainable-development-goals-youth-engagement-survey/). Furthermore, implementation of Goal 5 remains vague, with most of the targets lacking clear policy recommendations (Koehler, 2016). 

Canada’s role in Agenda 2030

“For Canada, the 2030 Agenda calls for concerted efforts to build an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future, a secure world founded on human rights and the rule of law, free from poverty and hunger. One with full and productive employment and access to quality education and universal health coverage, where gender equality has been achieved, culture and diversity are celebrated, and the environment is protected.”

(Government of Canada, 2019, p. 9)

From March to May of 2019, the Canadian Government launched their first round of consultations regarding the Sustainable Development Goals. The findings from these conversations, as well as 30 action targets were recently released in the document Towards Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy (Government of Canada, 2019). This document established a framework for Canada to implement and report on the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The national strategy covers 1) leadership, governance, and policy coherence 2) awareness, engagement and partnership 3) accountability, transparency and reporting 4) reconciliation and the 2030 agenda, and 5) investment in the SDGs. It also includes 30 proposed action points which target each of these focus areas. The Minster of Families, Children and Social Development has been tasked the responsibility of leading the agenda within Canada, the Minister of International Development oversees international efforts, and a specialized SDG unit has been established. 

Through the consultations, it was evident that Canadian’s believe that the goals cannot be accomplished in silos. ‘Leave no-one behind’ was considered a vital element of the framework, and a strong emphasis was placed on the need to include historically marginalized groups, specifically women, Indigenous peoples, newcomers, persons with disabilities, seniors, members of the LGBTQ2 community, and youth. The mandate acknowledges that gender equality is not a stand-alone goal, but rather gender considerations need to be incorporated into all 17 SDGs. There was also a strong emphasis on Canada’s need to reaffirm its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. 


Fukuda-Parr, S. (2016). From the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals: shifts in purpose, concept, and politics of global goal setting for development. Gender & Development 24(1), pp. 43-52.

Gabriele Koehler, G. (2016). Tapping the Sustainable Development Goals for progressive gender equity and equality policy?, Gender & Development 24(1), pp. 53-68.

Government of Canada. (2019). Towards Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy: Interim Document. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/esdc-edsc/documents/programs/agenda-2030/7781_EmploymentSocialDevelopment_2030-ENv5.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1NWuVVgsvJcd9dWLx1CY2VkNOo8-64u84qxUVbg0hjfNV9HokOvEzizFU.

Naila Kabeer, N. (2005). Gender equality and women’s empowerment: A critical analysis of the third millennium development goal 1. Gender & Development 13(1), pp. 13-24.

Stuart, E., & Woodroffe, J. (2016). Leaving no-one behind: can the Sustainable Development Goals succeed where the Millennium Development Goals lacked?, Gender & Development, 24(1), pp. 69-81.

UN NGLS. (n.d). MDG Targets and Indicators. Retrieved from http://www.un-ngls.com/index.php/background-mgd10/1386-mdg-targets-and-indicators.

UN Sustainable Development Goals. (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld.

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