Promoting gender equity and the need to #ActForEqual

Bama Athreya By Bama Athreya

In 2020, Laudes Foundation launched a new commitment to meet the challenge of rising inequality.  This year marks Generation Equality, a reflection on the global commitments launched in 1995 to end gender inequality worldwide. The Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women and co-hosted by the government of France from 30 June to 2 July, will give global leaders a chance to recommit to this goal for the next generation.  A set of bold commitments, developed by a set of Action Coalitions, will be launched.

In anticipation of this critical event, our latest Laudes Exchange event welcomed three leading voices from Generation Equality Action Coalitions – Latanya Mapp Frett, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women; Sohini Bhattacharya, President and CEO of Breakthrough India; and Emilienne de Leon, Member of the Mexican Network of researchers on civil society – to discuss the ongoing challenges in the promotion of gender equity. Chaired by me, the discussion also focused on achievements and what we can do to accelerate transformative change.

Covid-19 has inflicted a horrific toll on humanity. Aside from the tragic loss of life, the pandemic has exposed many frailties in the fight for gender equality given women and girls have had to shoulder a disproportionate share of care responsibilities. Sohini provided a clear example of how efforts to improve gender imbalance in India have suffered a major setback in response to the crisis. A wellbeing programme for adolescents showed in January 2020 that 51 percent of girls were finally in a position where they could discuss their marriage options with their parents, a topic which is very sensitive in India. However, a year later this number had dropped to just 24 percent. Sohini reflected that this outcome provided evidence of “families deprioritising their investments in their daughters”.

There have been some silver linings to the pandemic; Latanya noted that it has provided a catalyst for many organisations to use digital tools to spur on social change. She says that “we’ve seen through Covid how people who weren’t doing online organising before are doing that now. They’ve launched apps to address gender-based violence, created spaces for online convening and they’ve built amazing digital networks and communities”.

Emilienne observed that Covid-19 has wound back efforts by women to break out of their traditional roles. She noted that the media plays a role in perpetuating cultural stereotypes, saying “if you look at many programmes or advertisements, the role of a woman is to take care of others, to go behind any man to help or to be saved. It’s the Cinderella story repeating itself over and over again”. She called on companies to think about how their advertising could be more aligned to gender equality and challenging these norms: “If you are seeing men and women cleaning a house together or taking care of the family, you can begin to change the mindsets of the children and the youth and then the cultural change will come”.

The notion of adolescents being agents of change resonated with Sohini. She explained how she is working with young adults to help them understand concepts of discrimination and gender violence, as these are very normalised in India. She said “the truth is that change won’t come by simply giving girls more opportunities, we also need to change the hearts and minds of people who create the ecosystem around them and that starts with young people themselves”.  Moreover, Sohini felt that encouraging young minds to challenge gender norms can also have a positive influence on their families and in turn their wider communities and, therefore gender equality should be included more widely in school curriculums. “This is very key because when you are young, your questioning about norms is very strong, your thoughts are still malleable, and you can actually see shifts in gender equitable behaviour”.

Harnessing the voices of adolescent girls, as well as women in general, was a key theme for Latanya, who felt that too often the voices of those in the field, the grassroots actors, are overlooked. She said, “supporting gender justice work means that we have to get comfortable trusting that women know what’s required”. She believed that the development of strategies needs to be handed over to those who are most affected by the issues, rather than being implemented centrally. “We have seen so much research that shows sustainable change almost exclusively happens through social movements – that is people power – giving people the power to develop their own circumstances as opposed this more paternalistic view that we have the answer”.

Listening to the voices of employees was a lesson that the panel all felt corporations could learn to improve and develop their diversity and inclusion policies. Sohini suggested bringing women’s voices into corporate policymaking is the best way to begin, but that it “has to flow through everything – from how you recruit, to how you select your vendors”. Emilienne felt that companies could be showing more empathy towards the significant care workload women have been shouldering during the Covid crisis, “I think companies could do more sharing and learning from women – what has been working”. Emilienne also suggested leading global corporations should be the ones modelling good gender equity values, through equal pay and equitable maternity and paternity policies. She said, “global companies can engage with other countries and with the other companies they work with to promote and push them to build in more equality, gender policies and flexibility that will allow women to do their care commitments”.

Finally, the need for more funding was a recurring theme for all of our speakers. I started the discussion by highlighting the funding gap for gender equality initiatives, citing OECD research that suggested this area receives just six percent of philanthropic funding.  Latanya suggested this lack of funding was harming the ability of marginalised group to harness technology in order to do more. Sohini added that the annual budget for many women’s rights organisations was only around USD 30,000 per year, inadequate to a global problem of this scale. She said, “if you want to transition into a climate positive and inclusive economy, you will need to invest in and prioritise the rights, techniques and capabilities of half the world’s population”.

With the environmental element of ESG initiatives dominating the finance and business worlds, it was suggested that more alliances between environmental and women’s organisations would be beneficial as these causes are so interlinked. It was pointed out that gender issues actually cut across many of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, including poverty, education and social insecurity.

It was agreed that in order to ‘build the world back better’ following the pandemic, we need to ‘build back equal’ and place gender equality at the heart of these efforts – #ActForEqual. As Sohini said, “This has to be everybody’s problem and we must rally around governments, organisations, philanthropy and individuals and get them to promise that ending it should be everybody’s mandate”.

About the author

By Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya, Gender and Social Inclusion Adviser to Laudes Foundation. She has more than twenty years’ experience on international labor issues, gender and social inclusion, and business and human rights.