The battle for gender equality in an era of machismo politics

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Away from the tight-lipped silence of government officials locked in negotiations, some 150 people sat huddled on the floor outside one of the cavernous conference halls of the United Nations (UN) building in Bangkok. The group was plotting and planning steps to take at the Beijing +25 review, a conference held to take stock of where the world stands on promises made on gender equality 25 years ago.

The mood of civil society organizations (CSOs)—meeting on the floor because there wasn’t a room available to them—was combative. After initially being locked out of the negotiation process, they had managed to get in—but only as observers. “Negotiations are never so hush-hush,” said Subhalakshmi Nandi, director, policy analysis, International Centre for Research on Women, Asia. “It’s common practice to have CSOs in the negotiating room.”

Government officials, deadlocked for 24 hours straight, quibbled over the words of an all-important outcome document that would be parsed for their country’s stand on gender rights. Premised on what this document might contain or omit, plans were being hatched on how best to protest: singing, chanting, holding signs, or even a walkout.

The anxiety of 230 CSOs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had been palpable since their arrival in Bangkok on 24 November for three days of stock-taking.

Certainly, the world has changed considerably since the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Then, the Beijing Declaration was seen as a clarion call for gender equality ratified by 189 governments, each committing itself to a world where women and girls could exercise freedoms and choices, including a life free of violence, and the rights to go to school, participate in decisions and earn equal pay for equal work.

“The Beijing Declaration remains one of the most comprehensive, progressive documents for achieving gender equality,” said Indian activist Pam Rajput, who was present at Beijing in 1995.

In the years since, definitions of “gender” have expanded to include not just women and girls, but trans, non-binary, and intersex people. Younger feminists insist on embracing Dalit, indigenous, tribal and minority communities, too, as also farmers, documented and undocumented migrant workers, informal economy workers, sex workers and domestic workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless women, all within the same sphere of concern.

However, the world has also changed in ways that nobody could have foreseen in 1995. The rise of fundamentalism and chauvinistic nationalism, and the emergence of macho leadership from Russia to the US and China to India, is a cause for concern to many feminists who view increased surveillance and targeting of women human rights defenders with alarm. “Powerful countries and leaders are leading direct attacks on women’s hard won rights,” contended Shannon Kowalski of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

Instead of taking the gender agenda forward, there is fear that today’s governments will take it backward, and there is a scramble to at least maintain the status quo.

Gender gains have been undeniable in areas such as education and health. Global primary school completion rates are 91% for boys and 90% for girls, and in secondary school, 76% for boys and 77% for girls, according to the World Bank. Female college enrolment in India, at 48.6% in 2018, is up from 47.6% the previous year, finds the All India Survey on Higher Education.

Female life expectancy worldwide has increased from 70 in 2000 to 74 in 2017, caused in no small measure by a decline in maternal mortality.

New laws, including India’s domestic violence and workplace sexual harassment laws, have been passed. Yet, it is not enough. National Crime Records Bureau figures show a 6% spike in crimes against women in 2017. Laws and policies have not kept up and there is need for a “mindset change”, according to Mohammad Naciri, United Nations Women regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

Globally, one in three women still face violence that is “without borders and a challenge for achieving gender equality”, said Dubravka Šimonovic, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women.

Even as we grapple with older challenges of violence and low participation of women in public life, newer ones have emerged, including cyber bullying, climate change and migration. Some old problems, such as unpaid work and low female labour force participation (FLFP), have found new traction. India’s FLFP, at 24%, is among the lowest in South Asia and appears to be in free fall.

“We are running to stay in place,” conceded UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia. “There simply isn’t enough political will to push forward.”

Member states were pushing their own agendas in Bangkok. The US objected to the term “sexual and reproductive rights”, preferring the blander “health services”. This was opposed by Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific nations. However, the Pacific nations broke with New Zealand and Australia on climate change, insisting that the correct term was “climate change crisis”.

India, represented by our ambassador to Thailand Suchitra Durai, took exception to a reference to “indigenous women”, saying India’s entire population is indigenous.

Russia, said sources, resisted suggestions for civil society partnerships, and Iran wanted women’s security laws to be implemented in accordance with its own national laws.

When it came to the vote, the US was isolated. It held up a consensus because it “believes in legal protections for the unborn”. The document was passed, nevertheless, with 37 countries voting for it.

However, the last word went to the CSOs: “We are not going to waste our resources and energies [silently waiting] in corridors while you compromise our lives,” Lilly Be’Soer, an activist from Papua New Guinea, declared angrily on behalf of CSOs. “The structure must change.”

A quarter century after Beijing, it was clear that the end of the road to gender equality was nowhere in sight.

*Namita Bhandare is a journalist who focuses on gender rights



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