Engaging Youth and Women in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)



Section four of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2017 peace proposal, “The Global Solidarity of Youth: Ushering In a New Era of Hope.”

The third challenge I’d like to address is that of enhancing the capacity of communities to meet and respond positively to even the most trying events or circumstances.

related article Women’s Empowerment: Key to Resolving Global Challenges Women’s Empowerment: Key to Resolving Global Challenges Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls should not be regarded as just one element of the Sustainable Development Goals, but recognized as key to accelerating progress on the entire spectrum of goals. In his 2018 Peace Proposal, Daisaku Ikeda further proposes a UN decade for women’s empowerment. The SDGs differ from the MDGs in many aspects, but what I consider to be particularly important is the fact that they were adopted with considerable input from civil society.

In the process of developing the SDGs within the UN, there was a concerted effort to engage in dialogue with a range of stakeholders, including women and youth. Surveys were taken regarding priority areas of engagement, in which more than seven million people participated. Some 70 percent of respondents were under thirty years of age. Many areas of concern that ranked high in the surveys, such as education, healthcare and job opportunities, were incorporated in the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development notes the significance of this in the following language:

“Millions have already engaged with, and will own, this Agenda. It is an Agenda of the people, by the people, and for the people—and this, we believe, will ensure its success.”

In the proposal I wrote on the occasion of the 2012 Rio+20 conference, which was the starting point for the drafting of the SDGs, I expressed my strong hope that they would at their core be this kind of people’s agenda. I did this because I felt that it would be difficult to build momentum for the achievement of any of the goals without large numbers of people personally identifying with the issues.

Another distinguishing feature of the SDGs as a people’s agenda is that they take a new approach based on the awareness that the issues facing us “are interrelated and call for integrated solutions.” This differs somewhat from the MDGs, where themes such as the eradication of poverty or hunger were promoted on a more stand-alone basis.

The SDGs seek to generate virtuous cycles in which progress made toward one goal enables progress on multiple other fronts. For example, if progress is made in securing safe sources of water (Goal 6), this will lead to a reduction in the number of people suffering from infectious or other diseases (Goal 3). It will also reduce the burden on women, who had spent many hours each day providing water for their families, thus opening new employment opportunities for them (Goal 5), making it possible to escape extreme poverty (Goal 1) and enabling their children to attend school (Goal 4).

Known as the Nexus Approach, this was researched at the United Nations University and experimentally implemented in a number of regions before the launch of the SDGs. This approach aims to discover the interconnections among the 169 targets across the 17 areas that comprise the SDGs and to realize simultaneous progress toward their achievement.

Enlightenment—the strength and wisdom to forge a path to a better life—continues to exist within us even in the midst of anguish and pain.

The SDGs also include a number of areas that were not covered in the MDGs, such as climate change and income inequality. It is important to remember, however, that all of these problems are ultimately human in origin and must therefore be amenable to resolution through human efforts. If by taking action we can make substantive progress in one area, that progress can be leveraged toward accelerating progress on other challenges.

Within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the teaching that deluded impulses, or earthly desires and sufferings, are essential to enlightenment suggests the kind of dynamism that is required here. It calls for reorienting our understanding of the nature of human happiness. Happiness is not the outcome of eliminating or distancing ourselves from the desires and impulses that give rise to suffering. It is instead vital that we grasp the reality that enlightenment—the strength and wisdom to forge a path to a better life—continues to exist within us even in the midst of anguish and pain.

The problem is not simply one of suffering but of how we face that suffering and the kinds of action we take in response.

In his commentary on a passage in the Lotus Sutra that reads, “It [the Lotus Sutra] can cause living beings to cast off all distress, all sickness and pain. It can unloose all the bonds of birth and death,” Nichiren writes, “we should take the words ‘cast off’ in the sense of ‘becoming enlightened concerning’” (i.e., to clearly see the nature of).

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. Here Nichiren encourages us not to avert our eyes from the realities that surround us but to confront them head-on. By clearly understanding the nature of our circumstances, we can transform ourselves just as we are, from someone tormented by anguish into someone who creates their own happiness. Further, Buddhism teaches that these waves of transformation propagate through the web of interconnectedness within which we live, potently impacting our immediate surroundings and society as a whole.

