Making Good on Our Global Commitment to Gender Justice

Despite lofty rhetoric about the need to prioritize women’s issues, less than 1 percent of official development assistance earmarked for advancing gender equality and 1.6 percent of philanthropic funding have actually gone to women’s organizations.

Indigenous women’s groups at the United Nations Generation Equality Forum in Mexico.
Indigenous women’s groups performed a Tlalmanalli opening ceremony to kick off the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico City, March 29–31, 2021. (UN Women / Dzilam Méndez)

At the end of this month, the international community will gather in Paris at the Generation Equality Forum, to embrace a “framework for action” aimed at achieving—not just talking about—gender equality worldwide. 

The effort—convened by the United Nations, co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France, and championed by philanthropies, innumerable civil society organizations, and more governments and companies now joining ranks—is intended to reinvigorate the global commitments to gender equality made so fervently by world leaders in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which have in no way been met—we are not even close.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 30 percent of women aged 15 and over had experienced violence, according to U.N. Women. UNICEF reported that more than 20 percent of girls were being married before they turn 18. Women do three times as much unpaid care work as men, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 25 percent fewer women than men doing paid work. And nearly 200 million women of reproductive age desiring to avoid pregnancy were unable to access contraception. 

And yet, despite the lofty rhetoric at the Beijing conference and since about the need to prioritize women’s issues, less than 1 percent of official development assistance earmarked for advancing gender equality and 1.6 percent of philanthropic funding have actually gone to women’s organizations.

We see the same discrepancy within national governments, between women’s empowerment rhetoric and the levels of public investment in making that rhetoric real. 

From rich countries to low-income ones, U.N. member states have not prioritized gender in their annual budgets, seemingly not recognizing the degrees to which the provision of safe water, sanitation, energy and public health disproportionately affects the lives of women and families.  

The apparent resistance to recognizing the multidimensional nature of “women’s issues” has triggered an increasingly strident, heavily politicized debate in the United States, about whether, for instance, the care economy counts as “essential infrastructure” requiring substantial investment. 

Throughout the pandemic, there has been widespread heralding of care workers, who are overwhelmingly women, as “essential workers” who risk their health to care for us, in our homes, daycare centers, nursing homes, and hospitals. Yet the refusal to acknowledge the centrality of this vastly undercompensated labor to a healthful, functioning society only reinforces intractable, age-old prejudices that continue to devalue care work and women’s work worldwide.

These deeply embedded structural inequities have only worsened over the past 16 months, during the pandemic. Domestic violence is up by at least 25 percent, and 31 percent of young women were deprived of school, work or vocational training—contributing to 10 million additional girls being at risk of child marriage. Women have lost an estimated $800 billion in income, equivalent to the combined GDP of 98 countries.

Nevertheless, beyond the multilateral and advocacy organizations, there has been a resounding failure by the international community to meet the urgent needs exacerbated by the cascading crises and to address the longstanding structural inequities that have only become more entrenched. 

Now, with the sharpened focus of the Biden-Harris administration on public health and on gender, racial and environmental justice, we have a rare opportunity for a reset on women’s issues.

Forum conveners have invited individuals, non-profits, foundations, governments and companies to sign onto the Framework for Action as “commitment makers,” by making a specific financial or in-kind commitment to one of six separate “Action Coalitions,” focused on the following critical topics:

  1. gender-based violence, and bodily autonomy and sexual reproductive health and rights;
  2. economic justice and rights, and feminist action for climate justice;
  3. technology and innovation for gender equality, and feminist movements and leadership. 

A number of nations, many NGOs, and a smattering of multinational corporations have already done so; hopefully, many more will announce their commitments at the Forum itself. But this alone is not nearly enough.

At this moment, after a hellish year, women and girls all over the world find themselves in an alarming state of emergency. We need an extraordinary mobilization of resources across government, civil society, the private sector and the world of philanthropy, to even begin to meet their needs, reverse the setbacks and redress the stubborn injustice we are witnessing worldwide.

A Global Commitment to Gender Justice: It Can Be Done

Three recent examples of such global collaboration in the face of emergency are grounds for hope. 

The first came in 2015, when the international community honed its response to the converging emergencies of extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by shifting from the MDGs to the SDGs, clarifying on the world stage that all stakeholders must double down on their commitments and follow-through, if the planet is to meet this broadened set of global goals. 

Later that year, we witnessed the second example, with the remarkable worldwide buy-in to the Paris Agreement, which built on the momentum of the SDGs with an unprecedented escalation of national, corporate and philanthropic commitments to slowing and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Most recently, within a year of the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, collective action among government, research institutions, the private and philanthropic sectors, multilateral agencies, and countless individual scientists, medical practitioners, and volunteers succeeded in developing, testing and deploying a suite of brilliantly effective, lifesaving vaccines in record time—even if more must now be done to ensure equitable access worldwide. 

We can do this. With American leadership now, the world can do this. And it must—every delay in combatting gender injustice results in the loss of boundless human potential and far too many precious lives.

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Dr. Susan M. Blaustein is the founder and executive director of WomenStrong International, which finds, funds, nurtures and shares women-driven solutions to transform lives in urban communities.