April 12, 2021 by Wevyn Muganda, GNWP Cora Weiss Peacebuilding Fellow
Young women are the leaders of today! But we stand on the shoulders of the unrelenting, inspiring women activists that came before us. As a young woman peacebuilder, I am in awe of all of the work done by women’s movements over the decades. Women have been organizing, educating and advocating for their rights, with little recognition and support for their work, for generations. Women have been – and remain – underrepresented in every sphere of life. Their roles are appreciated only when it comes to manual labor and care work in homes and farms, despite our significant contributions in politics and development. Yet, the unyielding commitment and work of women activists achieved important gains. The continued advocacy on gender equality led by women’s movements and activists led to the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) – a comprehensive blueprint on how to ensure women’s freedom and emancipation – at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference.
The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Mexico, which concluded recently with reactivated commitments and a call to accelerate action on gender equality, was the first in a series of commemorations of this critical achievement. The Forum was co-organized by Mexico, France, UN Women, and representatives of civil society and youth. It brought together different actors including civil society organizations, private sector and representatives of Member States. Over three intense days of fully virtual discussions and organizing, we analyzed the progress and gaps in the implementation of BPFA. Since 1995, there have been concerted efforts to ensure that women in every part of the world are free to enjoy their rights and access equal opportunities. However, critical gaps remain, and our gains are fragile. Looking back to 1995, and the three days of the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico, there is so much to reflect on regarding the progress made in achieving gender equality.
To me, the GEF in Mexico was empowering and informative. What struck me first was the intergenerationality and intersectionality of the Forum. With the public, virtual platform for discussion available to everyone in multiple languages, more women groups could participate in the virtual interactions. The virtual convening has made it possible for thousands of young women and women who may not have had the resources or an opportunity to travel to Mexico to attend. This means that there were more diverse and authentic voices in the Forum. Young women and women of diverse identities and cultures gave accounts of their experience and perspectives on the BPFA, and the challenges they face in making it a reality. Critically, they made concrete recommendations to policy-makers and other actors, which was very inspiring. I particularly remember the remarks by Hajer Sharief, a young woman peacebuilder from Libya during the plenary session on Women’s Leadership. She reiterated the need to embrace intersectionality to ensure more feminist leadership. However, the virtual space also left out many young women peacebuilders with limited to no access to the internet, highlighting the increasing digital divide and the obstacle it sets to women’s participation and gender equality.
At a time when women have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, a feminist global COVID-19 recovery plan is needed to ensure that no more women are left behind. The GEF, through its 6 Action Coalitions and Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action, seeks to address the urgent areas of concern for women across six thematic areas. These are: Gender based violence, Economic Justice and Rights, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Feminist Action for Climate Justice, Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, Feminists Movement and Leadership and the Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action. The impact of COVID-19 has been a recurring thread through all the discussions during the Forum. Realizing the priorities included in each of these critical areas is the necessary cornerstone of an effective, feminist and sustainable response to the pandemic. However, this requires stronger commitment to gender equality, inclusion, and truly transformative action.
One critical recommendations that came out from the discussions at the Mexico GEF included: meaningful inclusion of young girls, grassroots women, Indigenous people, Afro-descendants, women with HIV, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) persons in decision-making, including on COVID-19 response, humanitarian action, and the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Another key issue raised was the need to transform the global economic system, so that women have equal opportunities at making income and sustaining their lives. Other recommendations included: soliciting support from male gender equality allies, especially those in positions of power, who can be champions of gender equality; financing women activists and movements and ensuring their protection; and investing in women’s leadership and participation in national COVID-19 recovery plans.
As a peace activist, I have followed in particular the discussions around the Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPS-HA) – a multistakeholder entity designed to drive implementation of existing commitments by different stakeholders on gender equality. The Compact’s work is focused on delivering tangible results in the following five priority issues: 1) women’s meaningful participation in peace processes; 2) financing the WPS agenda and gender equality in humanitarian programming; 3) women’s economic security; 4) women’s leadership and agency across the peace, security and humanitarian sectors; and, 5) protection of women in conflict and crisis contexts including women human right defenders. During the GEF, Amani Aruri, a member of the Beijing+25 Youth Task Force expressed how pleased she was at the way young people have been involved in the Compact’s work so far, noting that young women are not merely beneficiaries, but are co-leading this global process. I am proud to be part of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, who – as a board member of the Compact – has contributed to its inclusivity, by holding consultative workshops with over 100 local women and youth peacebuilders on the concrete actions the Compact can take to achieve its objectives. Strong synergies and coordination between the 6 Action Coalitions and the Compact are necessary to the achievement of the 5-year global acceleration plan for gender equality, which was presented during the GEF in Mexico.
Another highlight of the GEF in Mexico, to me, was the adoption of the Young Feminist Manifesto. The engagement of young women in the GEF process so far has not been as productive as young women expect. Particularly, there has been a lack of understanding of what intergenerational and intersectional youth leadership should look like. The Young Feminist Manifesto seeks to address this gap to ensure more meaningful involvement of young women in the GEF moving forward. The manifesto includes recommendations to the GEF organizers on co-leadership and co-ownership, accountability, substantive and meaningful youth participation, funding and resourcing and capacity strengthening. It also makes recommendations to the leadership of the Action Coalitions and the GEF in Mexico and France on co-organizing and co-leading sessions to ensure young women are not tokenized, but rather included as equal partners in the process.
The GEF was another wake up call for leaders and an opportunity to amplify the voices and demands of women leaders. Various commitments and actions have been discussed. However, none of them can be implemented without adequate financing. Member States and donors need to be deliberate in their funding decisions to ensure that they are supporting initiatives and programmes that continue to move gender equality forward. The pandemic has proven that we are one crisis away from losing the gains women’s movements have made in their work towards gender equality. This calls for more sustainable approaches to addressing the challenges women experience. We all have a role to play in implementing these commitments, and an even bigger role in holding duty bearers accountable for the inadequate or lack of implementation of the BPFA, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and other international laws and policies related to women’s rights and gender equality.
Achieving gender equality requires changing our perceptions and cultural and social norms, and creating more opportunities for women’s freedom and emancipation. But it is possible. And so, the challenge is on all of us. Particularly to young women and women across the world, in the words of Hajer Sharief, I ask: “Why are we accepting decision-making processes that don’t look like us?”
Indeed, the work must go on. Freedom for women is freedom for all!