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The pandemic sets back gender equality globally

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Activists takes part in an event to mark International Women’s Day in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, on March 8, 2019. AFP

The pandemic sets back gender equality globally

When the Covid -19 pandemic began to spread into Central Sulawesi in early 2020, two challenges landed on the desk of local food seller, Yuyun, at the same time. They affected both sides of her balance sheet.

The hit to Yuyun’s income came in the form of protocols designed to slow the spread of the virus. They forbade trading in traditional markets, which made it hard for her to keep up installments on the loan she’d taken out to buy the food staples she sells from her kiosk. Then there were the new expenses she had to consider: even when masks were available in her community, their scarcity made them costly.

When Yuyun looked around, she realized many market traders in the province were feeling the same pinch. So, she mobilised a group of women to come together to buy masks. They pooled skills and resources, shared tips on marketing, and sold affordable personal protective equipment online. Their nascent digital business has since expanded to clothes, cakes and banana chips.

Innovation like this is characteristic of micro and small businesses in Indonesia, more than half of which are either owned by women or women play a key role in operating. Across the archipelago’s 17,000 islands, women make a formidable contribution to the formal and informal sector and will be vital to Indonesia’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Yet, with inequitable access to finance, training, and technology, the potential of entrepreneurs like Yuyun to uplift their communities all too often goes unrealized.

Finding ways to close financial and digital gender gaps is just one of six core topics world leaders, civil society groups and young change-makers are addressing this week at the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Paris.

Organised by UN Women and jointly hosted by the governments of France and Mexico, the landmark event brings together heads of state and governments, international organisations, civil society, the private sector and youth organizations with the aim of driving a rapid acceleration in equality, leadership and opportunity for women and girls. It comes at a critical moment for gender equality.

Reports indicate that the pandemic has corresponded with a shocking rise in gender-based violence globally. Meanwhile, many hard-won gains toward gender equality have backslid. Concrete action to empower women is now more vital than ever if the world is to ensure a sustainable recovery from the pandemic.

Action, rather than rhetoric, is at the core of GEF’s mandate. The forum invites organisations across the public and private sectors to submit game-changing gender equality action commitments. Those already logged include a $15 million commitment from Ford Foundation to the Equality fund, which plans to initiate a multistakeholder Global Alliance for Sustainable Feminist Movements; and a $10M commitment from the Canadian government to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.

Indonesians are also among the GEF’s “commitment makers.” A coalition of women parliamentarians from Indonesia will join commitment makers from around the world in reaffirming commitments to strengthen women’s political and economic participation. From the private sector, Indonesian fintech company Amartha — which provided Yuyun with the capital to open her market stall in early 2020 — has committed to ensuring that one million women in rural Indonesia can have access to its working capital loans in 2022, and five million others in the next five years. Amartha is also a signatory of the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which offer guidance to businesses on how to promote gender equality in the workplace.

In Indonesia, the passion and determination of civil society groups has contributed to commendable advances in women’s rights.

Legislative milestones include the enactment of the Law on Domestic Violence in 2004; the National Action Plan on the Protection and Empowerment of Women and Children in Social Conflict in 2014; and the amendment of the Marriage Law in 2019 to raise the minimum legal age for girls to marry from 16 to 19.

Despite such progress, no country can claim to have achieved gender equality. In fact, 26 years since the commitments made in Beijing, implementation of the agenda worldwide has been painfully slow. One in three women still experience physical or sexual violence — mostly perpetrated by an intimate partner. And the World Economic Forum estimates that based on current progress women will not achieve pay or leadership equity with men for at least another 135 years.

If efforts were already faltering, the global pandemic has pushed them further off course. In 12 countries tracked by the UN the number of cases of violence against women and girls reported to various institutions increased 83 per cent from 2019 to 2020. And although women have endured the greater share of adverse economic impacts during the pandemic, only a fraction of global government responses are gender-sensitive, per UN Women and UNDP report.

The pandemic has also laid bare the persistent inequalities in leadership. Despite women making up 70 per cent of the health and social care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, for example, only 30 per cent are in decision-making positions.

Women must be “front and center” of the world’s recovery, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in March. The world “cannot go back to the failed man-made policies that have resulted in the fragility we see around us – in healthcare systems, in social protection, in access to justice, and in the wellbeing of our planet,” Guterres added.

The GEF offers a historic opportunity to advance with women front and center. Its launch in Mexico City on March 30 this year — with more than 13,000 participants from 85 countries — laid the foundations for this week’s forum in Paris. It represents the largest international gathering on gender equality since the Beijing Conference in 1995.

The six core commitments of the GEF encompass gender-based violence; bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights; feminist action for climate justice; economic justice and rights; technology and innovation for gender equality; and feminist movements and leadership.

Those core principles, and the recommendations that come from the GEF, should offer valuable guidance as Indonesia assumes the Group of 20 presidency toward the end of this year. Indonesia has a historic opportunity to make transformative change toward greater gender equality and women’s empowerment across countries that make up two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 per cent of its gross domestic product.

With so much at stake, we cannot afford any more setbacks, nor must we accept that women and girls are destined to continue waiting for several generations for their rights to be fulfilled.

Because global prosperity and inclusive growth is inextricably tied to achieving economic justice and rights for women everywhere. Like Yuyun in Central Sulawesi.

Valerie Julliand is UN resident coordinator, Olivier Chambard is French ambassador to Indonesia, and Armando G Alvarez is Mexican ambassador to Indonesia



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