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Opinion

International Women’s Day, 2024
Progress Hinges on Feminist Leadership

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Mar 4 2024 (IPS) - Investing in inclusion requires more than electing and initiating women leaders. It requires a coordinated effort to change mindsets and systematically increase investments. This will allow feminist leaders, individually and collectively, to fully exercise their agency and counter targeted attacks on their safety and legitimacy.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the accomplishments of women in politics and society in recent years. Joan Carling, Francia Marquez, Maria Ressa, Amira Osman Hamed, and Narges Mohammadi have received global accolades for their vision and fearless activism.

Amid the pandemic, women leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Sanna Marin, Tsai Ing-Wen, and Angela Merkel outpaced their strongman counterparts by leading complex responses. During this period, the UN achieved gender parity in its senior leadership, including its national missions and peace operations, for the first time in history.

The leadership of women has been visible not just in institutions but also on the streets. Across the world, women human rights defenders have acted boldly for change despite severe restrictions. Movements such as #MeToo, #FreeSaudiWomen, #NiUnaMenos and #AbortoLegalYa are examples of women advancing systemic change for equality and justice. Women led peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience actions as part of the Sudan uprising in 2018.

In 2022, the killing of Mahsa Amini sparked a large-scale and intersectional uprising for democracy. Across borders, Iranians demonstrated for ‘Women, Life, Freedom.’ They hit home the point our societies are incomplete if women are denied the right to participate in political, economic, and societal activities fully.

While the United States made headlines with its Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion rights in 2022, other countries like Ireland, San Marino, Colombia, and Mexico have turned the tide. They legalized abortion following years of struggling for their right to choose.

An uphill battle

Despite these achievements, there has been no respite in the attacks targeting women’s rights and their leadership. Civic space has never been worse since the launch of CIVICUS Monitor in 2018. 118 countries now face serious civic space restrictions. Only 2.1 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with open civic space. Intimidation, protest disruption, and detentions of protesters were the top violations documented in 2023.

These repressive strategies are extensively used to push back against women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights. Gender and sexuality remain at the centre of a culture war waged by a well-organised and funded international network of anti-rights forces leveraging these issues for political advantage.

South Korea’s national election in 2022 stands out as an example of how disinformation distorted the public and policy discourse against women’s rights. In his campaign, South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk Yeol, actively legitimized the notion that moderate advances in gender equality were responsible for young men’s struggles in the current labour market. He pledged to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family and promised to increase punishments for the offence of making a false claim of sexual assault, a move likely aimed at making it harder for women to report real crimes.

But women are fighting back, in South Korea and elsewhere. Despite relentless anti-rights disinformation campaigns and owing to multi-year advocacy efforts, Indonesians passed a Sexual Violence Bill to criminalise forced marriage and sexual abuse and enhance protections for victims. In Spain, a new Law on the Guarantee of Sexual Freedom, based on the principle of consent, was passed to challenge widespread impunity for sexual and gender-based violence.

Women made up less than 34 percent of country negotiating teams at the COP27 climate conference, and only seven of the 110 world leaders were present. In response, gender equality was featured as a key theme during the COP28 climate conference last year.

A ‘Decision on Gender and Climate Change’, which lays the basis for future advancement of gender equality and women’s rights in future COP processes was adopted and 68 parties endorsed a Gender-Responsive Just Transitions & Climate Action Partnership, which includes a package of commitments on finance, data and equal opportunities.

Feminist leaders

In the recent past, several countries have elected or inaugurated their first-ever female political leaders. This includes Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan, Honduras’s Xiomara Castro, Slovenia’s Natasa Pirc Musar, and Peru’s Dina Boluarte. In Australia, a newly elected progressive government included a record number of women and brought the welcome promise of a U-turn on its predecessor’s policies of climate denial.

And yet, other contexts have provided a stark reminder that female leadership isn’t necessarily a victory for women, especially when feminist leadership principles aren’t at the fore. Examples include Hungary’s first female President, Katalin Novak, a close ally of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a staunch supporter of his anti-gender policies. Italy’s first woman Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has also, unfortunately, loudly touted anti-feminist values.

For generations, women have been subjected to rules they’ve had no role in making. Women’s movements all over the world have experienced the frustration of unsuccessfully calling for laws that benefit women. They have been struck down by the countries’ legislative bodies, made up mostly of men. Globally, women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men. They continue to be grossly underrepresented in the places where decisions are made on issues that deeply affect them.

Invest in a feminist future

According to UN data, feminist organizations receive only 0.13% of official development assistance. Only five percent of government aid is focused on tackling violence against women and girls, with no country on track to eradicate intimate partner violence by 2030. If current trends continue, more than 340 million women and girls will still live in extreme poverty by 2030.

Close to one in four will experience moderate or severe food insecurity and as many as 236 million more women and girls will be food-insecure under a worst-case climate scenario. While progress has been made in girls’ education, women’s share of workplace management positions is estimated to remain below parity, even by 2050.

When CIVICUS interviewed Terry Ince from the CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago, she highlighted, “Women are running but not necessarily winning. To win, they would need financial and coordination support. It is not just about being in the room, but at the table, contributing, being listened to and having their ideas examined, pushed forward and implemented.”

There is a lot left to do to ensure greater representation at all levels. Only four women have been elected as president of the UN General Assembly in its 76-year history. The UN has never had a woman Secretary-General.

The 2024 International Women’s Day arrives with women heavily impacted by conflicts, crises, democratic erosion, and anti-rights regression. On the 8th of March, women will take to the streets in solidarity with those experiencing the brunt of regression. We collectively resist and take action and celebrate victories scored thanks to longstanding struggles.

The struggle for justice and progress will continue until we realize the dream of a healthier, safer and equitable world for all. To make this reality come true, we must invest in women and feminist future.

Lysa John is Secretary-General of CIVICUS, a global alliance of over 15,000 members working to strengthen citizen participation and defend civic freedoms. She has championed human rights and international mobilisation for over twenty-five years, starting her journey with grassroots organisations in India and subsequently spearheading trans-national campaigns for governance accountability. Her former roles include working as Global Campaign Director for Save the Children and Head of Outreach for the UN panel that drafted the blueprint for the Sustainable Development Goals. She can be reached through her LinkedIn page or X handle: @lysajohnSA.

IPS UN Bureau

 


  
 
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