How to Build On the Generation Equality Forum

The Generation Equality Forum was unique in its strong emphasis on feminist transformation. But new commitments are only the first step: The real test will be the implementation process.

How to Build On the Generation Equality Forum
Scenes from the opening session of the Generation Equality Forum, held in Paris on June 30, 2021. (U.N. Women/Fabrice Gentile / Flickr)

Earlier this month, thousands of gender equality advocates convened—online and offline—at the Generation Equality Forum, a global gathering organized by U.N. Women and co-hosted by Mexico and France. The forum was the biggest international conference for gender equality since the landmark 1995 Beijing Conference.

With Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech at the opening ceremony, the forum also signaled the United States’ renewed commitment to advancing global gender equality, after the Trump administration repeatedly aligned itself with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other illiberal actors to roll back international progress on women’s rights.

In contrast to Beijing, this year’s Generation Equality Forum was a “champions-only” event: It brought together civil society organizations, governments, foundations and private sector actors already committed to gender equality. As such, the gathering avoided the problem of anti-feminist actors diluting or blocking new commitments. Instead, the conference brought a flurry of funding announcements. These commitments are important: They inject much-needed resources and new energy into the global movement for gender equality.

However, as state and non-state actors move into the implementation process, several challenges have to be tackled head-on: ensuring that new funding filters down to feminist organizations; backing up new resource commitments with high-level policy changes; and preparing for the inevitable pushback and resistance.

A Challenging Global Context

The forum took place in a moment of global crisis. Around the world, economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on women. They have suffered more than half of job losses from the crisis, partly because women are concentrated in those sectors of the economy that have been worst affected, such as retail and food services.

They are also overrepresented in lower-paying, precarious or part-time roles that offer fewer protections. And they have shouldered an increase in unpaid care work as schooling and child care systems have been disrupted. Reports of gender-based violence escalated even as existing support systems were shut down.

None of these problems are new. Instead, the pandemic cast a harsh spotlight on pre-existing inequities: the global under-valuing of women’s work, persistent under-investments in caregiving and endemic gender-based violence and harassment. Although gender equality has become a much more visible global policy priority since the 1995 Beijing Conference, multilateral statements and targets have not been matched with sustained government action.

And in certain areas, particularly with respect to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, activists have been met with growing opposition. For example, at the United Nations, a coalition of conservative states and nongovernmental organizations has strategically sought to weaken references to gender equality in the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Commission on the Status of Women and the Security Council.

A Flurry of New Commitments

In this challenging context, the Generation Equality Forum focused on advancing progressive action in six core areas: gender-based violence, women and girls’ bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights, economic justice and rights, feminist action for climate justice, technology and innovation, and feminist movements and leadership.

Aya Chebbi (second from left), the first-ever African Union special envoy on youth and youngest diplomat, speaks on stage during the opening session of the Generation Equality Forum, held in Paris, France on June 30, 2021. (U.N. Women / Fabrice Gentile)

The forum brought new commitments across these different areas. Most of the headlines have focused on funding announcements: in total, governments, foundations and private sector actors pledged over $40 billion in new spending on gender equality. Several philanthropic foundations made major pledges, including $2.1 billion for women’s economic empowerment, women and girls’ health and family planning, and women’s leadership announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

These commitments are significant. In the past, there has often been a disconnect between governments’ rhetorical embrace of gender equality and actual cash disbursements. In 2016 and 2017, for example, the world’s largest donors spent only 4 percent of their collective bilateral aid on projects with gender equality as the primary goal.

Feminist advocates have particularly welcomed the heightened focus on two long-standing advocacy priorities: care work and sexual and reproductive rights. The Canadian government, for example, announced $100 million in new support for low- and middle-income countries focused on addressing inequalities in unpaid and paid care work, in addition to investing $30 billion in a domestic early learning and child care system.

The forum also spurred several new global coalitions. Mexico’s National Institute for Women, together with U.N. Women, launched a new Alliance for Care Work, which will seek to promote investments in comprehensive care systems, foster women’s economic autonomy, and challenge traditional gender roles. The new Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action Compact aims to advance the implementation of existing commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

In addition, each of the six multi-stakeholder “Action Coalitions” formed around the forum have set out action plans that will guide further advocacy and policy development over the next five years, monitored and assisted by U.N. Women.

