Gender equality is on the global agenda but change is still too slow

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

This time it’s really different. Or at least it should be. This year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March comes amid an unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice.
There’s no getting away from it. Having started in the glamourous world of Hollywood, the #MeToo movement of women demanding an end to sexual harassment and violence has gone global.
Women’s rights are on the agenda of even the most conservative societies. Brave women are coming out with their painful #MeToo stories of abuse but also with demands for changes in laws, traditions and mindsets, which still stand in the way of their right to education, health, jobs, political representation, economic empowerment and more.
But there is no room for complacency. The push-back against women has already begun in many countries. Take your foot off the pedal – even for a minute – and there’s a danger of slippage, of the return to old mindsets and suffocatingly restrictive traditions.
So how can the current momentum for equal rights be maintained? And also, how can the demands for change be turned into policies to ensure that change truly happens?

The push-back against women has already begun in many countries

It’s important to keep up the pressure, to continue the global marches and campaigns and to make sure that equal rights issues continue to trend on social media. It is important to get men involved and to insist, as Hillary Clinton did in Beijing in 1995, that “women’s rights are human rights”. Most of all, it is important to press for new policies, stronger action and strict enforcement.

Even as the momentum for equality picks up speed, three key areas are often neglected.

First, although they represent over a quarter of the world population and a majority of the global agricultural labour force, the rights of women in rural communities are often forgotten.

As underlined by UN Women, less than 20% of landholders worldwide are women. Women in rural areas are paid less than men and lack infrastructure and services, decent work and social protection.

But these women are also challenging stereotypes by using innovative agricultural methods, setting up successful businesses and acquiring new skills, pursuing their legal entitlements and running for office.

Second, despite the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognises that women play an integral role in conflict prevention and resolution, and despite evidence that the chances of lasting peace increase when women are part of peace negotiations, women are still not always given a place at the table in peace-making or the crafting of constitutions.

Between 1992 and 2011, women made up just 9% of negotiators in peace processes, according to a study by UN Women. Also, in spite of much lofty political rhetoric, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda is one of the most structurally underfunded and under-implemented agendas of the Security Council.

It is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors

Women can also play a key role in the fight against extremism and radicalisation. Sadly, women and girls are not only victims of systematic sexual violence by extremists but have also become targets of recruiters. Currently women make up at least 20‒30%of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria.

Third, it is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors. Across the world, women entrepreneurs and innovators are contributing to the jobs and growth agenda and helping to implement Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, while women entrepreneurs create new businesses, disrupt established industries and develop innovative platforms at a record pace, they still face institutional barriers to starting and growing a business that makes financial parity with male entrepreneurs a long-term challenge.

In the 21st Century, almost all societies pay at least lip service to gender equality and recognise the vital role played by women in society, politics and business. UN resolutions and lip service are not enough, however.

Brave women are stepping up the pressure. They need the support of their families, the wider public and – very importantly ‒ urgent action and enforcement by governments.


Watch Shada Islam’s message for International Women’s Day:

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo