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Defining a new inclusive future

A woman holds up a sign amid a crowd

2020 was set to be a historic year for women’s rights, with the Generation Equality forums planned for Paris and Mexico, the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, and the G7 summit in the United States with gender equality high on the agenda.

None of us could have predicted the current global situation. Covid-19 has laid inequalities bare across the world. Domestic violence has risen exponentially, as has the incidence of online sexual abuse. Death rates have also highlighted structural inequalities of race and class, with Public Health England figures showing people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups over 50% more likely to die if they contract Covid-19. Protests in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and hundreds of others have swept the world. 

It is easy to feel overwhelmed, and it’s difficult to imagine a way through. But amid this flux, there is opportunity. Opportunity to repeal or amend laws that discriminate. Opportunity to stand with Black people and other people of color and say “ENOUGH” to structural racism.  Opportunity to be actively anti-racist and ensure nothing we do perpetuates harmful stereotypes and prejudices. People across the world have seen behind the curtain, and we now have a chance to create a new normal. This is an opportunity to dismantle oppressive systems that enable gender and racial inequalities and allow state violence against its own people. 

In November 2019, I shared my optimism for the women’s rights movement in 2020, and while the world has changed, the vision is still clear. More than ever, we have an opportunity to define a new, more inclusive future. Are you in?  

Nov 25 2019 – As January 2020 falls into view – as Director of Programmes at Equality Now, I wanted to share some thoughts on what 2020 might hold for the women’s rights movement and for our work here at Equality Now.

The environmental crisis, the struggle for control of finite natural resources, growing extremes in wealth inequality and the growth of the internet is feeding extremism, conservatism, organized crime, conflict, mistrust and division; provoking vast migrations of people around the world, generating poverty and increasing vulnerability to exploitation. And it’s the women and girls that are inevitably hit the hardest.

  • Trafficking for sexual exploitation is a $99bn a year industry, where 96% of all victims are female
  • 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day

Adolescent girls pay a particularly heavy price – targeted as they reach puberty, they are vulnerable to sexual predators, victimized for having ‘asked for it’, subjected to harmful practices including child marriage, forced to become mothers after rape and left unprotected and without access to justice as they fall between laws that are designed to protect children or adults.

Yet, across the globe in recent years women have been experiencing a backlash as patriarchal notions of a woman’s position in society and stereotyped gender roles are re-asserted through custom, tradition and religion, as well as too often through the law itself. In Iraq, with a proposal to lower the minimum age of marriage, in Turkey, with another proposal to allow rapists to marry their victims to escape punishment, in Kenya, with a constitutional petition challenging the Act banning FGM claiming cultural imperialism and in the US, with the unravelling of women’s right to abortion. Just this month, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Summit held in Kenya, the governments of Brazil, Egypt and the USA pushed back hard against progress toward universal access to sexual reproductive health and rights.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children, women and other marginalized genders is increasing and changing shape as exploiters take advantage of the technological anonymity afforded by digital innovations and prey upon the vulnerabilities created by increasing wealth disparity and migration routes. Exploiters rake in huge profits across a $99 billion a year global industry. And now exploiters can reach vulnerable people in all corners of the globe through the internet and move between online sexual exploitation and direct contact sexual exploitation with increasing anonymity and ease.

  • In the US, 2 out of every 3 children sold for sex are trafficked online
  • In the UK, more than 8,500 sexual services ads are posted online every month.
  • The Philippines Department of Justice receives over 3,000 cases of online child sex trafficking every month.

In this ever changing, expanding context, the one constant is the widespread exploitation of women and girls.

A strong inclusive women’s movement has never been more necessary, yet our movement sometimes feels fraught with fractions.

Despite the scale, pace and changing dynamics of the sex industry, efforts to curb it have stalled and men’s demand for paid sex is dividing the women’s movement and pitting us against one another.

Concerns about trans women’s inclusion – suspicious of or denying trans people’s identity or fearing that solidarity with them will undermine opportunities to progress women’s rights in conservative contexts – fail to acknowledge that transphobia is rooted in the same structural patriarchal gender discrimination that affects women and other marginalized genders.

Many governments have failed to secure the universality of human rights for women and girls as they allow the right to religious and cultural freedom to trump those of equality and non-discrimination. This has led to a situation of extreme inequalities, not just between women and men, but between women in the same country depending on their religious and or cultural heritage.

Finally, other fissures have appeared when more powerful, educated, and albeit well-intended women make decisions on behalf of other, more marginalized women. For example, in India, Dalit women (previously known as the “untouchable” caste), devadasis (women who are considered given in marriage to God) and women born into prostitution in India being excluded from debates and referred to as workers, sex workers or Goddesses, when many self-define as being enslaved, vulnerable, exploited and abused.

As the world shifts and division and strife driven by patriarchal systems increase, it is critical that we, the women’s movement, does not lose focus. We must unite to end the exploitation and oppression of people and the planet.

In the face of these many divisions and the conservative forces at play, Equality Now’s focus on legal equality, the rule of law, access to justice and the role of international law provides opportunities for building bridges and finding common cause. Our global reach and the diversity of our networks enable us to bring together a diversity of women and girls’ experiences and thoughts.

We have it in our gift to define a new inclusive future, indeed, it is already happening.

Look at Sudan, where women came together to play a central role in the uprising against the dictator President Omar al-Bashir.

Or in India where, in February 2019 thousands of women from across society joined a 10,000 km to raise awareness about the prevalence of rape and demand access to justice.

Or right now, in Lebanon, where women from across social, religious and ethnic divides are joining together to stand on the front lines of protests against the government, pushing back against the power of corruption and elitism that is holding their country back. Standing between security forces and demonstrators, they prevented violence and allowed the people’s voice to be heard.

Let us continue to rise above the divisions created by the patriarchy and seek equality through inclusion.

We need a strong inclusive women’s movement that acknowledges that we are complex and diverse beings, that we won’t always agree on the approach but that we always need to engage with integrity and respect while trying to avoid the patriarchal snares that seek to divide us.

We need to work together to address the inequalities and injustices girls, women and other marginalized genders face due to the privilege given to hegemonies of religion, ethnicity, caste, class and race over State laws and human rights in family and customary law and practice, including women’s rights over their bodies and self determination.

Equality Now will continue to building solidarity with a diversity of other actors as we each seek to end the sexual exploitation and sexual violence against girls, women and other marginalized genders. We must identify the ecosystem of laws and legal practices that enable and allow sexual violence, harmful practices including female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, and sexual exploitation to continue with impunity, and work together to improve them.

Prevent: We must dismantle laws that leave girls, women and other marginalized genders vulnerable to exploitation and harm through legal inequality, by ensuring constitutional equality and equality in inheritance, property and tenancy law and employment law among many others.

Protect: We must ensure that laws covering sexual offences, prostitution, trafficking, maritime, immigration, child marriage, FGM, privacy and the internet acknowledge that girls, women and other marginalized genders are subjected to violence and exploitation through coercion – whether social, economic, physical or mental.

Prosecute: We must ensure that sexual violence laws, including definitions of rape and sexual assault, and pathways to justice explore fully the issues of willingness, consent and coercion, do not rely on the ‘use of force’, and address the specific vulnerabilities and needs of adolescent girls.

Equality and universality of rights for ALL women, that is what I am working for in 2020, join me in shaping our shared future.