Charting a Progressive Way Forward

The Generation Equality Forum was unique in its strong emphasis on feminist transformation. For example, the Global Acceleration Plan explicitly calls for changes in “structures, systems and power that reinforce inequality,” rather than superficial fixes that merely empower a few more women within existing structures.

But like for any international summit, new commitments are only the first step: The real test will be the implementation process.

Three challenges appear paramount:

1. Ensuring Money Reaches Local Women’s Movements

First, international actors need to ensure the $40 billion in new funding commitments actually reach local women’s movements fighting for change. This has traditionally not been the case.

According to the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, 99 percent of development aid and foundation grants fail to reach women’s rights and feminist organizations; instead, these funds flow to international nongovernmental organizations, government institutions or private contractors.

One reason for this imbalance is that major donors are often ill-equipped to work directly with grassroots actors. Yet there is a growing network of women’s funds specialized in supporting feminist activism that can serve as intermediaries and partners. Government initiatives such as Canada’s “Equality Fund” can also serve as a model. The 2021 Generation Equality Forum signaled much greater awareness of the need to resource feminist activism and movement-building, including through its Action Coalition focused specifically on feminist movements and leadership and the newly announced Global Alliance for Sustainable Feminist Movements.

In the coming years, it will be crucial to monitor whether these efforts break existing patterns and build a more equitable funding system.

2. Including Gender Equality Across the Board in Policy

Vice President Kamala Harris led the virtual U.S. delegation in a speech during the opening ceremony of the U.N.’s Generation Equality Forum. Her main message: Gender equality is essential for legitimate and robust democracy. (UNESCO / Christelle ALIX)

The second challenge rests in matching financial contributions with high-level political commitment. In recent years, several governments—including Mexico, Sweden and Canada—have adopted feminist foreign policies that require them to integrate gender equality concerns across all aspects of their foreign relations. Yet these governments are still a minority. For many others, including the United States, there is still a tendency to treat gender equality as a separate policy domain, important but divorced from core security, economic, and political challenges.

To make sustainable progress, a more integrated approach is essential, which requires much greater prioritization of gender equality vis-a-vis competing interests. In the United States, for example, the Biden administration should not only implement an updated Women, Peace and Security strategy, but also ensure its systematic integration into the new National Security Policy and the broader Global Fragility Act, which comes with greater dedicated funding.

The same logic applies to trade policy, where gender equality concerns are often completely ignored. And, building on Vice President Harris’s reminder at the forum that “gender equality strengthens democracy,” threats to equal political participation—particularly violence and harassment targeting women rights defenders and feminist and LGBTQI groups—should be addressed at the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy and in its broader democracy strategy. After all, attacks related to gender are often core elements of authoritarian strategy, both at home and abroad.

3. Recognizing and Preparing for Resistance

Left to right: Shantel Marekera, member of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force; U.N. Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and French President Emmanuel Macron on June 30. (U.N. Women / Fabrice Gentile)

Lastly, the Generation Equality Forum was, as noted above, a forum of champions. This was the right move: in a context of coordinated opposition, building stronger alliances among reform-oriented actors is crucial, as is setting out a forward-looking agenda that bridges domestic and foreign policy. Yet the move to implementation will inevitably generate pushback. The backlash against the Biden administration framing investments in caregiving as infrastructure spending exemplifies this point.

Emphasizing that gender equality “benefits everyone,” as Melinda Gates did last week, ignores the very real conflicts of interest at stake. Tackling gender inequalities in pay and ensuring higher labor standards, for example, comes at a cost for those benefiting from low-cost, exploitable, female labor. Reducing military spending, as proponents of feminist foreign policy have argued, comes at a cost for arms manufacturers.

In short, taking gender equality seriously requires making serious trade-offs, and for governments, this brings political risks. For gender equality advocates, the key task will be to broaden reform coalitions, strategically prepare for resistance and dilution, and gradually shift the risk calculus of decision-makers.

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Saskia Brechenmacher is a fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Ph.D. candidate and Gates scholar at the University of Cambridge. Her writing on democracy, gender equality and women's rights has been published in Foreign Policy, National Interest, the Hill and Open Democracy, among other outlets.