Feminist Movements for a Sustainable Future
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Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But it will make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice, living the truth that we are all “created equal.” Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and know first-hand what feminist movement is all about. Come closer and you will see: feminism is for everybody. (Bell Hooks 2000)
Feminist movements, also known as the women’s movements, are a dynamic series of gender-centered campaigns spanning decades of activism, based on one or another feminist ideology and/or doctrine, which aims at addressing and reforming issues affecting the development and equality of women. These are movements that have varying objectives but, despite the difference, have interests in common such as empowering women and the redefinition of social expectations of the roles of women.
Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels. We will work for a significant increase in investments to close the gender gap and strengthen support for institutions in relation to gender equality and the empowerment of women at the global, regional and national levels. All forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls will be eliminated, including through the engagement of men and boys. (UN 2015, p. 6/para 20)
However, even before the formality of the targets set out by SDG5, addressing the achievement of gender equality has been a concept advocated for by feminists for decades, if not centuries. It is something that has resulted in multinational movements involving women and men who strive to see sustainable change in the perceptions and treatment of women.
According to the 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) Global Report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “the cost to the global economy of gender-based discrimination in social institutions is $6 trillion (7.5% of the global GDP)” (p. 3). Women have often been erroneously perceived as passive participants, lacking the capacity to engage in issues that influence governance and policy making. The reality of gender discrimination is that it is not only women who are affected: families, communities, economies, and nations stand to suffer as a result of such discrimination (OECD 2019; Bexell and Broman 2018). Much literature exists on feminist movements and advocacy aimed at reshaping gender-based assumptions, which coincide with various social movements in history.
The feminist movement is seen and predominantly described in “waves” tracing back to the nineteenth century. The first wave of feminism is said to have begun with the suffragette movement, which primarily sought the women’s right to vote and called for the protection of women’s basic rights. The second wave brought about a critical equality discourse in terms of economics, health, and sexuality together with the struggle for civil rights in the 1970s. Feminism in 1970s America was described as “the movement that began by questioning women’s secondary status and ranged far and wide as it examined all aspects of the female experience, including gender, race, class, sexuality, work, family, religion, law and culture” (Breines 2006, p. 6). Currently, society is said to be experiencing the fourth wave of feminism, focused on the revitalized younger generation of feminists who are developing innovative technological and social activism strategies for change (Zimmerman 2017).
The feminist movement, loosely defined, has stood in solidarity and in confrontation with various other movements. It advocates for the dismantling of social constructs and for inclusivity. Feminism now crosses cultures, religions, and borders with women’s groups connecting internationally through the formation of Transnational Feminist Networks (TFN), breaching the “divide” between the global North and South. This comes with the realization that feminist advocacy and gender studies can and do have universal relevance especially as a result of globalization (Nilsson 2019). This contribution analyzes the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs through perspective and action of feminist movements. Consideration is given to the involvement of feminist movements in the development of both instruments: the challenges and lessons learned from the transition and the importance of SDG5, in particular, to the movement. Part 2 briefly highlights the role of intersectionality and gender mainstreaming to feminist movements. Part 3 focuses on examples of feminist movements and activism globally, taking into account country-specific successes, persistent challenges, and areas where the SDGs still need improvement. The idea behind this work is to provide a brief overview of an oceanic movement that relies on what many may consider small drops, yet continues to shift the tides of societal and cultural perceptions.
Transition from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals
The 1993 Vienna, 1995 Beijing Conferences, and the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), saw the formal recognition of women’s rights as human rights, created consensus in advancing gender equality on an international scale (Sen 2018). Women’s movements have played the role of both critics and defenders of States and the UN as most recognize that gender equality and women’s human rights can only ever be achieved in a functioning, human rights-based democratic state. However, this does not detract from feminist movements wanting to reshape traditional policies and programs that do not consider the importance of women’s voices and feminist views in development agendas.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), containing eight goals, one of which was to promote gender equality and to empower women (MDG3), were in effect from 2000 to 2015. Goal 3, an attempt to technically fulfill the Beijing Declaration objectives, was aimed at tracking the inclusion of women in economic, social, and political spaces in various countries (predominantly the global South) to ensure that societies were gender-inclusive (Dhar 2018). In 2010, the United Nations adopted a Resolution assessing the achievements of the MDGs. In terms of MDG3 specifically, it was accepted that more needed to be done to effectively implement the Beijing Declaration; hence the formation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) was recognized; and civil society and stakeholders were called upon to contribute to the formulation and achievement of the goals. Of particular importance, within the Resolution, was the need for gender mainstreaming in policy development.
