Why Funding Gender Equality on a Global Scale Matters

Big promises were made in Paris, in the form of funding, policy, programs and institutional transformation. And if the rhetoric turns into reality, it has the potential to significantly impact our lives in material ways.

The Women’s March in Vancouver on January 20, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a running joke in my family that no one knows exactly what I do for a living. Even if you asked my deeply supportive and politically engaged father how to describe my work, he would struggle to give you a definitive answer. 

Fair enough. Between the enormity and complexity of the ecosystem that rightly surrounds the United Nations and its processes—from non-profits and advocacy groups to private companies and think tanks—it’s not always easy, even for those of us working in this space, to explain what we do and why it matters.

So when news broke that $40 billion had been committed to gender equality at an international conference called the Generation Equality Forum, I excitedly started texting my family and friends. Over the last two years, I had lived and breathed Generation Equality, working alongside my fellow feminists—many of whom had been working for far longer—to help deliver the commitments announced at the forum. 

This would be the lightbulb moment, I thought. Surely they had all seen the media coverage, and now everyone would understand why this was the most significant global convening for gender equality since the last major intergovernmental conference on women’s rights was held in Beijing in 1995. 

However, that wasn’t the case. While my phone sat silent, I scrolled through various social media feeds and realized that hardly anyone was talking about the extraordinary commitment of $40 billion and what it meant for funding everything from feminist movements and grassroots groups, to government programs on care infrastructure, to the development of feminist technology, and much more.

Instead of trending hashtags about the commitments that demonstrated the strength of our collective ambition and signaled the rise of a new generation of feminists, the online discourse centered on shared outrage about the release of a convicted celebrity serial rapist.  

While such outrage was merited and entirely necessary, little connection was made to the fact that tens of thousands of feminists from around the world had gathered virtually and in-person in Paris precisely to break down the issue of gender-based violence and other barriers to gender equality. Though the moment in our collective consciousness may have been overshadowed by examples of persistent inequality, it was historic. 

History can feel faraway though, even if you recognize yourself as part of the moment. How can people connect their experiences and their feminist convictions to a seemingly abstract process like Generation Equality? In other words, why should my family, friends and fellow feminists outside of my work bubble care?

To start, international U.N.-convened conferences like Generation Equality are critical mobilizing moments. They spur ambition and action, and generate the cash needed to accelerate movements and achieve meaningful progress. They forge new initiatives and programs to intervene on global challenges. Historically, they have been high points of recognition for hard-fought battles by activists and key fertilizing ground for building solidarity across movements. They also set “baseline human rights language” by enshrining concepts like bodily autonomy and gender diversity in global frameworks and action agendas. 

Big promises were made in Paris, in the form of funding, policy, programs and institutional transformation. And if the rhetoric turns into reality, it has the potential to significantly impact our lives in material ways. These impacts include everything from how you’re able to address harassment on social media to whether your local domestic violence shelter can keep its doors open. It would influence whether you can make reproductive decisions about your own body, how you can balance your family care responsibilities, who represents your country in international climate talks, and how our young leaders are supported and encouraged to continue being on the frontlines of progress. 

If you consider yourself a feminist—and even if you don’t—you should know the Generation Equality movement is for you too. 

And it’s only just beginning. This movement stretches far beyond the headlines. After 1995, the global feminist community needed a groundbreaking new model of multilateral engagement that mobilized coalitions of allies, where civil society activists and youth leaders could drive the agenda while private sector and philanthropy could participate alongside governments.

Now in 2021, the commitments made at Generation Equality have the potential to unlock progress in every aspect of our lives, for everyone, everywhere. But our movement will only make history if we all work together to hold our governments, our corporations and our foundations accountable. The power of our collective voices is truly transformative. 

Perhaps the best answer to the question of what we do is this: We are growing gender equality on a global scale, and we want you to join us. 

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Stephanie Oula is the director for Generation Equality engagement at the United Nations Foundation.