The theme of not being entrapped in a situation but rather transforming that situation by proactively creating new connections was used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) when discussing the authentically human (humanitas). Referencing the concept “venture into the public realm” discussed by Karl Jaspers, who was also her mentor, she argued that the authentically human cannot be attained in isolation, but “only by one who has thrown his life and his person into the ‘venture into the public realm.’”

Arendt describes this venture as the act of “weav[ing] our strand into a network of relations.” While acknowledging the uncertainty of the result—“What comes of it we never know”—Arendt expresses her strong confidence on the following point:

“[T]his venture is only possible when there is trust in people. A trust—which is difficult to formulate but fundamental—in what is human in all people. Otherwise such a venture could not be made.”

This trust is, as Arendt stresses, fundamental and is directed not only at ourselves and others in our immediate environment; it is also trust in the sense of facing the world in which we live without ever losing hope.

Last year, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) highlighted examples of women who are promoting the realization of the SDGs by taking action for others, often in very challenging circumstances, under the theme “From where I stand.” Among them is a solar engineer active in her village in Tanzania. Despite having a disability, she worked hard to develop her skills and continues to put her knowledge to use for her fellow villagers. At first, very few of the men respected her as an engineer, but when she installed solar equipment in their homes, bringing light to them, and repaired equipment when it was broken, she began to enjoy the respect of more and more men.

“Before our village used to be in darkness once the sun had set, but now there is light. Just now two children came to take the solar lantern that I fixed for them. They had big smiles on their faces. Tonight they will be able to do their homework.”

I think this is an excellent example of a virtuous cycle advancing the SDGs as the people’s agenda. Through the empowerment of one woman, not only was renewable energy made available to the people in a Tanzanian village but there was a discernible change in attitudes toward women, and children gained access to greater opportunities to study.

Eisha Mohammed, a solar engineer working and living in Mjimwema, a remote village in southern Tanzania Eisha Mohammed, a solar engineer working and living in Mjimwema, a remote village in southern Tanzania [© UN Women/Stephanie Raison]

This woman’s work, quiet yet invaluable, demonstrates what Arendt spoke of in “weav[ing] our strand,” improving conditions in the place you stand now. Here I see the true brilliance of an authentic humanity.

The ability to solve problems is not something reserved for special people: It is a path that opens before any of us when we face reality head-on, taking up some aspect of its weighty burden and acting with persistence. Our capacity to overcome difficulties is unleashed as we turn anguish and concern into determination and action.

Young people in particular are blessed with a fresh sensitivity and a passionate seeking for ideals. Their energy can catalyze chain reactions of positive change as they forge bonds of trust among people.

Youth have been at the heart of the SGI’s peace activities since the days of President Toda and his declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. These young people reject the prevalent sense of powerlessness that afflicts contemporary society and convinces people that their actions cannot bring about change. They are energetically engaged in action rooted in the confidence that their present circumstances are the very conditions that will enable them to fulfill a unique mission.

Three years ago, the youth members in Japan initiated the “SOKA Global Action” peace campaign. They have undertaken activities to assist the spiritual and psychological reconstruction in the regions of Japan impacted by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. They have also worked to build ties of friendship with their Asian neighbors while seeking to build a culture of peace and promoting the abolition of nuclear weapons.

SGI youth around the world are taking on the challenge of transforming reality in such fields as ecological integrity, human rights education and nonviolence. Some activities have specific linkages with the SDGs. For example, in November of last year, the SGI cosponsored an event titled “Youth Boosting the Promotion and the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” at UN Headquarters. Dr. David Nabarro, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, told participants:

“[W]e have to make sure there’s space for young people everywhere to be part of this movement for sustainable development. . . [Y]oung people want to work together with joy, they want to trust each other.”

His words resonate with our commitment to achieving the SDGs. To imagine that young people are only moved to respond to immediate threats is to do them a grave disservice. They advance in the confidence that there is joy and hope to be shared in rising to meet and surmount each challenge.

Although there is no legal obligation to achieve the SDGs, they are imbued with the hope of transforming our world. When a growing number of young people make the realization of that hope their personal vow and take action based on it, efforts to achieve all of the goals will be greatly energized.

Members of the SGI, with a focus on young people, will continue to strive to catalyze chain reactions of positive change in order to resolve the full spectrum of issues—from those found in local communities to the threats facing our planet.

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