Sen (2019) explains that the MDGs came about with little to no consultation or involvement of civil society groups. What occurred was a fractured brokerage stemming from eroded economic and development policies, in an attempt to appease member states during multilateral negotiations. It is also argued that the MDGs were focused on developing countries and were not universal in nature. The approach adopted in the implementation of the MDGs resulted in various inadequacies: two of which were the failure to include and/or support feminist movements to mobilize the agenda and failing to adopt a “human rights-based approach consonant with principles of indivisibility, interdependence and universality of rights” (Sen 2019, p. 29). This resulted in the creation of silos, minimal social mobilization, and approaching gender equality from a narrow, technical perspective versus a substantive one (Yamin 2019). The MDGs were also faulted for non-specificity in targets relating to ending violence against women, failing to adequately grasp the essence of women’s empowerment and women’s autonomy/agency (Dhar 2018).
Although feminist and other social movements were not directly involved in the development of the MDGs, attempts were made to be involved in resource development to achieve the MDGs. The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), Women’s Working Group on FfD, and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) played a role in creating alliances and networks with other civil society movements in achieving the goals of the MDGs despite growing contentions between the North and South during the 2008 financial crisis (Sen 2019).
Despite these efforts and tensions, there were significant triumphs along the way through civil society activism. 2008 saw feminists mobilizing to create a single women’s entity in the UN under the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign for gender equality, reform, and empowerment – whose mission was centered on feminist mobilization. The campaign involved over 300 women and civil society organizations and made positive strides by including women’s concerns in the UN agenda (WEDO 2007). A significant outcome of the GEAR Campaign was the creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in 2010. UN Women is specifically tasked with the setting, implementation, and achievement of effective global standards for gender equality, such as the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). This campaign is an example of successful “civil society activism” (Sen 2019, p. 31). UN Women engaged extensively with feminist advocates prior to the development of SDG5 in Agenda 2030, resulting in a more integrated and interpretative tone as compared to the MDGs (Sen 2018; Bexell and Broman 2018). Dhar (2018) describes the SDGs as refocusing on areas where member states failed to meet their MDG obligations.
Importance of SDG5
Agenda 2030 and the SDGs will be more useful to women’s rights movements than the MDGs, because they reflect the input of civil society, including women’s rights and feminist movements, in their formulation. The encounters, discussions, debates, coalition building and alliance-forming involved in the process of advancing an international framework on development are valuable in their own right, as they strengthen civil society and catalyze movement-building. (2016, p. 3)
In the 2017 report by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), it was noted that the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs still could not resolve the issue of a lack of accountability in processes regarding who bears responsibility, an issue demanded by civil society prior to the implementation of Agenda 2030 (Yamin 2019). Although no formal reporting structures exist to monitor the performance and attainment of the goals, what does exist is compliance and monitoring on an informal basis where countries and/or structures provide information voluntarily. The “follow up and review” approach adopted in the 2030 Agenda aims to enhance accountability, through the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). However, such methods often fail due to political influences and financial agendas (CESR 2017).
The importance of Agenda 2030 came from understanding that the goals were not simplistic in nature. There are intricacies involved in the achievement of all 17 goals, and gender has a distinct role in all aspects. To lend from Yamin’s (2019) approach, while global indicators and the science behind measuring the targets of the SDGs are important tools, one must not allow those “technicalities” to detract from the very human issues and stories that underlie gender equality – issues which are still advocated for by feminist movements, which the SDGs aim to address, and which may require qualitative in-depth policy engagements and not only a quantitative approach to data collection and analysis.
Intersectionality of the Feminist Movement and Gender Mainstreaming
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liberal feminists effectively challenged patriarchal norms (Eyadat 2013; UN Women 2019). Feminism in its many guises has challenged, and continues to challenge in new ways, societal norms accepted as the “status quo” by interrogating issues of gender and economics; gender and religion; gender and society; gender and culture; gender and health; gender and academia/professions; gender and politics; gender and technology; and gender and the environment/climate, to name but a few.
