Living in interesting times: one year in the life of Oxfam’s Women’s Rights Director

September 8, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Nikki van der Gaag looks back on her first year as Oxfam’s Gender Justice and Women’s Rights Director.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese saying that could equally be a promise or a curse. In the past decade, there can’t have been many more interesting times to be working on women’s rights and gender justice.

I began my new post three months after the murder of female MP Jo Cox in the UK, and almost exactly two months before the surprise election of President Donald Trump on November 8. All over the world, the past 12 months have seen rising right-wing populisms and religious fundamentalisms threatening the rights that women have fought for over many decades.

One of Trump’s first acts in post was to sign an executive order to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, restricting US funding for any family planning programmes connected to abortion, and then extending this to all global health funding. This amounts to almost $9 billion, 15 times more than any earlier rulings. It is already having devastating impacts on women’s lives.

In February 2017, President Putin’s Government in Russia passed an amendment decriminalising many forms of domestic violence. ‘Moderate’ violence within families is now an administrative, not a criminal offence, which means that unless bones are broken, the perpetrator will only get a fine or a maximum of 15 days in prison – unless this happens more than once a year. This in a country where estimates are that a woman dies every 40 minutes from domestic abuse.

Three weeks later, on February 27, the Government in Bangladesh passed a law which allows marriage under the age 18 (which is otherwise illegal) to take place in “special circumstances – that is, with parental consent and with permission from the courts, deemed in the “best interest of the underage female or male”. The child’s consent is not required. Bangladesh still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.

In addition, funding to women’s rights organisations has fallen by more than half over the past five years from donors, despite recent studies suggesting that the work of such groups brings the greatest long-term improvement to women’s lives.

So in many ways it has been an unprecedentedly depressing year for women’s rights. But the reaction to these events has also been unprecedented – and uplifting.

In January, Trump’s actions galvanised Women’s Marches all over the world. Many thousands (actually, millions) came together in solidarity and with humour to stand up for women’s rights. And in July a Family Planning Summit in London,pledged $5 billion  to try to fill some of the funding gap caused by the Global Gag rule.

This August, in Lebanon, laws which allowed for rapists to go unpunished if they married their victims were scrapped amid much celebration by women’s rights activists and their supporters. This followed the revoking of similar laws in Jordan and Tunisia.

The campaign in Lebanon by Abaad, a gender justice organisation, included billboards of women in wedding dresses that were bloodied and torn with the caption: “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape,” and wedding dresses hung from a noose, on Beirut’s seafront. But campaigning will continue as the rape clause will still apply if the victim is underage.

Campaigning for gender justice and women’s rights increasingly involves not only women and women’s rights organisations, but men as well. In May, I spoke in Belgrade at the launch of the second global State of the World’s Fathers report, published by the MenCare campaign, which argued that gender equality will never be achieved unless men are involved, including sharing the paid and unpaid care work equally with women.

New alliances are being built, new forms of resistance invented. Oxfam, and other international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), have many years of experience of working with some of the most extraordinary women and women’s and gender justice organisations around the world.

There are three main things that INGOs can do to resist these threats, build alliances – and making sure one day gender equality becomes the norm in every single country:

First, ensure that feminist, women’s rights and gender justice organisations get the funding they need for this resistance. A review by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development showed clearly that money for such organisations is shrinking rather than growing.

Second, use INGOs’ size and reach to support feminist movement-building and increase the visibility and power of gender justice work. This needs to be done with care, so that they support rather than swamp, and ensure that their relative size is a help and not a hindrance. It also means being humbler in their claims about what they as individual organisations can contribute. No one INGO has the monopoly on what’s important for gender justice. Those in INGOs need to listen to Southern organisations and partners and to feminists from the Global South so that their agendas are truly driven by those they claim to serve.

Last but not least, they need to reflect more on their own practice, ensuring that they put their own houses in order, acknowledging and addressing sexism and gender inequity in all that they do.

These are challenging times. The coming year is likely to continue to be ‘interesting’ for women’s rights and gender justice.  But I take heart from another saying, this time an African proverb: ‘When you go alone, you go fast, but when you go together, you go far.’

September 8, 2017
Duncan Green