The global women’s rights movement: what others can learn, a progress stocktake and some great videos for IWD

March 6, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

It’s International Women’s Day on Sunday, which is swiftly followed by celebrations around the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing conference (I still

IWD, 1975 style

IWD, 1975 style

remember the buzz from women returning from that) and the start of the 59th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN – an annual spotlight on progress (or otherwise) on women’s rights.

Gender is a big deal in Oxfam, and I’ve often been struck by what the rest of the development business can learn from progress on gender rights, and the activism that underpins it. For starters:

Power begins with ‘power within’, when previously marginalized people kindle their sense of rights, dignity and voice. Far more of our work should start there.

Norms really matter. Gender activism shows just how shallow a lot of advocacy can be, when it concentrates on the ephemera of policy, and ignores the social norms that underpin identity and injustice. And international movements can have real impact on those norms.

Stamina: any struggle worth its salt takes decades – you don’t just look for a quick win and move on.

The world beyond money – work on areas such as the ‘care economy’ highlights just how much of what really matters lies outside the monetary economy that dominates thinking on development. We should be talking about shame and joy as much as about income and assets.

(I also happen to think the gender activists could learn useful lessons from others, but that’s another post.)

As for IWD, first some heavy policy, then some fun videos.

The balance of achievements since Beijing and the remaining injustices is nicely summarized in a new paper from the Gender and Development Network (left):

‘Looking back over the last two decades there is a cause for celebration and frustration. Gender equality is now on the political agenda, apparent in the rhetoric around international agreements and accompanied by some new national legalisation to promote or protect women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality. There has been some progress on the ground, especially in areas which were prioritised by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) such as education, national-level political participation and maternal health. There is also an emerging evidence and practice base, particularly through the work of women’s rights organisations, providing valuable lessons for the future.

However, despite the commitments made, and a growing understanding as to what gender equality entails and the most effective ways to achieve it, progress has remained slow and

IWD summary cover

uneven. Efforts by governments and donors have largely been piecemeal, focusing on individual women and girls and on too narrowly defined manifestations of their inequality. In every country in the world, women and girls are still disproportionately represented amongst the poorest and most marginalised. They continue to face violence, discrimination, constrained economic choices and exclusion from decisions over their lives; for those in conflict-affected and humanitarian settings, the situation is even worse. One in three women worldwide experiences sexual and/or intimate partner violence.2 Every day there are almost 800 preventable deaths of women in pregnancy or childbirth. Peace negotiations take place with women almost entirely absent from the table. Women and girls continue to be disproportionately responsible for care work and are twice as likely as men to be living in extreme poverty. Where gender inequality intersects with other inequalities such as income levels, race, ethnicity, disability, caste, age, marital status and sexuality, the abuse of rights is further compounded. For example, less than half of girls with a disability complete primary school.’

The report highlights four areas where structural barriers are blocking the struggle for equality:

Building the autonomy and agency of women and girls

If women and girls are to benefit from opportunities to access more resources and exercise greater power they must have agency, which is the ability to make and act on choices and so control their own lives. Policy and programmes that work directly with marginalised women and girls to build their agency, allowing them to identify their own priorities and solutions, require a move away from perceiving women and girls as simply a ‘vulnerable group’, to active citizens who should be part of decision making processes. To successfully promote self-esteem and confidence, interventions will also need to recognise the specific needs of those women and girls facing multiple discrimination.

Supporting women’s collective action

Change occurs when women act collectively, some of the most important advances in women’s and girls’ rights have been secured through the efforts of women’s rights organisations and movements. Organisations with a primary focus on promoting women’s rights and gender equality, led by women for women, are particularly well-equipped to work with marginalised women and girls in order to enable them to build their capacity and agency, speak for themselves and take collective action.16 Yet funding for these types of organisations remains limited, and is frequently too short-term and restricted to enable the transformative programming needed.

Challenging discriminatory social norms

Discriminatory social norms – widely shared beliefs, practices and rules – legitimise and perpetuate gender inequality by normalising women’s and girls’


roles, for example as ‘carers’ and followers rather than ‘bread-winners’ and leaders. National institutions such as the police, military, education systems, and particularly the media further reinforce these norms. Occupational segregation, early and forced marriage, exclusion from decision making, responsibility for unpaid care work and the widespread acceptance of VAWG are all ways in which discriminatory social norms adversely impact on women’s and girls’ choices and chances.

Change in social norms can be measured, and should therefore be included as targets in international agreements and resourced by governments and donors as a first step. Challenging discriminatory norms requires investment in empowering women and girls to question these norms and go ‘against the grain’ in order to take more control of their own lives. It also means working with communities, particularly influential community leaders, to change what is considered acceptable.

Alternative economic policies

Commitments made at and since the Beijing conference reflect an expectation that governments are responsible for implementing policies to improve the lives of women, especially poor women. However the negative impact of neo-liberal policies on governments’ ability to do so was not addressed. The inconsistency between such commitments, and the continued pursuit of growth-focussed neo-liberal policies, has had a significant impact on progress in all areas of gender equality. Regressive taxation, cuts in public services, privatisation and deregulation have all taken their toll alongside the impact of austerity measures which fall disproportionately on women. Failure to acknowledge the importance of the care economy and women’s unpaid work has also been a major omission.’

And here are the videos. I tried to crowd source from Twitter, but the only celebratory (rather than worthy-but-dull) video came with this amazing (if entirely random/tangential to IWD) bit of Tanzanian keepy-uppy [h/t Rob Grant].

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Jose Barahona sent round this Oxfam-heavy, but nonetheless inspiring story from our work with Citizens Protection Committees in the DRC:

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But otherwise, I’m forced to fall back on some merit-based nepotism. My sister-in-law Mary Matheson (@Mary_Matheson1) makes films for Plan International and went into orbit when both Barack and Michelle Obama highlighted her award-winning animation on girls’ rights and voice this week (shame that FLOTUS invoked one of my pet bugbears, the largely meaningless ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’ ‘fact’ in her tweet, but there we go).

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/youtube]

And then there’s Mary’s Malala video (this one always makes me cry – make sure you’ve got a hanky).

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Happy IWD everyone, and do please send in your favourite videos – I can always use them next year

March 6, 2015
Duncan Green