The idea of feminism certainly does not fit easily into any conceptual box; variations of feminism are often influenced by a number of factors including race, class, culture, and value systems. Chege (2019) discusses feminism from the African context, highlighting how feminism first had to be critiqued as a western concept interlinked with patriarchal, colonial ideologies. This may also have influenced how African women were perceived in traditional roles within African communities, thereby inhibiting females from acquiring leadership roles. Additionally Allotey and Gyapong (2008) consider the idea of “gender” from a different feminist perspective. They approach the idea of gender as a divisive, “comparative” social construct that requires an intervention addressing the lack of engagement with feminist and/or gender issues at state level in terms of service delivery and policy development, and which also addresses the basic needs of every population (poverty, living standards, education, social development, and so on).
As alluded to above, feminist movements initially faced criticism for only benefitting educated, privileged white women, failing to address the problems of the uneducated, those of color, religious, immigrant, and other minorities (History 2019; Eyadat 2013). Out of this critique grew the intersectional approach to feminism; it brought to the fore a realization that the movement had previously failed to recognize the intersection of gender, race, class, sexuality, culture, and politics – deeper societal complexities within gender discrimination activism (Nilsson 2019; Bexell and Broman 2018).
The feminist movement Report, by the UN Women (2018), discusses three drivers that contribute to the effectiveness of any movement, namely, issues and environment, institutions, and the process of movement building. These drivers take into account that “movements” operate within political and socio-economic spheres: such operations require strategic approaches and networks that enhance the development of the movement despite constant challenges and changes. Therefore it is pivotal to acknowledge that feminist movements have had to endure and maintain momentum despite changing governments, globalization, social and economic revolutions, and the emergence of chauvinism and anti-globalization movements. The relevance of feminism exists in the fact that it remains steadfast and constant in the face of challenges, adapts and evolves when necessary, and still manages to inspire increasing advocacy globally.
Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality. (ECOSOC 1997, p. 2)
Effectively, the precepts of gender mainstreaming is the inclusion of a gender equality perspective in the formulation of policy, regulation, and resource allocations. The aim was that the practical implementation of this concept would evoke discourses on societal inequalities, challenge entrenched ideas of inequality, and advocate for more gender inclusivity (European Institute for Gender Equality 2019). However, there have been varied arguments and critiques surrounding the use of gender mainstreaming (Daly 2005; Mannell 2012; Milward et al. 2015). On one hand, it was a positive idea which was meant to bring a determined consciousness to policy and law that was previously overlooked, counteracting the previous norms of a patriarchal/patrilineal perspective. On the other hand, it is argued that mainstreaming has led to what is described as a “theatrical” strategic tool which has been appropriated by multinationals and governments to “rubberstamp” global policies in order to appear “progressive,” essentially encouraging a formalistic and technical approach to gender equality – similar to the faults of the MDGs – and delegitimizing an important activism tool in order to be more “diplomatic and socially palatable” (George 2004).
The women’s movement for the recognition of their equality with men and the liberation of their sexuality has grown…with different features and goals but with a deep sense of personal commitment. This movement has transformed the perception women have of their social situation… This change has redefined their roles in love and sex, conditioned their performance with masculine and feminine values in the social sphere and in the life of institutions. (Mendoza et al. 2005, p. 126)
Feminism and SDG5: Triumphs, Challenges, And Lessons
This section aims to discuss some gender inequality statistics, challenges that still face the progression of gender equality, as well as the triumphs that arose as a result of feminist movements.
According to the 2019 SDG Report, although women have taken up more leadership roles in society and contribute to the advancement of gender equality, much more is needed in terms of addressing violence against women, underrepresentation in politics, discriminatory laws, harmful social norms, gender parity, women’s agency and autonomy, international regression on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and contending with religious fundamentalism and conservatism (UN 2019; UN Women 2019c). Further, it was found that despite the existence of legal frameworks in most member states, gaps still exist in addressing, both directly and indirectly, discrimination and violence against women. This is coupled with the fact that national resource/budget allocations rarely consider gender-based policies and programs and their implementation a priority (UN 2019).
In the 2019 SIGI review of Eurasian countries, it was found that if Eurasian women were paid and treated on equal footing in the labor market, there would be a 23% increase in the regional GDP by 2025 amounting to over US$1 trillion, which would have a resultant effect on the education of younger women, pension gender gaps, and social empowerment. Eurasian women still struggle with frameworks regulating working hours, leadership roles in the public and private sectors, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence, while traditional and cultural norms still maintain entrenched patriarchal practices (OECD 2019).
