According to a recent YouGov/UN Women survey, only 3% of women aged 18-24 in the UK have never experienced sexual harassment. Of the other 97%, 45% didn’t report it, because they didn’t believe it would help change things. Almost 50% of young women reported having been physically followed. Globally, an adolescent girl dies every ten minutes as a result of violence.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierez described Covid-19 as a “crisis with a woman’s face”. Women make up 70% of the global health workforce. However, the UN estimates that for every woman Covid-19 expert consulted in the global news media, 5 men were consulted. Covid-19 has been accompanied by a dual pandemic of domestic violence against women and girls. Cases of domestic violence have increased by 30% in some countries. The pandemic will push an additional 47 million women around the world into extreme poverty in 2021 alone.
It’s against this incredibly sobering backdrop that this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has taken place. For the first time in the Commission’s 65-year history, the entire event was hosted virtually. I was incredibly fortunate to be selected to attend as a volunteer delegate for UN Women UK. It’s been an emotionally exhausting, but also inspirational and invigorating two weeks, and I’ve come away from it feeling optimistic about the future. There’s a genuine and unprecedented sense of momentum that’s driving Women’s Rights NGOs at the moment, and we’ve been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to reshape the global order, as the whole world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my own relationship with what it means to be a woman. One of the things I’ve loved most about CSW has been the opportunity to meet and talk to some extraordinary activists from across the world, all of whom are so passionate and committed to what they do, and it’s really made me think about how I can, should, and must, do more. UN Women, an agency that celebrated its tenth birthday only last year, predicts that gender equality has been set back 25 years by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the international community begins to turn its attention towards recovery, the central message of CSW has been that there is no Build Back Better without gender.
One of the key themes of this year’s conference is “women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life”. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that countries with female leaders have made consistently better decisions regarding pandemic management, yet UN Women found that less than 5% of the 87 Covid-19 task forces they studied had gender parity. Speaking on the first day of the conference, US Vice-President Kamala Harris highlighted that democracy cannot be properly realised whilst it fails to engage with women.
We are also now in the defining decade for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were established in 2015 with the aim of creating a more equitable and sustainable society by 2030. Target 5.5 calls for equal leadership opportunities for women at all levels of decision-making, but goal 5 also covers a huge variety of other critical issues, such as ending harmful traditional practices like child marriage (target 5.3), eliminating all forms of violence against women (5.2), and recognising the value of women’s unpaid care and household work at government level through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies (5.4).
The Archbishop of Sweden identified the ‘5 Ps’ that were preventing today’s society from attaining the Sustainable Development Goals: Polarisation, Populism, Post-Truth, Patriarchy and Protectionism. I would argue that all of these P’s need to be seen through a gendered lens. Very few countries have taken the step to publicly commit to a feminist foreign or domestic policy agenda – one which puts gender equality at the core of the legislative agenda and allows it to influence every decision. The Canadian Assistant Deputy Minister for Global Affairs, Elissa Goldberg, argued that in order for women to achieve equal participation in political, economic and social life, it is necessary to build a rights-based, open and inclusive society that is grounded in human rights.
This shouldn’t feel like a tall order, but at the moment it feels like the UK is a long way from ever pursuing an explicitly feminist domestic policy agenda. But, if my experience at CSW has taught me anything, it’s not to underestimate the extraordinary amount of global motivation and willpower that exists to make positive change off the back of the pandemic. We’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to Build Back Better; to build a more equal, open and intersectional society. We mustn’t squander it.
Image: via Vecteezy