No country on the planet is on schedule to achieve absolute gender equality by 2030 — the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline
As we begin to stir awake from the hard-hit reality of the pandemic, we must have realized by now that some things ought to change?Thinking back to life before Corona, it appears that nothing was in order, to begin with. From excessive hours wasted on the road, never getting to catch time with the family, having to look sharp at every meeting whilst maintaining an unexhausted demeanor, to now finding peace in nature, star gazing, breathing. We watched as seemingly functional systems collapsed before our eyes, as weekends stretched into lockdowns, the number of people lost topped the previous day’s record, as our friends and relatives became unemployed, collective mental health took a downward spiral, gender-based violence rose to unprecedented levels and life stopped making sense. A year after the deadly health crisis, and eras after the delivery of “mankind”, where do we stand?
While you ponder on this rather heavy question, let me for a second digress. There is something fundamentally wrong with that language I used. Humans at large have generally been called mankind. I guess it made sense given the unflattering structure of the patriarchy, with men in high and mighty positions whether it’s the political, economic, or domestic sphere. Society has somehow over the years made the bizarre decision to bestow only half of the population with proper agency. All the while failing the other half —ie women— or in the better cases, handing her “some rights” but not all.
However, the ongoing Covid crisis is a revelation of a deeper truth. It is a warning and a wake-up call. A reminder that the world which was built by systematically excluding half of its people, was never going to work. That world was disproportionately dominated by male centric values, priorities, and visions. That world was for “mankind” and not others. On women history month, I am reminiscing the journey of the feminist movement, from its birth till now. The publication of my write up on a national daily would not have happened if it weren’t for the relentless effort of my feminist ancestors, because there was a time when women were not allowed to write for print. And now that I have this right, perhaps using gender-neutral language can be an important tool to facilitate more change.
On International Women’s Day, I am grateful for knowing incredible women and girls, and for my female existence in some ways, but I am also petrified by the idea that it may not be during my lifetime that the world will have become equal and reach a point of zero discrimination.But at least, I can be someone’s ancestor who would take up the torch for continuing to the end of the tunnel, where I am told there ‘may be light’.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Our approach to achieving gender equality is too slow! Not enough progress has been made to make the lives of women and girls better across the globe. To make things worse, the pandemic has caused 15 million girls to drop out of primary school worldwide (according to UN Women figures), many of whom may not return to education ever again and will render half a million more girls at the risk of child marriage by the end of 2020, and 2.5 million by 2025(Save the Children).
We must remember that an equal planet is the target. The cost of delay is of course paid in the number of rapes and gang rapes that happen, number of women who get harassed at the workplace, girls molested in schools or their homes, frequency of child marriages in our communities. But also, in terms of the overall ‘loss’ to society.
Feminists want system change
Now going back to the question, I asked at the beginning. A year after the deadly health crisis, and eras after the delivery of humankind, where do we stand?
The obvious answer is at the verge of destruction and a status quo of gender, racial and economic inequality. Now it is time to put our heads together to think of a way out of this mess.
Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world
The theme for this Women’s Day this year is ‘Women in leadership, Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.’ This means that as we recover from the crisis, we must work towards producing a world free of bias, and one which is an equally happy place for all. And so, we must include women and girls and allow them to thrive in every field whether it is science, medicine, technology, business, or politics. It includes sharing unpaid care work at home, and adopting zero tolerance for violence in our offices, schools, homes, public spaces and even online. Women’s leadership through swift response and recovery work played a crucial role in managing the Covid crisis. Health risks coupled with increase in domestic responsibilities still made them continue frontline duties and response work all at the same time. I wonder then what we could achieve if barriers to women and girls’ participation were systematically deconstructed and our attitudes towards them altered for the better?
In the new world order, the old definition of a leader must be challenged. A leader is anybody who initiates positive change and helps to achieve collective goals. Women are leaders as are girls. We must listen to them, when they rage against climate change and works to restore environmental balance, when they get on the streets to rage against rape, and when they bring forth untapped energies and ideas to the table.
Gestures, practice, and everyday activism
Naturally, reversing negative trends and making positive changes would require everybody’s willful effort. Just women fighting for the human rights of women, and the rest continuing to go about their business as usual is unlikely to drive us towards the desired goal at the required pace. A few things we can do differently this time include:
- Continuing to include women not simply as a gesture and instead fostering an environment of meaningful participation in public and private life; and allowing women to have access to resources
- Holding top management accountable for the culture of sexism in any organization
- Adopting a feminist leadership style, celebrating diversity and leading with empathy
- Not hogging the speakers’ cap at every meeting and letting females colleagues be heard
- Encouraging young girls by telling them that they can be anything they wish ( doctor, engineer, astronaut, scientist, athletes! Anything really!)
- Unlearning toxic traits and raising responsible boys who don’t grow up into abusive adults
- Quitting double standards (calling women bossy for the same behavior that gets men compliments)
- Supporting women’s rights’ organizations and activists
- Not bullying women and girls online when they speak out
- Calling out on sexist ads from sexist brands and simply switching to buying from more responsible businesses
- Advocating for equal pay for equal work
- Not tolerating violations of human rights
Add your own to this list as you live life each day. Let your existence be a support for women and girls, and not a nuisance.
Co creating the future
I dream of living in a world of equality, all day every day.Where roles won’t be assigned based on some primitive understanding of life, and women’s contribution whether at home or outside will be factored in. When we accept that there is no wrong or right way of being a girl, we are gifted with the likes of Tash Sultana who is a phenomenal musician, and not just another “female guitarist”, incredible athletes like Megan Rapinoe, andFei Fei Li who is chief scientist of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Google Cloud.
And if not, we go back to how things were before, and frankly they weren’t so good. Happy Women’s Day to a generation that is waking up. May we find ourselves anew.
Zefroon Afsary is a Dhaka-based rights activist and development practitioner.