Our Future Together, Inspired by the Youth
Despite recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the recent Women’s Summit in Australia highlighting that inequality, particularly gender inequality prevails, I have hope. The girls and young women I have the privilege of collaborating with are interested, passionate, eager to understand and most importantly, courageous and articulate in advocating for change. They understand the importance of collaboration, transparency, and accountability.
Together with current and past students from Mary Ward schools and professional young women, we raise awareness, advocate at the United Nations, and hold our governments accountable for the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.
Prior to the pandemic, the world made some gains in reducing extreme poverty (SDG 1), improving maternal and child health (SDG 3), providing access to education (SDG 4), and even made gains in gender equality (SDG 5) and employment (SDG 8). However, according to the 2021 UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) Progress Report, the goals will not be achieved by 2030. The report also highlights what we already know; the pandemic has pushed back the gains we made on most SDGs. Extreme poverty is expected to rise for the first time in two decades, and an additional 83-132 million people will find themselves forced into chronic hunger.
Experience in Australia confirms that COVID-19 is a ‘generational catastrophe for our children’s learning and wellbeing.’ The digital divide was ever-present, and many children had no access to online learning. Alarmingly, more than 168 million children’s schools closed for almost a year, and one in seven children missed more than 75% of face-to-face learning. These children are at risk of not returning to school, making them vulnerable to child marriage or child labour.
Our environment suffers (SDGs 13, 14, 15). CO2 emissions increase and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that climate change is evident in every region of our world and across the whole climate system. Almost every year in Australia, we experience the effects of drought, bush fires, flooding, cyclones, and the bleaching of our precious Barrier Reef. We ignore these warnings at our peril.
Over 100 years since women’s suffrage and more than 25 years since the Women’s Conference in Beijing, gender equality (SDG 5) remains a dream. No country has achieved gender equality. Poverty and hunger have a feminine face. Women and girls are the most adversely affected in many areas, including health, education, and work. While discrimination and violence against women are overtly displayed in countries like Afghanistan, they have increased worldwide, particularly during the pandemic. It is a dire situation for women experiencing domestic violence, locked at home with their abusers. Gender equality is critical if we are to achieve the SDGs.
The pandemic provides an opportunity for governments to reset as we plan our recovery. The UNSG’s report calls on governments to ‘use the recovery to adopt low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development pathways that will reduce carbon emissions, conserve natural resources, create better jobs, advance gender equality and tackle growing inequities.’
The pandemic demonstrated that providing living wages and universal healthcare saves lives and the economy. Properly targeted, they are investments for a better future. The recovery must include all people. Leave no one behind is not just a slogan; it is our way to a better future. History tells us that significant paradigm shifts are often started by the people and not those who benefit from the status quo. Young people, including many of our Mary Ward current and past students, are leading us by questioning the status quo, challenging the norm and prompting change. This generation inspires hope in me.
Author: Sr Janet Palafox ibvm
Image: Loreto Ballarat students participating with other school students in regional climate change protest | Image courtesy of Reuben Rasmussen