Time is Now: Reclaiming the Women’s Rights Agenda – International Women’s Day Statement 2018
Rural and urban activists have been the backbone of the international fight for women’s rights, gender equality and justice for decades. Transnational activists – many from the rural and urban grassroots of the global South – were at the heart of the organising that led to the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the United Nations in 1979, and the subsequent Beijing Platform for Action of 1995. These frameworks have been critical over the last 20 years in the continued struggle to ensure that women’s rights and gender equality become integral to the wider international development agenda.
However, despite some progress in commitments and programming around gender equality, there has yet to be a full acknowledgement or embrace by many institutions at the highest levels of development policy and programming of the feminist underpinnings of this movement. Women’s organising and leadership are critical to further progress. They are essential for ensuring that economic development, education, and health paradigms are not watered-down or sanitised away from tackling the structural inequalities inherent within our patriarchal systems.
WISE therefore welcomes the 2018 theme for International Women’s Day, #PressforProgress. In response to this, WISE especially welcomes the UN Women theme for 2018, Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives, and hopes that this re-centring of the struggle on the agency and voices of rural and urban activism will lead to a reclamation of the women’s rights agenda within development discourse by those who pioneered it. The time is now for a more radical permeation of women’s rights positioning in development institutions, with goals that look at more than just gender representation or five-year outcome indicators, but that hold policies programmes accountable for longer-term impacts in women’s rights. The time is now to improve funding for women’s organisations, beyond the small-scale and the short-term, to support their resilience and better leverage their innovation, perspective and unique grassroots expertise. The time is now to go beyond just number counts on project Log Frames and Value for Money equations, and instead towards genuine and more sustainable transformation of women’s lives.
As a network of feminist consultants working on women’s economic empowerment and reproductive health, WISE recognises the continued struggle by activists at the coalface of rural and urban development, the informal sector, women’s rights in the grey economy, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). From WoMIN and the African Eco-Feminist Collective in Southern and East Africa, to the Navdanya seed banks and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of South Asia. Also understanding the importance of resourcing women’s movements at the very grassroots and not just capitalising on women’s groups as entry-points for “tick-box” programming, WISE highlights the longstanding work of organisations like the African Women’s Development Fund, that places women’s voices, visioning, and leadership front and centre of the continent’s development narratives.
As the United Nations continues to shine a light on Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) as an area of programming for both public and private partnerships, WISE is committed to ensuring that women’s economic justice is no longer divorced from the discourse. WISE also hopes that women’s rights in economic development are recognised as inalienable, taking precedence over instrumentalist positions that seek to primarily justify a gender equality agenda on GDP growth rates, private sector returns, or other economic development indicators that shadow or make secondary the importance of women’s rights for their own sake.
The reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City Policy, also known as the expanded Global Gag Rule, will impact funding for organisations providing critical SRH services to under-served communities, but also the health and well-being of women and girls. We recognise the commitment and creativity of SRHR and women’s rights organisations, healthcare providers and outreach workers, who are supporting the delivery of family planning and safe abortion services – and using evidence, advocacy to continue the fight for women and girls’ autonomy over their bodies, and their ability to control their reproductive choices and shape their own futures. We celebrate the ‘She Decides’ movement which aims to raise high-level global political support for SRHR,as well as funding particularly for smaller, local organisations which will be most impacted by the Mexico City Policy.
We will continue to work to ensure that SRHR programming goes beyond distributing contraceptives and counting services provided, and supports respectful and non-judgemental client-centred care, engages with shame and stigma as rooted in gendered social norms (and as linked to violence against women and girls), and focuses on the needs of adolescents (tackling the difficult questions of how to talk about adolescent sexuality; early marriage; the impact of poverty on protective behaviours). We endorse the importance of community-based organisations in building community support, and responding to resistance in relation to SRHR issues. We will also continue to advise and advocate for the greater investments needed to reach vulnerable populations – those living in remote rural areas, or in urban slums, people with disabilities, ethnic, religious and caste minorities, refugees and internally displaced communities – who find it hardest to reach and receive quality services.
The year 2017 was a year of women’s rights activism across the globe with a momentum unseen for many years, and this has given 2018 an increased energy for transformational movements. But we also recognise it was built on the resilient fabric of activism and women’s organising that has maintained the struggle in the face of multiple challenges over many years. We look forward in the hope that this momentum will go beyond the current year, and that the voices and struggles of the increasing numbers of activists on the rural and urban front-lines will continue to claim space, be heard, and transform their societies.