Intersectionality: what is it and why it needs to be considered at the 2023 SDG Summit

IOM Office UN (NY)
3 min readFeb 6, 2023

This September, Heads of State and Government will gather in New York with stakeholders, including leaders from international organizations, the private sector, and civil society, at the second SDG Summit. The Summit will review the state of the world’s progress toward reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and chart the way forward in an increasingly uncertain era.

Indeed, there is no shortage of interlocking global challenges. As United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Our world is plagued by a perfect storm on a number of fronts.” With deepening inequality between and within nations, persistent gender inequity, soaring inflation, disrupted global supply chains, conflict in Ukraine, and the continued threat of and fallout emanating from climate change, the 2023 SDG Summit represents a critical opportunity to put the planet back on track to realize the SDGs.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressing the World Economic Forum. Photo: Eskinder Debebe / UN 2022

These global challenges are especially acute for those with intersections of marginalization. Thus, it is essential that these interlocking vulnerabilities are considered at the Summit. One helpful conceptual tool to achieve this is intersectionality, a concept that finds its roots in American Black feminist thought and articulates that social identities such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, and age interact with one another in a reciprocating, constructing fashion — consequently shaping complex social inequalities.

For example, applying the intersectional prism to a hypothetical migrant might reveal how that migrant’s racial and gender identity, and education and economic backgrounds, create a unique set of challenges. By identifying the sources of these challenges to the intersecting social identities that migrant holds, better targeted and more holistic policy and programming interventions could be put forth to ameliorate that migrant’s circumstances.

Plenary, general view at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Photo: Yao Da Wei / UN 1995

Intersectionality is a tool that has seen widespread consideration by the UN system. As early as 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action noted that some women and girls, “face multiple barriers to their empowerment and advancement because of such factors as their race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, or disability, or because they are indigenous people.” The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) was the first human rights treaty to recognize multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. UN Women has also emphasized the importance of an intersectional approach to eliminate violence against women and published an Intersectionality Resource Guide and Toolkit in 2021, underscoring the importance of using intersectionality to understand who exactly is left behind from sustainable development currently and why, to better shape policies and programming pertaining to the SDGs.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is an American black feminist scholar who introduced the term ”intersectionality” through her scholarship in 1987. Photo: Mohamed Badarne / 2018

By applying an intersectional approach, decision-makers can better understand the social vulnerabilities that lead people to migrate. The concept could also reveal the social barriers that inhibit human mobility — such as traditional gender roles that prescribe that women and girls should stay at home. In countries of destination, an intersectional prism could reveal the multifaceted challenges migrants face as they sit at the center of several social identities, many of which may have their own unique set of vulnerabilities.

When key stakeholders gather at the 2023 SDG Summit in September, an intersectional prism must be used to understand the numerous social identities that the world’s most ostracized peoples identify with. Doing so will enable better strategizing and decision-making to achieve the SDGs by painting a better picture of who exactly is left behind and why. Ultimately, this will make real the promise to Leave No One Behind.

A view of the SDG Moment 2022, an event during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly high-level week. Photo: Mark Garten / UN 2022

This article was written by Justin DesRochers, Migration and Sustainable Development Unit, IOM Office to the United Nations.



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