“We are done talking.” The words of young advocate Shantel Marekera, who spoke alongside world leaders at the opening ceremony of the Generation Equality Forum last week in Paris, sum up the theme of this landmark gender equality event. As women’s rights activists from around the world gathered in Paris and virtually, their calls for action, funding, and accountability for commitments were loud, consistent, and clear. Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also led to incredible regressions in gender equality (President Emmanuel Macron of France described COVID as an “anti-feminist virus”), the activists’ calls were also urgent.
The Generation Equality Forum in Paris came 26 years after the Beijing conference, where 189 countries agreed to the most progressive and ambitious blueprint ever for action on women’s rights. It was in Beijing in 1995 that Hillary Clinton made the watershed statement that “Women’s rights are human rights. And human rights are women’s rights.” And last week, Clinton joined U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Macron and other global leaders at the forum in Paris to remind us of those words.
As the three-day Generation Equality Forum came to a close, what prospect for gender equality activists’ demands that governments and other powerful actors “stop talking and start funding”?
There is little doubt that the forum maintained a focus on concrete commitments. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, announced that $40 billion in concrete commitments for gender equality had already been made by actors across sectors as part of the Generation Equality Forum. Many of these are sizable commitments aimed not just at the symptoms of gender equality, but at the root causes. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, announced his country’s commitment of $100 million to tackle the unequal burden of care work that falls on girls and women all around the world. Melinda Gates committed $2.1 billion from the Gates Foundation, including direct support to women’s movements and activists. And Ford Foundation committed $420 million to empower women and girls to achieve gender equality globally.
Thanks to decades of courageous advocacy from women and girls themselves, every forum speaker recognized the unique role that women’s movements play in driving sustainable change for gender equality. The work that women’s movements to do organize, debate priorities, and push for concrete changes in laws, policies and budgets takes time and it costs money. It’s refreshing to see the funders step up to put more funding towards this work.
But will it be enough? Another key theme running throughout the event was the dangerous backsliding we’re seeing on gender equality all around the world — whether because the COVID-19 pandemic has driven women out of education and work, or because of the “ideological battle” (in the words of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres) for progress, equality and justice for women and girls. Guterres described the need to “push back against the pushback.”
Even before the pandemic, data showed that global progress on improving gender equality was far too slow and a great number of countries — including the United States — were stagnating or backsliding on key gender equality issues. At the current rate of progress, I might have to live to 200 or 300 years old to see equality for women and girls. The hard data to show how that trajectory will change once we take into account the knock to equality from COVID-19, isn’t yet available. But with only 1 in 8 countries putting in place measures to protect women against the social and economic impacts of COVID-19, the outlook is poor.
The Generation Equality Forum is set to catalyze a “five-year action journey” for gender equality. Are we there yet? The answer is no. But we can get there if we work together.
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