As I write, women are marching on their capitals and other centers of power in many countries around the world. The past year alone has seen women mobilizing like never before. Earlier this year, in Hong Kong, women have upended gender roles in their fight for democracy. In Mexico, tens of thousands of women stayed at home to protest femicide. Women are leading protests in Belarus. They did the same in Sudan. In Saudi Arabia, they are fighting for human rights and equality. In India, they took a prominent role in nationwide protests against new citizenship laws. The #MeToo movement has gathered women from all over the world and a wide variety of feminist activist groups have emerged over the past decade — from Pussy Riot to Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign. Now, women are mobilizing around the world to fight the pandemic. More than anything, women are agents of change. Fearless agents of change.
We were looking forward to 2020… It was expected to be a year to accelerate progress in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 25 years since its adoption. It was supposed to be the year to accelerate progress on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda to mark and celebrate UN Resolution 1325, adopted 20 years ago. This is also the year projected to jumpstart the Decade of Accelerated Action to deliver on the Global Goals, including gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Instead, the reality we face in 2020 is that COVID-19 could push back on the hard-won progress made towards gender equality and justice for women.
Despite progress, we are still far from where we need to be if we are to achieve the aim of gender equality and empowerment promised in SDG5. Gender discrimination and differentials in wages, wealth, and power persist. Legal hurdles for women entrepreneurs remain in many countries. The glass ceiling is still a reality in too many workplaces. Violence against women and girls is too common. Sexual violence is still used as a weapon of war. Yet, slowly but surely, we had been making progress over the past decades, at least in parts of the world. Jacinda Ardern just earned a historic win the New Zealand elections. Incidentally, countries where women are elected into leadership seem to do better in the pandemic then countries led by their male counterparts. We have also seen advances in female leadership in the UN over the past decade. The gender pay gap was reduced in a number of countries. More young girls had access to education globally. And less women and babies died in childbirth. However, in the last few years, the picture had also become more mixed. While in some parts of the world, women and women´s rights were slowly making progress, in others, women´s rights have increasingly become the subject of intense scrutiny and attacks by religious, extremist, and/or fundamentalist leaders.
Then came the pandemic. The virus brought unprecedented challenges to women’s lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 put a spotlight on the justice problems women face and the need to urgently address them. It created new obstacles to gender justice or exacerbated existing ones. It curtailed women’s access to justice, magnified gender gaps in digital access and access to public services, worsened risks of gender-based violence, threatened further injustice against women workers, especially in the informal sector, and much more. So, we have to fight harder.
There are countless heroes out there who will take the lead: Female peacemakers who persevered when success seemed impossible. Women who overcame pressure, obstacles, and ignorance to make tough decisions. Countless women who had the courage to leave the past behind to shape a better future and to speak truth to power. The Iranian lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts for democracy and human rights, with particular focus on the rights of women and children. Rigoberta Menchú, who won for her advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples of Latin America. Tawakkol Karman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Leymah Gbowee, who won the Peace Prize in 2011 for their roles as fearless champions for peace and democracy. Nadia Murad, who received the prize in 2018 for giving voice to the victims of and fight against sexual violence used in wars. Others did not win the Nobel Peace Prize. They are also heroes: the young Malawian, Memory Banda, who campaigned to end child marriages. Thuli Madonsela, who as the previous public protector in South Africa, held President Jacob Zuma accountable for corruption. Colombian, Bertha Lucía Fries, who dedicated her life to reconciliation and peace after surviving a terrorist attack. Alaa Salah, who helped fuel the revolution that ousted President al-Bashir from 30 years of authoritarian rule in her native Sudan and later on ensured representation of women in the new political structures. Ilwad and Iman Elman, sisters fighting for peace and gender equality in Somalia. Lohana Berkins, who was a driving force behind legislation recognizing transsexual and non-binary identity in Argentina. Greta Thunberg, who is mobilizing youth all over the world to stand up for the climate and demand change. The Saudi women I have met who are fighting a battle for rights in a country where all women have to be fearless simply to endure. Or the Palestinian grandmother who looked at me five years ago in the Palestinian camps of Sabra Shatila in Beirut and said: “I will not allow them to define me as a victim. I have been forced to flee my whole life, running first from Palestine; then from militias and Israeli in Lebanese camps and now back here from Syria seeing my relatives killed and raped. But I am not a victim, I am a survivor.” She had looked the devil in the eyes and had no fear left.
“I will not allow them to define me as a victim. I have been forced to flee my whole life, running first from Palestine; then from militias and Israeli in Lebanese camps and now back here from Syria seeing my relatives killed and raped. But I am not a victim, I am a survivor.”
We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women acquire the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society. We cannot build just societies if women cannot participate in public life on an equal footing or if we don’t give them a fair chance in the economy. We cannot achieve peace without women gaining access to justice and on an equal footing as men. Only a small minority of participants or signatories in peace negotiations or peace agreements are women. Few women have ever been appointed chief negotiator in any peace negotiations led by the UN. Meanwhile, the rapes continue. The sexual harassment continues. The costs of war compound.
Women’s needs have to be integrated into recovery plans. Justice leaders, male and female, need to ensure that women’s can access justice and stand up for their rights, that their cases are not shelved, and that discriminatory laws are abolished. Politicians of both sexes need to assure equal rights and specific safety measures. We know that realizing women’s full potential in the economy will benefit everyone and assure higher growth. Where I come from, politicians say that women’s participation in the labor market has meant more for Norwegian wealth, domestic growth, and the welfare state than the discovery of oil in the North Sea. More women need to take action. Dominant groups will not give up their position and privilege for free. Some will ask what women can do. In fact, there isn’t a thing they cannot do. Peace agreements where women partake last longer. Peacebuilding and rebuilding after war and conflict is more sustainable when women are involved. Economies where women take part more fully are more sustainable. Women want more and can do more.
Women are leaders. Therefore, they have a responsibility to rise above the current backlash, the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the populist waves sweeping the world. Feminist and women’s mobilization has grown over the past decades thanks to power of social media and the Internet. That progress needs to be taken forward. Women need to organize again — building chains of solidarity across countries — fighting for human rights and women rights all over the world. We need to rise above the pettiness and the intolerant views of populists. The impacts of the pandemic are pushing us forward with even greater urgency. Human rights and women rights are universal. Respect for them should be universal. Without them, we have reason to fear. With them, we have a chance to build peace and progress. We should not — and need not — look the devil in the eye to conquer fear.