A vision of a just world where women are equal

18 December marked quite an occasion for gender equality advocates: the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has just turned 30. With near-universal ratification and countless stories testifying to the ways in which this Global Bill of Rights for Women has been used to challenge gender injustices, there is much to inspire us. Already momentum is building for the next milestone: the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action in 2010. And for feminists eager to have a say about what a post-Millennium Development Goals world might or should look like, the MDG Review Summit looms large on the horizon.

(Picture: Afghan women wear blue scarves symbolising justice during a ceremony to mark international Women’s Day in Kandahar earlier this year)

Now is a pivotal moment for gender equality advocates to pause and to take stock - to celebrate the hard work and significant gains made over the past thirty years, and to strategise about the actions needed to sustain these positive changes. It is also a time to ask ourselves a more troubling question: why has gender inequality proven so much more intractable than anticipated, and what will it take to realise our vision of a just and equal world?

Momentum through turbulent times

As we enter an era characterised by global uncertainties and multiple insecurities, never has the need for stronger, more united and strategic feminist movements been greater. Rising fundamentalisms, militarism, pervasive gender-based violence, increasing inequalities and exclusion, accelerating climate change, food price hikes, the financial and economic crisis - these are just some of the major challenges which threaten past gains and pose obstacles to future progress towards our equality and justice goals.

It comes as no surprise that the impacts of these multiple crises on people in poor countries have been highly uneven. Pervasive gender inequalities place poor women at a particular disadvantage in overcoming shocks by limiting the coping strategies available to them - for example, making it harder for women to diversify into alternative livelihoods in the face of environmental degradation due to restrictions on their access to productive resources such as land and credit. These manifold crises are also deepening pre-existing inequalities between women and men, girls and boys. So, for example, fragile progress on girls’ school enrolment is likely to come under threat at a time when the desperate squeeze on household incomes creates new pressures to prioritise household survival over girls’ education. And in the midst of all this, limited funding for vital women’s rights work is further waning with the pinch on aid budgets.

In such turbulent times, what will it take to accelerate progress towards gender equality and social justice? How can we build on the gains of CEDAW and Beijing and go beyond them, ensuring that these international commitments become a reality for women and girls everywhere? I don’t have the answers – I doubt that straightforward or singular answers exist. But I do have some tentative entry points to consider as we forge pathways forwards.

Locating struggles for equity in the context of women’s lives

The first task is to take as our starting point the diverse realities of women’s experiences, priorities and aspirations. This sounds so obvious as to be hardly worth a mention. But with decision-making still dominated by men at all levels, and with the views of citizens often ignored in development “solutions”, the battle to get women’s voices heard and taken seriously must remain at the forefront of feminist struggles.

Take Copenhagen - a conference of male political heavyweights. Women and girls remain conspicuously absent; an infringement of their human right to contribute to decisions that will so fundamentally affect their lives and livelihoods. Another example is the historic Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (PD), designed to reform the delivery and management of aid to increase its impact and effectiveness. A key principle of the PD is that developing countries should take ownership over their development plans. This offers much scope for promoting multi-stakeholder, democratic processes which involve citizens, including women’s organisations, in decisions on aid spending. But in reality the principle of country ownership has been limited to a narrow focus on state to state relations, with civil society organisations having little or no say in defining the national development plans to which aid is aligned.

As we gear up to shape future debates on aid effectiveness, the MDGs, and the development agenda more broadly, the first priority must surely be to push for women’s full participation in these influential spaces? Challenging the under-representation of women in decision-making is the central goal of One World Action’s More Women More Power campaign, which is calling for women to occupy 50 per cent or more of seats in parliaments or elected bodies.

Yet we need to go further - increasing women’s participation within spaces which remain undemocratic will not create a just and equal world. We need a more radical transformation - and democratisation - of political spaces and structures. Part of this requires revisiting the way that we as feminists engage with development as a political project, to push for fundamental changes in the way development is conceptualised and practised. At One World Action we aim to put democracy at the heart of development by advocating alternative, citizen and democracy-centred approaches to development. We believe people are their own best advocates, so do not presume to speak for organisations in the global south, but rather support them in creating spaces to speak directly to those in positions of power.

Reflecting critically on the inclusiveness of our own struggles

Lack of power and voice remains particularly pronounced for marginalised groups of women, such as indigenous, Dalit (former ‘untouchables’), migrant, and disabled women, and those living with HIV. These women, who bear the brunt of discrimination, often face the greatest barriers to participating in decisions that could potentially transform their lives.

It has long been recognised that multiple inequalities intersect, producing differing experiences of powerlessness among women. Yet these important insights remain little more than a caveat to a dominant discourse which continues to speak of and make demands on behalf of “women” as a homogenous group. Examples include the limited visibility given to the concerns of disabled, lesbian and indigenous women within feminist and women’s struggles, and the tendency to pay only lip service to demands for inclusion. Even CEDAW is weak when it comes to supporting women facing multiple forms of discrimination – there is no mention of Dalit, older or disabled women in the body of the Convention, for example. This raises an uncomfortable question: which women have made the gains in the past thirty years and which women have not? And how can we become better at confronting other forms of oppression within our struggles for equality?

Constructing new alliances that bridge old divides

This brings me to my final question: how can new relationships and alliances be forged between feminist movements and other social justice movements in ways that place equity issues at the heart of efforts for social change?

In the face of very effective strategising by conservative and fundamentalist forces - which are often particularly vocal in their opposition to women’s rights - building inclusive alliances around shared social justice concerns must be a special priority. Yet there is a tendency towards compartmentalisation of justice issues and a failure to explore possibilities for solidarity. Indeed, the most momentous advantages for gender equality - including CEDAW, Beijing, and the recognition of women's rights as human rights - could not have been achieved without building collective power. No matter how effective they are, organisations and activists working independently cannot have as strong or enduring an impact as they can collectively.

It seems to me that in failing to articulate the connections between gender inequality and the injustices foregrounded by other movements we are missing a trick. The result is that gender equality goals remain low on the agendas of many social movements - viewed as marginal rather than integral to broader social justice struggles. Groups working on democratisation rarely embrace issues of women’s political participation, for example, while many mainstream human rights organisations still do not address gender-based injustices.

Hierarchies within justice movements can further perpetuate sexism - as well as racism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination - exacerbating the marginalisation of those who already lack power and voice. Even when gender advocates are present in other social movements, their inclusion may be tokenistic – and more about numbers or rhetoric than meaningful inclusion.

So as we forge the future, I believe we need to reflect seriously on what is being missed here: what would be the strategic value of working together in a more inclusive way? Certainly this is not a new task, nor is it an easy one: there is much uncertainty towards inter-movement collaboration. But in a darkening international climate, it is now more than ever imperative that we interrogate these tensions and explore ways to overcome them, enabling new alliances for equality and justice to be created which bridge these old divides. If we are really serious about fashioning a just and equal world in the next thirty years, surely this is an important place to start.

Emily Esplen is the Women’s Rights Coordinator for One World Action

With thanks to Open Democracy.