On gender equality, women need results over rhetoric

In Paris and online around the world, as activists and leaders come together again, it is time to start delivering on the promises made a generation ago in Beijing
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Published on Jul 01, 2021 03:57 PM IST
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ByMelinda French Gates

Twenty-six years ago, gender equality activists gathered in Beijing at a landmark global conference on women and girls to plead a simple case: “Women’s rights are human rights.” In response, world leaders pledged to “promote women’s economic independence” and “take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women”. But these declarations were not followed with significant new money or policies. So, despite incremental progress, what was true in 1995 remains true today. No matter where you are born, your life is harder if you are a woman or a girl.

In Paris and online around the world, as activists and leaders come together again, it is time to start delivering on the promises made a generation ago in Beijing. I’ll be joining them at the Generation Equality Forum, where I hope we will begin to finally bridge the yawning gap between ambition and action. This means making bold financial commitments, putting together evidence-based policy agendas to ensure change happens, and agreeing on a plan to hold ourselves accountable for results.

Also Read | Gender equality must be central to Covid-19 recovery plans

The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the Forum to mark the 25th anniversary of Beijing a year late, has made the need for change brutally apparent. Women were nearly twice as likely as men to lose their jobs when the pandemic hit. Part of the reason is that, with schools closed and everyone staying closer to home, the demand for childcare and other unpaid housework spiked, and it was overwhelmingly women who met it. Women were already doing about three-quarters of unpaid work, and some women have been forced to drop out of the workforce altogether.

In many countries, the economy is beginning to recover, but not for women. New data from the International Labor Organization shows that while men as a group have already regained all the jobs they lost since Covid-19 struck, women are still losing theirs. In fact, two million more women will lose their jobs this year, adding to the nine million unemployed since 2019. These statistics expose the underlying fragility of a global economy that depends on many women doing two jobs, one for (usually less) pay and one for free.

But if the barriers to women’s advancement weaken the economy, then clearing those barriers away will strengthen it. A gender-equal recovery would not only jumpstart GDP growth in the immediate term. It would build the foundations for sustainable prosperity by unleashing all the energy, creativity, and untapped potential within half the world’s population.

For example, new research from the Eurasia Group found that redesigning government cash transfer programs to more directly benefit women could lift up to 100 million out of poverty, with ripple effects that last for generations. They also found that providing access to childcare could mean an increase of up to $3 trillion in global GDP. Overall, according to McKinsey, centering women in recovery efforts could grow global GDP by an estimated $13 trillion, or 16 percent, by 2030 – because when women thrive, so do their families and communities.

In short, gender equality is an economic necessity. The world’s prospects for an enduring recovery from Covid-19 depend on whether we seize this opportunity to end the marginalisation of women and girls.

That is why the Generation Equality Forum must focus on moving from rhetoric to results. To support this important work, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will invest $2.1 billion over the next five years in three of the areas the Forum is focusing on, economic empowerment, family planning and women’s health, and women in leadership.

Those who gathered in Beijing 26 years ago with a vision of an equal future extracted promises from the world. But so often, the promises made to women are the promises we don’t keep. Now we have a second chance. We need decisive commitments going forward from leaders to guarantee that for our daughters and granddaughters, a woman’s life will be no harder than a man’s, and, as a result, life will be better for everyone.

Melinda French Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The views expressed are personal

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