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Opinion: 'Back to normal' is a step back for gender equality

David Miliband and Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason look to the Generation Equality Forum this week as an opportune moment to leap forward for gender equality.

David Miliband & Geraldine Byrne Nason

THIS WEEK, THE Generation Equality Forum (GEF) takes place in Paris, France, creating a once-in-a-generation moment for fresh thinking for a gender-equal world.

Originally planned for 2020, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and to make new commitments to address remaining gaps, the irony is not lost that this moment had to be postponed.

As in many instances where efforts to address gender inequality are pushed to the back burner for more pressing issues, Covid-19 not only derailed the Forum, but the pandemic and its knock-on effects disproportionately impacted women and girls, especially women of colour, as gender and racial inequalities compounded one another.

Effects on women

Over the course of the pandemic, women have been more likely to lose their jobs or to be working in at-risk positions as healthcare workers on the front lines. Strained health systems have also led to less access to essential reproductive and sexual health services. Refugees were particularly hard hit.

They were 60% more likely to be financially impacted by Covid-19, with women refugees more likely to work in affected sectors. Increased violence against women was so significant that it was called a “shadow pandemic.” 

The International Rescue Committee and Irish Aid have worked closely to document the reality on the ground as well as provide life-saving support services to women and girls in need.

In addition to Covid-19, in crisis and conflict-affected countries, women continue to bear the brunt of war. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia reports of horrific sexual violence against women and girls continue to emerge. While in Syria, after a decade of war, women and children make up 80% of Internally Displaced Persons in camps, where they face increased risks of gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, and exploitation and abuse.

No time to waste

If this past year has taught us anything, it is that the hard-won gains achieved over the past 25 years are not guaranteed. When crisis strikes, women’s rights are all too often considered dispensable.

Now, with the opportunity finally before us, we cannot just take a step forward for gender equality. We must take a quantum leap. It is time to radically accelerate the pace of change and enact policies that benefit women and girls as we recover from the pandemic.

This means ensuring that the millions of women and girls living within conflict and crisis settings are not only included but that plans reflect their unique lived experiences. A one-size-fits-all approach will have limited impact on the nearly 360 million people in fragile countries that are predicted to be living in extreme poverty by 2030 nor will it address the many legal barriers for women refugees to even enter the workforce. 

Accountability on commitments for gender equality cannot be an afterthought. Governments, NGOs, corporations, and civil society organisations all have a role in ensuring that outcomes from the Forum are concrete, targeted, and transformative, so that change can be measured, and actors held accountable. Unless adequate resources and funding are allocated and actions are measured, commitments will remain ineffective. 

Women being heard

Women’s leadership is key to enacting this progress. We have seen women take to the streets – from Sudan to Myanmar – to demand agency in creating a better world. It is clear that we need to ensure their full, equal, and meaningful participation in decision-making at the highest levels, including at the UN Security Council.

As an elected Security Council member

, Ireland has made it a priority to bring the Women, Peace and Security agenda to every conversation at the Council – whether in Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan, or Colombia. 

At the Forum, Ireland will help to launch a new Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action Compact, bringing together states, the UN, civil society, and the private sector to turn words into action.

The International Rescue Committee will continue to promote a feminist vision of humanitarianism, where women and girls are recognised in their full diversity. This vision includes increasing the number of resources that go directly to women’s organisations, breaking down barriers to women refugee’s economic participation and empowerment, and continuing to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict and crisis countries.

Achieving gender equality is an all-society endeavour that requires tackling the underlying structural and systemic inequalities. We cannot and will not return to a normal that was not delivering for women and girls. This week, starting with the Generation Equality Forum, let’s take a leap forward toward true equality. 

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David Miliband is CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason is Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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