By Priya Chattier
In light of COVID-19, the 64th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to be held in New York was cancelled. The annual event usually brings together delegates from member states to report on their commitments to Beijing Platform for Action (BPA) on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Though 2020 CSW was scaled back, member states still adopted a political declaration affirming their continued commitment to the BPA.
Seizing the moment, CSW was brought to the University of Canberra which was hosted by the 50/50 Foundation. I spent the day at the Seize the CSW Moment workshop on 13th March 2020, along with an impressive list of speakers (former Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Founder of Male Champions for Change, Liz Broderick and current AHRC, Kate Jenkins).
How far have we come?
Notwithstanding the brave and momentous progress in some areas of women’s and girl’s lives achieved by lower maternal mortality rates and parity in education in the last two decades, I couldn’t help but come away feeling rather depressed. It has been 25 years since the transformative global gender agenda (i.e. BPA) was endorsed in September 1995 by member countries, yet systematic discrimination lies in the heart of women’s lives. The context for accelerating systematic change continues to discriminate against women, even after 25 years of progress.
But still a long way to go
What is most concerning to me is that gender gap is still far deeper than we ever imagined in most countries. Gendered disparities remain across all countries and inequality continues to persist. In my opinion, three main challenges to gender equality remain.
- Intersectionality matters: progress on gender equality is not always shared by all women – women are not a homogenous group, but often multiple aspects of our identity enrich our lives and experiences as well as compound our vulnerabilities and marginalisation. Sadly, at this event I felt that particular experiences and perspectives of women were more of a tokenistic representation rather than a genuine effort to include diverse voices as part of the broader agenda on gender equality and intersectionality. As a result (still important) but trendier topics such as equal pay and female empowerment takes precedence over critical issues such as climate change, labour rights, and indigenous rights. The trouble with one-size-fits-all feminist movement is that it glosses over intersectional oppressions faced by specific groups of women and their diverse identities and perspectives.
- Home still remains unsafe for women: even after 25 years since Beijing, women and girls continue to face all forms of violence and harassment in public spaces, and in the workplace, as well as in homes. A 2019 study on global homicide and gender-related killings of women and girls revealed a total of 87,000 being killed – of which more than half were killed by partners or other family members. This accounts to an average of 137 women across the globe who are killed by a member of their own family almost every day. In Australia, on average, one woman is ‘senselessly murdered’ by her current or former partner every week. These statistics suggest that, despite efforts to promote gender equality and prevent gender based violence, rigid gender attitudes as well societal gender norms continue to be one of the main drivers of violence against women.
- Patriarchal persistence and male backlash: Today more women are qualified than ever before but it seems that the transition from education to the world of work is marked by slow and fragmented progress. Despite progress in some countries, double burden of caring work still falls unevenly on women – and women do pick flexibility over career progression and are more likely to face discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Gender-based differences in labour force participation also has a negative economic impact on women’s ability to earn higher income as well as their retirement savings. While the momentum for gender equality has been moving forward, progress seems to have met with strong backlash and resistance. Anti-gender movement often rests on the belief that gender equality will undermine important institutions in society such as family, church and the state. It almost feels like the march towards gender equality has been one step forward and two steps backward.
Moving beyond ‘fixing the women’ approach
No matter how much we invest in women, change will not happen overnight unless we, as individuals, organisations and countries address the gendered barriers that give disproportionate power to men over women. A narrow focus on women will not only perpetuate some of the deeper systematic inequalities but halt the progress on gender equality. A much more concerted and comprehensive approach is therefore needed to address gender inequities at the household, society and individual level that engages a broad range of actors and supporters in the fight for gender equality, including men as allies. Here are three ways we can do this:
- Need to listen to different kinds of feminists: For the women’s movement, it is important to pay attention to the fact that feminism should be about ending all the intersectional oppressions that affect different groups of women differently rather than just sexism. The whole purpose of women’s movement is to listen to different voices and lived experiences of women other than yourself. Every effort should be made to include stories and contributions of women from diverse lived experiences to become part of the mainstream feminist narrative. At feminist forums like this, there is a need to amplify the voices of grassroots feminists and from marginalised communities that demonstrate how multiple identities intersect with sexism.
- Tackling adverse norms so that women feel safe at home and at work: In many cultural contexts, gender norms and expectations play a powerful role in perpetuating gender stereotypes and behaviours. As a result, men often feel threatened to step out of these expectations of masculinity either at home or work. While there are many great services that work with women who are victims of, or impacted by, violence there is a need for further work that addresses the attitudes and behaviour underpinning violence. Understanding the main drivers behind these negative and harmful norms can help minimise or respond to resistance to change better as well as look at how new gender norms develop or transform stereotypes
- Why does it matter to engage with men? The last 25 years of the women’s movement tells us that working to promote gender equality will always be met with resistance from men. To minimise male backlash, it is important to proactively include men as allies to drive gender equality initiatives. Leaving men out of the conversations may risk deepening existing gender equalities and perceptions rather than fixing it. Working together so that men can play a significant role in supporting gender equality and pay equity in the workplace, providing family-friendly policies and support systems to employees who may be experiencing domestic or sexual violence as well as setting clear standards of behaviour in the workplace that promote healthy masculinities and improve attitudes.