By Farhana Haque Rahman*
ROME, Mar 5 2020 (IPS) – The narrative surrounding women’s rights in 2020 carries much hope and possibility. A new decade is ushering in important anniversaries and milestones: 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, 110 years since the birth of International Women’s Day and the 10-year countdown to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
These dates are all significant of course, and their impact is sure to be positive to an extent, yet there is an undertone of wishful thinking that events in themselves can ignite powerful change, and a simplicity that disregards the more complex and insidious existence of systematic inequality.
These milestone moments will be written about, documented in the news, and read by many. But the opportunity for real tangible change gets diluted as we forget that actions perpetuating gender inequality are often normalised, taken for granted, and occur in social strata globally where the news of such events seldom reaches. International Women’s Day,for example, perceived by some as an unmissable opportunity to celebrate, campaign for, and protect women’s rights, is simply ignored elsewhere.
That’s the issue with these occasions and high-level discussions attended by those with access – they create a barrier to understanding for those who aren’t even aware they are occurring. They don’t form part of everyday life for those most actively affected. Women denied education won’t understand what specific legislation means for them, and women denied the opportunity to take autonomy in their lives are not going to be the ones in attendance, or those given access to the results. Women with the privilege of being part of such occasions are likely to have already a recognisable level of emancipation from explicit forms of oppression.
Campaigns for women’s suffrage began over a century ago and the first IWD has its roots in a 1910 session of the International Socialist Congress, although March 8 became accepted as the common date some years later, and was adopted by the feminist movement in 1967. The UN designated 1975 as International Women’s Year and has consistently recognised the annual honoring of women as a call for change and celebration of progress.
Political figures with an unequivocal platform to promote equality are becoming evermore visible. Germany’s Angela Merkel is widely respected for her strong opposition to nationalist and populist movements; Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is hailed for her stand against hate and discrimination; Bangladesh has been praised for its assistance to one million Rohingya refugees driven out of Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina has been prominent on the international stage in seeking to resolve the humanitarian crisis. All women, all leading purposefully in situations that could easily perpetuate discrimination against so many. Barack Obama’s comments on women making “indisputably” better leaders are clearly justified by these game-changers.
The point here is that while 2020 could be a landmark year for gender equality, the efforts required to reach our goal have to be deliberate and far reaching. Just the instance of these events happening won’t have any measurable result.
Positive reinforcements of achievements do plant the seeds of change. The celebration of role models who represent shattered glass ceilings, the publicised calls for action, and the spotlight on game-changers all bring this possibility of change where women and girls can access conclusions to be reached this year. Having solidarity and a purposeful connection can nurture the strength to fight for the elimination of gender inequality. The girl in Nepalforced to sleep in a tiny hut during her period should hear about the government minister’s wife who became the first menstruating women in her district to spend a night in her own house. The woman who is reluctant to demand that she be paid equal to her male counterpart should hear about other women doing that. The girl consistently told that she is bossy when trying to take initiative should hear about female politicians and businesswomen who are widely respected for their leadership styles. The list goes on.
Access to the knowledge of a possibility of change is crucial. Giving those most affected by gender inequality the solidarity of a community which knows that change is possible will have a significant effect on igniting the shift in gendered practices.
With the SDGs acting as a blueprint for global efforts to eliminate poverty and inequality by 2030, the 10 years we have to achieve this are scarcely enough. More than half of the 129 countries measured in the 2019 SDG Gender Index scored poorly on SDG 5, which calls for international gender equality and the empowerment of all women. There is a serious question to be asked whether setting such goals are operationally viable. As the UN highlights: “The emerging global consensus is that despite some progress, real change has been agonisinglyslow for the majority of women and girls in the world.”
Complete elimination of gender inequality, and the genuine expectation for this to have been met in the 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, may be too far-reaching to even aspire to. It risks creating a defeatist mentality, a sense we just don’t have the means to get there. At what point can we confidently say that a country has achieved full equality?
Smaller, more manageable goals with a clearer path for completion, should be adopted instead. In this context it is also important to recognise the shortcomings of setting an absolute in the first place. Such is the volatility of human behavior that there will never be ‘complete’ equality, but there is much that can be done to make the situation better for all.
One of the arguments for the SDGs is that they provide a strong framework for action to be implemented by those in a position of power, such as equal pay for the same job, and access to reproductive health facilities. While these are crucial steps in giving women equality of opportunity, identifying legislative acts as indication of progress towards equality can givethe illusion that further action is unnecessary. This in turn drives more subtle and clandestine forms of gender inequality further away from public recognition.
Yes we should be celebrating these monumental events that bring to light incredibly important issues. IWD 2020, aptly named “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights” which aligns with the UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign, carries this torch. But do not let such moments obscure the painfully slow pace of progress and theinsidious existence of systemic inequality.
However the coronavirus outbreak means that these landmark events are likely to be much curtailed. The first major event to be knocked off course is a March 9-20 meeting in New York of the Commission on the Status of Women. It had been expected to draw more than 7,000 attendees, but will be shortened and scaled down after the UN urged capital-based ministers and diplomats not to travel. But instead of treating this as a setback, we should seize the opportunity to really push the agenda ahead without being bogged down in the usual meaningless formalities and empty platitudes.
This article is part of special IPS coverage of International Women’s Day on March 8 2020
*Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service; a journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.