by Inés Sánchez de Madariaga

2015 and 2016 will be two very important years for three global agendas at the United Nations. Firstly, the gender equality agenda marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing World Women’s Conference in which gender mainstreaming was recognized as a main tool for promoting gender equality in all fields of policy.

Secondly, the Sustainable Development Goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals, with two important events during 2015 leading to the key meeting in December in Paris, at which serious political agreement will have to be reached if the world is to really act upon climate change.

Finally, the Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), will be held in Quito in 2016. This will be the first global UN conf erence after the Post 2015 Development Agenda. As such, it constitutes a critical opportunity to discuss and chart new pathways in response to the challenges of urbanization and the opportunities it offers for the implementation of the sustainable development goals.

This constitutes a ‘New Urban Agenda’ for the 21st century.

Often sustainability goals are reached, or promoted, at the expense of increasing gender inequality, or at the price of not reducing it. Because cities are the main locus where both gender and environmental issues are played out, we need to look at these three global agendas in an integrated way, so that we make sure there will be no harmful trade-offs between promoting gender equality and ensuring sustainable development.

From a gender perspective, UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda is pointing in the right direction, by seeing urbanization as a positive process whose transformative power for improving human lives needs to be harnessed, and by promoting mixed use, denser forms of urbanization with reasonable public transportation systems, and quality and safe public space –the sort of urbanization we well know better suits the lives of women and men who juggle care responsibilities with paid employment.

What could we add to this vision of the New Urban Agenda?

Access to washing machines is a simple and key indicator to measure success in all these three global agendas in the coming years. Professor Hans Rosling has beautifully demonstrated the figures relating population growth, daily income, energy use, access to electricity and to washing machines, from now to 2050.

Only 2 billion people today have access to washing machines, while washing linen and clothing for the remaining 5 billion people in the world is done by women who spend many hours every day in the heavy burden and time consuming job of looking for water, heating it, and washing by hand.

Access to washing machines, which in Europe only our grand mothers started to enjoy, will allow women to have the time to educate themselves and their children, and to work in gainful employment.

As the 2 billion people today under the poverty line and the 2 additional billion population growth expected in this segment gain access to electricity in the coming years, it is imperative that we look at the gender dimensions of how this happens. A significant increase in the number of women in the segment of those who have access to electricity and to washing machines will prove a key leap forward for gender equality in the world.

But this cannot happen in a sustainable way without a very significant change in energy production and in consumption patterns by the 2 billion people who by 2050 will be in the upper income bracket. At current trends, this group will consume more than half of the world’s energy, which itself will almost double. This unsustainable pattern needs to be cut by half or more, through more efficient use of energy and increased use of green energy.

Choices will have to be made, and they have to be made with a very clear awareness of the gender impacts of policy and of investment decisions, in many important areas of our economies and of our city building practices. These sectors until now have paid little attention to gender issues.

A gender perspective will need to be fully integrated into all policy areas beyond the areas normally considered by international organizations as requiring a “gender lens”, that is, sexual violence, access to land, health, education, or economic empowerment of women. We need to reach the critically important areas of planning, transportation, and, energy.

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Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the United Nations and its member states.