It has been a long journey for women’s human rights activists and feminists in the struggle for emancipation from patriarchy, sexism, inequality, discrimination, and violence. In that struggle, women and girls have been denied an education, forced into early marriage, lacked autonomy over reproductive rights, battled poverty and homelessness, continue to earn less than their male counterparts. Despite decades of activism and advocacy, significant women’s human rights issues continue to hinder women’s empowerment. However, collective action on a global scale has risen with the dawn of a new millennia. Women the world over, stand united in solidarity to rebuke stigma, shame, and oppression. The year 2020 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the largest gathering of women in history dedicated to addressing women’s human rights issues. 2020 also signified a global pandemic. The pandemic has given rise to significant challenges that risk reversing the extraordinary gains made by women’s rights activists and feminist voices.
The rise of information technology has enabled the unprecedented mobilisation of women’s voices, women have been able to speak more openly about injustices and with a much wider reach than in the past. The conversations forged in these spaces and the support women give other women on a global scale, has without a doubt ensured that the 2010’s are the decade that women have fought back against injustice. Therefore, whilst progress can feel as though it is slow, these gains through information technology are significant milestones for women and girls. It has given women the confidence to come forward and raise their collective voices. Women must continue to utilise this space to speak out about injustice.
The progress and gains made in the twenty-five years since the Beijing Platform for Action has also been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted that those who are able to earn an income come at the expense of women who undertake care responsibilities. The UN warns that “without a concerted response to the pandemic, we risk losing a generation of gains”. Oxfam argues that the pandemic urgently requires a feminist response because every person is valuable and whilst the pandemic has reached every corner of our lives, it hits each of us differently. People who do not have a (safe) home, who suffer from poverty and exploitative working conditions and/ or are affected by the inequalities and violence inherent in sexism, and by racism as well as those who are chronically ill are particularly affected. Above all, older women, and single mothers, who are overrepresented among the poor and those at risk of poverty anyway, are most severely affected by the current state of emergency. The Harvard Business Review argues that “beyond the economic impact, business leaders have a strong interest in furthering gender equality during this crisis and that reversing the regressive trend will require, among things, investment in education, family planning, maternal mortality prevention, digital inclusion, and unpaid care work” The pandemic is not solely responsible for gender inequality, disparities already existed, however it exacerbates them and has a regressive impact.
The most vulnerable segments of society are disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic. The United Nations Development Programme report on COVID-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery articulates that the pandemic has been unprecedented because of its evolution from a health shock to an economic and social crisis. Social distancing and the pause in nonessential business have slowed human activities. They estimate that as a combined measure of the world’s education, health and living standards, global human development is set to decline for the first time since the concept was developed in 1990. The decline is expected across most countries, rich and poor, in every region. UNICEF UK says that the coronavirus pandemic is the most urgent crisis affecting children since the Second World War, upending children’s lives everywhere.
The pandemic has painfully exposed how vulnerable the hard work done on improving the lives of women and girls is to regressing back to a lesser state. As communities around the world look towards the future and consider what our ‘new normal’ may look like, it is imperative that human rights are the heart of decision making. Women and girls deserve to live in a world where they can thrive and feel safe. Women’s voices are imperative to the recovery process. Each and everyone’s lives has been affected and we must work together collectively to ensure nobody is left behind.