Challenges in the feminist agenda exist. Whiting, as recently as March 2019, provides a list of perturbing areas of inequality women still face – issues consistently highlighted annually by UN Women. Included in the list is the fact that more than 12 million girls are forced to be child brides globally, one every two seconds; according to the WEF, it will take around 108 years to close the gender gap that exists; only 6 countries globally offer women the same equal work rights as men; professionally, only 22% of women are in Artificial Intelligence professions – an unfortunate consideration in light of digital equality and gendered technologies.
The United States and Papua New Guinea are still the only countries globally that do not guarantee paid maternity leave; gender-based violence is still prevalent in Southern Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and there is still a lack of basic medical services for pregnant women in Burkina Faso (Amnesty International 2018). Even with the benefits that come with online activism, challenges are also a factor in that technology-based violence through trolling, cyberstalking, bullying, and online harassment persist and continue to grow (Davies and Sweetman 2018).
In rural parts of Africa, women spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting water (Whiting 2019). Women in rural sectors contribute significantly to agriculture and food production, yet they have severely limited access to infrastructure, employment opportunities, and basic services – they stand to be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, language barriers, and lifestyle (OECD 2019). For instance, in a country like India, feminism still battles the systemic culture of sexual violence, marital violence, trafficking, and dowry murders in addition to addressing the basic needs of women as aforementioned (Amnesty International 2018).
In terms of the 2019 Global Gender Index, all countries are furthest behind in achieving SDG5 (gender equality), 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 13 (climate action), and 17 (partnerships for the goals). The highest-ranking countries in terms of overall performance were Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. The lowest-ranking countries were Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Yemen, and Niger. However, Kenya has high rates of women having access to digital banking, while in terms of perceptions of physical safety for women, Rwanda was one of the top five states (Gender Advocates Data Hub 2019).
Number of countries affected globally
1. Women prohibited from entering into certain professions
2. Limitations on legal abortion
3. Complete ban on abortion regardless of health risks/rape
4. Criminalization of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
5. Probationary period before a woman can remarry after divorce
6. Rape can be circumvented by marriage of the victim
7. Women required to obey their husbands by law
8. Women need consent of husbands and/or legal guardians to choose a profession
9. Legal protection offered for women against cyberharassment and cyberstalking
10 (calculated at the end of 2017)
In contrast, it would be remiss not to highlight and emphasize the various examples of how the feminist movement has developed and contributed to SDG5 in the past 5 years.
In Lebanon, which has a determined feminist movement, the 2018 parliamentary elections saw an increase in registered female candidates from 12 in 2009 to 118 in 2018. While only six women were elected into parliament, it symbolizes the progress achieved in political equity, addressing patriarchal social standards, especially if the momentum is maintained in the coming years (Sen 2018). In terms of political participation, according to the UN Women Annual Report (2019b), 27 laws were reformed/amended in 17 countries advocating for female participation in politics.
The feminist movement in South America faced a challenge when the first female Brazilian president was removed; yet women in Brazil are striving to change the treatment of black women/Afro-Brazilians, who are gravely marginalized. Feminists continue to fight for health, social development, and sexual and reproductive rights. Feminist movements are faced with legislative proposals which would limit reproductive rights of women even in extenuating circumstances. The focus is to advocate for more social transformation and fight against erosion of reproductive rights in societies that hold onto patriarchal values and conservatism (Global Fund for Women 2019).
Moreover, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network started in 1988 by African feminists (widely known as FEMNET) is also one of the foremost movements in terms of gender equality in Africa. Considering its long history, it is a Pan-Africanist Feminist network with over 500 members who are women’s rights organizations, with a vision to realize the equality of women through various forms of activism (Nyambura 2018). FEMNET took part in a march, organized by the WMG for civil society, protesting the slow progress in achieving the SDGs, lack of accountability of member states, and African-centered and gender-sensitive data collection (Wangethi 2019).
The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) is a global, feminist movement-support organization which has been a part of an ecosystem of feminist movements working to achieve gender justice and women’s rights globally. AWID envisions “a world where feminist realities flourish, where resources and power are shared in ways that enable everyone, and future generations, to thrive and realize their full potential with dignity, love and respect, and where Earth nurtures life in all its diversity.” AWID’s mission is “to support feminist, women’s rights and gender justice movements to thrive, to be a driving force in challenging systems of oppression, and to co-create feminist realities” (AWID 2019). This approach is one in which intersectionality is recognized and where social justice plays a pivotal role in changing the lives of women who remain the face of poverty in the world.
