Looking to the sun: pushing forward for gender equality

Around the world, democracy is under threat. As populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism gain traction in more countries, we must redouble efforts on gender equality or risk rolling back on hard-fought gains


The grassroots feminist movement Ni Una Menos, (Not One Woman Less) protesting against femicide and gender-based violence in front of the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The country's newly elected, far-right president, Javier Milei, has already disbanded the ministry of women, gender and diversity, and is seen as a threat to the rights and protection of women. ©Alamy/Esteban Osorio

We are living today with the consequences of imperfect, shambolic democracies.

Over the last decades, governments in many countries of the world have failed to deliver social services and public goods to their citizens. Today, 1 in 10 women are living in extreme poverty. If current trends continue, the gender-poverty gap is projected to persist through mid-century.  

As communities have been impoverished – by global pandemics, climate catastrophes, austerity measures, volatile and insecure economies, and more – trust in public institutions and democratic systems has atrophied. Citizens, disillusioned with the inability of institutions and governments to address systemic issues and compounding global crises, have disengaged themselves from the pursuit of a shared social contract, creating a vacuum that has been effectively occupied by undemocratic actors.

The shift in the nature and complexity of conflict and war, including proliferation and entrenchment of armed conflicts, has undermined notions of the common good, social justice, and human solidarity. Societies have ruptured along fault lines of identity, ethnicity, and race. People, seeking comfort in tribes rather than in communities, have allowed the legitimization of discrimination and prejudice, and a subversion of the ideals of democracy: from solidarity, diversity, and pluralism to brutal majoritarianism (the idea that the numerical majority of a population should have the final say in decision-marking).

This has set the stage for the renaissance of illiberalism, and the rise of an insular, muscular nationalism that rejects institutions of global cooperation and solidarity as effete and ineffective. This worldview instead promotes binary perspectives, where national sovereignty, culture, and interests are pitted in confrontation with international norms and institutions of human rights, justice, progress, and well-being.

Fight – and pushback

Astonishingly, through all of this, the fight for gender equality and women’s rights has remained unflagging. Not only is it the most enduring movement for substantive equality but feminist mobilizing is adaptive, inclusive, and intersectional, and creates alliances and coalitions with other movements involved in the safeguarding of democracy and rights. What is significant is that it challenges – on behalf of everyone – the implicit hierarchies of power for a few.

Notions of individual and collective agency, solidarity, equity, access, autonomy, and accountability are cornerstones of feminist mobilizing. The idea of gender equality interrogates entitlements and privileges that foster multiple inequalities. It also shines the light on individual, community, societal, and institutional norms, practices, and stereotypes that limit opportunities for people and marginalize them in private and public spheres.

As such, gender equality aligns with the broader goals of strengthening democracies. And in doing so, it faces ferocious pushback from populist and authoritarian forces, whose agenda is to separate people from their histories and contexts and coalesce them around simplistic, unidimensional identities. Illiberal and populist ideologies often seek support at the expense of marginalized groups and view the plural, inclusive feminist agenda as an existential threat.

The achievement of gender equality has long been hampered by sluggish political will, insufficient investment, restricted civic space, and compounding global crises. At this moment, the critical midpoint of the deadline for completing the SDGs, no goal indicators for gender equality are at “target met or almost met.” Today less than 1% of women and girls live in a country with high women’s empowerment and a small gender gap, according to UN Women and UNDP’s latest joint report, The paths to equal. Notwithstanding, in the current climate of democratic erosion and authoritarian resurgence, the pushback against gender equality has become global, political, and institutional.

Coordinated and well-resourced state and non-state actors are normalizing traditional, patriarchal, binary constructs of men’s and women’s roles in society and polity and promoting public legitimacy of these ideas through political processes and rhetoric.

Where women are exerting their rights and voices as citizens and where that expression is against the dominant political agenda, they are targeted as anti-national. In contexts where opposition and dissent are criminalized, dissenting feminist activists and their claims of gender equality are pronounced as being against the national character.

Global and local action toward gender equality

In countless communities in countries across the world, activists, advocates, and indefatigable actors for gender equality are holding the line and working in steady solidarity and alliances across sectors, to push forward for gender equality. Drawing upon their work, as both bulwark and rudder, here is a landscape for concerted global and local action:

  1. Governments and their institutions must uphold and realize their commitments to human rights and substantive gender equality, recognizing the comprehensiveness of the rights spectrum. 
  2. Institutions tasked with promoting gender equality must be fortified to withstand political pressures and ensure the enforcement of laws and policies that protect women’s rights, across and irrespective of changing political administrations and governments. This includes bolstering the mandate and resources of gender equality institutions, feminist civil society, and other relevant organizations and bodies to address systemic inequalities.
  3. Governments, working with stakeholders across sectors, must prioritize inclusive policies that address the intersecting forms of discrimination faced by women, including race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity, and disability. This requires a holistic approach that addresses economic empowerment, access to healthcare and education, and protection from violence and discrimination.
  4. Civil society plays a crucial role in holding governments accountable and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups, including women and girls in all their diversity. Strengthening civil society organizations and promoting grassroots activism empowers women to advocate for their rights and shape policy agendas.
  5. Addressing the root causes of gender inequality requires challenging patriarchal norms and attitudes that perpetuate discrimination and violence against women. This necessitates comprehensive education and awareness-raising and working with men and boys to promote gender equity. 
  6. Solidarity among women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, and allies across social movements is essential for countering efforts to disempower women. By amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for collective, intersectional, intergenerational action, solidarity can strengthen resistance to regressive policies and promote transformative change.

Gender equality is the most enduring, deep, and expansive fight for substantial equality for all. It enjoins all of society’s actors and institutions to act in concert, for shared and common freedoms, for the greater good. Turning our faces up to the sun and pushing forward for gender equality, so that the vision of the SDGs for people, planet, and prosperity is achieved, is always the better story – and never more so than now.

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