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Generation Equality Forum: how to shift power for a gender-just world

Written by Caroline Harper

Hero image description: A protest on International Women’s Day 2020 in the northern Chilean town of Antofagasta. Feminist marches took place all over the country organised by local women’s groups. Image credit:A protest on International Women’s Day 2020 in the northern Chilean town of Antofagasta. Feminist marches took place all over the country organised by local women’s groups. Image license:Enfocale / Shutterstock.com

While the #GenerationEquality Forum will be a rallying point for the world’s feminists and women’s rights movements, and more inclusive of civil society and intersectional concerns than ever, it is worth recognising the laudable ambition but clearly stretched aspirations given present global constraints. Evidence indicates that at the current pace of change, a worldwide gender-just social order is still far off. Invisible everyday barriers to transformation – such as those explored in ALIGN’s flagship research: How norms change, act as breaks on the momentum of transformation.

Over 25 years on from Beijing, true sustained progress on delivering gender justice remains a momentous challenge. According to the UN itself, while women have made some strides, the pattern of change for different regions ‘has been unacceptably slow with stagnation and even regress in some contexts.’ Gender based discrimination is a global phenomenon. One that is deeply rooted and entangled in other historical systems of power which continue to unequally distribute basic rights, freedoms, assets and resources, dignity, justice, and livelihood opportunities between peoples and continents.

To make the aspirations of #GenerationEquality a reality and create a global society free from patriarchal violence, gender injustice, economic precarity, anti-black racism, worker exploitation and LGBTQ+ hate, the world is going to have to speed up and scale up the redistribution of power. This more profound transformation will require a much deeper effort, in tandem with combatting deep seated discriminatory and harmful gender norms.

Groundswell of pressure

The kind of work that changes minds, and by osmosis wider social relations and norms, tends to happen in the community: at the dinner table, within families, at the Mosque, in the markets and public spaces. Experience proves that demands and action for the transformation of gender relations often comes from below, with international ‘moments’ of institutional policy-making supporting the groundswell of pressure for change. This realm of formal politics, with its comprehensive layers of laws and policy, is vital to enforce or support these aspirational visions.

At the same time, these last few years prove that human rights gains are not irreversible, and the potential for stalling, backsliding and reversals is real. Particularly in the face of a clear and surging backlash against women’s basic freedoms that often culminate in violence. Femicide is on the rise, even in a context where evidence shows 50,000 women were killed by their intimate partners or family members in 2017 alone. At the same time there is a notable swell in digital attacks and misogynist violence towards parliamentarians.

That’s why one focus for transformation is on shifting power – and funding – to women’s movements. Funding civil society in all its diversity can keep up the pressure and continue to reshape public opinion. Reliable resources are needed to give greater weight to organisations doing the work for women everywhere. At present, less than 1% of global funding goes to women’s organisations and feminist movements, despite that it is often this community organising that most successfully challenges gender norms and chips away at patriarchal power relations. Energy for change ignites in the streets, through moments of collective community reflection and action, catalysed by organisations like MIFTAH in Palestine, Microsesiones Negras in Chile, and the MenEngage network on the African continent. When norms are questioned or changed, this acts as a trigger for change in other areas, creating a virtuous cycle of momentum.

Women’s voice and political power

The much more difficult task is not just elevating women’s voices, experiences and decision-making to the political sphere, but ensuring they are listened to and have power to make change. While women’s parliamentary representation is rising globally, from 12% in 1997 to 25% in the late 2010s, with rates currently highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, women’s perspectives remain stubbornly underrepresented. At a local level, fewer than 5% of our world’s mayors today are women and, on average, women only account for around 20% of local councillors across the globe’s cities. So, there is still a big gender gap in who wields political power, and this is important in terms of who decides the types of policies, budgets and regulations or legislations that shape society.

Yet, even in the face of such slow progress, male violence against women in politics is not only prevalent but rising. This backlash threatens women, none more so than gender non-conforming women and feminists of colour, who bravely step into the political space and challenge prevailing norms. Calling out systems of inequality and injustice is increasingly met with violent reaction and sanction. Marielle Franco was a black, bisexual, feminist, working-class city councillor and sociologist from Maré (one of Rio de Janeiro’s northern favelas) and was assassinated in March 2018 as she left Casa das Pretas – a downtown community space where Marielle had participated in an evening debate series: Young Black Women Moving Structures. Her premeditated assassination is evidence of the risks women face when entering politics, especially as they attempt to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression which are propped up by powerful interests.

The political space where power is negotiated, contested and embedded, is also a key realm where transformation can be visibly instituted and sustained. Women’s exclusion from engaging in politics is partly due to gender norms that continue to construct different roles for men and women in society and reproduce ideas like ‘women should stay at home and men should earn an income’ or that ‘men make better politicians than women’. These contextually nuanced attitudes, and centuries’ old discriminatory stereotypes, imbue our social interactions and reproduce harmful hierarchies of power. Black women and women of colour, indigenous women, LGBTQ+ women, people with disabilities and youth face higher risks and barriers when raising their voice. That’s why anchoring the gender-just vision of #GenerationEquality must centre on voices usually excluded from the conversation, for example taking heed of the demands for Action Coalitions at the Forum articulated by the Nala Feminist Collective’s Africa Young Women’s B+25 Manifesto.

A decolonial perspective also shows us that it is not just about transferring power from male stakeholders to female stakeholders, but real transformative change will require a much deeper material commitment to sharing power. Efforts to meaningfully transfer resources to the Global South will accelerate change for women most marginalised by the world’s political and economic systems, and who are already doing the work, but are held back by lack of funds, lack of support, and exclusion from international or institutional networks.

Key actions to shift discriminatory gender norms

Global intersectional solidarity backed by meaningful and flexible long-term funding commitments is essential to realising our feminist vision of justice for all. Priorities should be to:

- Fund community activism: facilitate the autonomous mobilisation of women’s social movements and feminist initiatives that aim to change norms at the individual and community level. Only 0.42% of foundation grants are allocated towards women's rights.

- Leverage mass media: harness popular culture, social media and other ICT networks to disseminate and promote more gender-egalitarian norms by portraying new behaviours for women and men.

- Support women’s political participation: facilitate women’s groups and movements to put forward female and feminist candidacies (like in Chile), to elevate their role in driving political action that is rooted in a collective social and community voice. This includes addressing the care giving burden and building female mentorship initiatives.