Theo Sowa, Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund, spoke recently at a GenderNet session on gender equality in the context of COVID-19. In her remarks, Theo said something both simple and profound. Calling for greater priority on gender equality and women’s rights, she warned that building back better is not enough—the old system was fundamentally failing millions of women and thousands of women’s rights organizations.
Over the past year, the Equality Fund has engaged in the process, led by UN Women and the governments of France and Mexico, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform and Declaration for Women (B+25). This includes contributing to sessions related to the overall design of the Generation Equality Forum, and participating in one of the multi-stakeholder coalitions tasked with mobilizing collective action. Initially part of a group that convened informally to consider strategic ways Generation Equality could deepen support for women’s rights organizations, the Equality Fund is now a member of Action Coalition 6: Feminist Movements and Leadership (AC6).
Originally scheduled for July 2020, the B+25 commemoration was one of many milestones disrupted by the global pandemic. However, French President Emmanuel Macron announced this month that the Generation Equality Forum will now take place in Paris in June 2021. Billed as a “vital moment for activism, feminist solidarity, and youth leadership to achieve transformative change”, it offers a near-term opportunity to lean into Theo Sowa’s advice. What would abandoning the “build back better” narrative look like in the Generation Equality process? How can we best use this moment to break new ground—centring feminist organizations, and their needs and priorities?
There is increasing awareness that gender equality is a key enabler, and indicator, of development progress more broadly. There is also a fundamental disconnect between this understanding and the way feminist work is resourced and supported. Women’s rights organizations and feminist movements play critical roles in advancing gender equality, yet receive a tiny fraction of the—already small—overall funding for gender programming. A recent OECD report indicates that of the gender equality funds allocated by governments to civil society organizations, most flow to NGOs based in the donor county, not to organizations in the global South.
Here are three key questions for the B+25 process. The answers offer insights into whether Generation Equality will move beyond “build back better” and make meaningful strides toward building the new world we need:
1)Is the process leading up to the 2021 Generation Equality Forum working to make power relations explicit? Do the strategic actions meaningfully shift decision-making power to civil society organizations, feminist activists, and governments in the global South? For far too long those with the most to gain and the most to lose have been left out of critical decision-making. Generation Equality has committed to changing this dynamic. To be successful, challenging the relationship between money and power—who holds and controls it—is critical. How that power is named, examined, and shifted needs to be a key preoccupation if B+25 is to move beyond old paradigms where power sits with those who hold the resources, rather than the solutions. Without this, the patterns that have shaped global gender equality frameworks to date will not meaningfully shift.
2) Are the Action Coalitions inclusive, with strong participation from global South governments and feminist civil society activists? A group of civil society organizations participating in the Generation Equality rollout have flagged the importance of accessibility and inclusiveness. Do the Action Coalitions fully engage young women, women of all abilities, and non-binary, trans, and queer folk? The Generation Equality Forum promises to be “civil society centred”. At the centre of the centre, the Action Coalitions need to integrate the voices of women’s rights activists and organizations in all their diversities, ensuring that their priorities and needs drive the strategic actions proposed. This will be a key indicator of the intention to reach for new solutions, and shift the orientation in determining what matters most.
3) Is AC6, with its focus on feminist movements and leadership, leveraged as an opportunity to increase the flow of resources in more flexible ways to feminist movements? Through AC6, there is an opportunity to strengthen the feminist funding ecosystem, shifting more and better quality funding to women’s rights organizations. However, AC6 should not be the only coalition focused on increasing support for feminist organizers. If it is, Generation Equality will miss a critical opportunity to strengthen ties to the feminist movements that do the daily work to move the gender equality agenda forward.
Generation Equality’s focus on feminist movements and leadership is a welcome recognition of the important role women’s rights organizations play in addressing many of the world’s most pressing challenges. At a time when new solutions are needed, they are a crucial global resource for change. The full impact of Generation Equality cannot be achieved without the meaningful inclusion of feminist movements. Shifting more and better funding to women’s rights organizations and feminist movements is one important way to move past the “build back better” frame. Their bold and transformative work on issues including gender equality, economic empowerment, sexual and reproductive health and rights, climate justice, and more offer a solid foundation for Generation Equality’s work going forward.