I just returned from the 4th Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, a global gathering dedicated to the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women. A major focus was how to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) so they make a concrete difference in girls’ and women’s lives. I believe the best way to do this is for citizens to voice their own perspectives and offer homegrown solutions.
I was excited to participate in a forum focused on exactly that type of citizen action: the regional advocacy caucuses. Sponsored by PATH and Women Deliver, and led by local nongovernmental organizations, the eight regional caucuses provided an opportunity for diverse stakeholders to engage in dialogue, strengthen networks, and create action plans to accelerate progress for girls and women. More than 650 representatives from civil society, government, youth leaders, media, and other stakeholder groups participated.
We hear a lot about the new SDGs, but in countries like my own Uganda, we don’t always know where to start to implement them. The caucuses gave us a chance to connect with colleagues across the region about how to adapt the SDGs to our local situations. Many of us are facing similar challenges—for example, high rates of maternal mortality or gender-based violence—and we can learn from each other about policies and programs that work in our respective countries.
In particular, the East Africa caucus, organized by the White Ribbon Alliance Uganda, explored two critical components of translating the SDGs into reality: advocacy and accountability. We talked about the importance of evidence-based advocacy. It is not enough to talk from the heart. We also need to talk from the head, which means using reputable data to back up advocacy messages.
Accountability: a key SDG theme
We also took a close look at what we really mean by accountability, one of the key SDG themes. I am a strong believer in the power of citizens to demand accountability from their leaders. A case in point: a caucus participant mentioned how government leaders sometimes endorse global frameworks without reflecting on what those frameworks mean for their countries, let alone girls and women at the local level. Fortunately, several government officials were at the caucus, including the ministers of health from Uganda and Tanzania, and were able to respond directly. The Uganda minster agreed and asked civil society leaders to hold him and other ministers accountable for their promises. He said government wants and needs to hear citizen voices and is willing to partner with civil society.
Following the caucuses, I had the opportunity to meet with the other regional caucus leaders. They also had vibrant discussion and notable outcomes, including:
- The Latin American and Caribbean caucus culminated in a “pact” on the health, sexual rights, and empowerment of girls and young women in the region with commitments from regional leaders and other stakeholders.
- The Southern and Western Asia region used the caucus as a means to increase awareness of the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriages in South Asia and created a shared advocacy agenda to see it implemented.
- The Southeast Asia and Pacific caucus resulted in strategic recommendations aimed at policymakers and thought leaders throughout the region to ensure that the sexual rights of young people and women are respected, protected, and fulfilled.
- The Eastern Europe and Central Asia caucus spotlighted health, rights, and dignity in childbirth and resulted in a new network and declaration to improve respectful and safe maternity services.
PATH cosponsored the regional advocacy caucuses because we see the immense value in bringing different sectors together to forge meaningful, action-driven dialogue and advance positive change for girls and women. I am leaving the caucuses full of ideas to strengthen woman-centered advocacy at home. For instance, I am already strategizing about how to involve caucus participants to share lessons learned about accountability efforts with our USAID-funded Advocacy for Better Health project.
The caucuses may have ended, but the dialogue has only begun. We now must hold ourselves accountable for collaborative action to advance the SDGs so they enhance the lives of every girl and woman, everywhere.
- Dr. Emmanuel Mugisha is the country director for PATH in Uganda.