Another example comes from Egypt, where the UN Women managed to provide access to economic participation to more than 17,000 women through a community-based village savings and loan associations which have helped them gain confidence in financial decision-making and agency and resulted in an increase in the creation of small businesses. This has also given rise to financial inclusion advocacy by the Central Bank of Egypt (UN Women 2019b).
In an age when democracy is under assault, she hints at the emergence of a new kind of power, a convergence of youth, popular protest and irrefutable science. And for her loudest detractors, she also represents something else: the sight of their impending obsolescence hurtling towards them. (O’Connell 2019)
With the accessibility of technology and social media, feminist movements are utilizing a “new” global platform for popularized advocacy (Davies and Sweetman 2018). There have been various hashtag movements addressing gender issues especially the highly publicized #MeToo and #TimesUp movements on gender-based violence, harassment, and assault. This sparked a global ripple effect – although ancillary movements have adopted varied names over time. Similar movements happened in China, Kenya, Morocco, Egypt, Sweden, Bolivia, South Korea, Macedonia, France, Senegal, Pakistan, and India, to name a few (Stone and Vogelstein 2019). Other movements also include the #TimeisNow movement which centers around women and men around the world speaking out about gender-based injustices they encounter in their countries and communities; #IWD2018 celebrating international women’s day and used online almost two million times (UN Women 2019b); and the #FeministFuture and #WhatWomenWant campaigns to include the voices of young feminists, part of the feminist fourth wave, often overlooked, in policy formulations (Nyambura 2018).
Additionally, March 2018 saw the launch of the “if we stop, the world stops” by the Spanish feminist movement. A successful, 24 hour strike built on the International Women’s Strike, called on 8 March 2017 where women stopped work, classes, care and consumption, and called on mass feminist mobilizations. The focus was intersectional with gender violence, reproductive rights, borders, and economy being the main points. They were backed by over 300 organizations and majority of the unions including the church and professional associations (judges, athletes, academics, journalists).
Finally, Denmark has introduced new laws on cyberharassment, while Iceland has one of the best remuneration equality laws in the world; however national budgets and resource allocations still favor discriminate mechanisms of fund allocations (Watson et al. 2019). Further, countries have also increasingly criminalized domestic violence and abolished legal exceptions to underage marriages (girls under 18); and processes have been introduced to increase gender parity in public offices in eight countries.
While good work is being done, better work still needs to be done. The SDGs are meant to be attained in 2030, just over a decade from now, and despite progress, we are far from achieving a sustainable future for humanity. The Global Fund for Women (2018) highlights a number of significant moments for women, including shifting the frame on climate change; recognizing the power and leadership of girls and young women; holding perpetrators accountable for violence against women and girls; and awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who worked extensively in the DRC, and to Nadia Murad, a survivor leading the charge against sexual violence by the Islamic State. The winners brought the issue of sexual violence as a weapon of war to the fore, and the award also illustrates the important role that men can play in achieving change.
The ability of feminist organizations to hold their own, to defend human rights, and to advance economic, ecological and gender justice will require not only clarity of vision and a track record of analysis and advocacy, but also stronger communications skills, greater organizational resilience and effectiveness, and the ability to build and nurture effective alliances in which younger people play strong roles. (Sen 2019, p. 37)
The objectives of feminist movements and the SDG targets cannot be fully realized without global participation and accountability as discussed above, something also clearly missing from the MDGs. Progress cannot continue to be hampered by lack of clarity, little to no enthusiasm, and insufficient resources (Esquivel and Sweetman 2016). It has also been proposed that men, to join feminist movements, need greater incentives (OECD 2019).
The feminist movement still faces challenges often linked to weakened multilateral engagements as a result of political and socioeconomic dynamics. Feminist agendas continue to contend with broader interests like trade, climate change, politics, and changing economies which tend to monopolize the discourse. There is still resistance by national and international policy makers in involving women in policy and decision-making and in tackling issues of peace-keeping, safety, and security (Bexell and Broman 2018). Recommendations on gender parity through legal reforms and policies often follow similar patterns, in that discriminatory laws and policies are abolished and replaced with more inclusive and equal frameworks, but implementation remains the biggest challenge.
The objectives of the movement continue to evolve over time as new challenges emerge, but this should not detract from the successes achieved this far – both big and small. Feminist movements and activists have become more inclusive in terms of intersectionality, and feminists have become more creative as the revolution for gender equality continues.
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