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International Women’s Day 2017: How Bold is Bold?

8 Mar 2017

International Women’s Day 2017: How Bold is Bold?
This blog post is published as part of a Series by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd, called Through the Social Lens. In the Series, Paul shares his reflections on current issues in development and how UNRISD's work on social development ties in to these concerns. We would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts while reading the piece. Put your comments in the box at the end and we will do our best to get back to you.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a time to recognize the tremendous progress made in the last century on women’s rights because of the efforts and sacrifices of women and women’s groups. In almost all fields—politics, business, science, sport and the arts—and in many parts of the world, women are now recognized and compensated more fairly for their leadership and contribution to human progress.

But … there is a huge but. In all fields, and in all parts of the world, women and girls still face daily discrimination, stereotypes, verbal abuse and often violence.

Themes for this year’s IWD range from UN Women’s Gender Equality in the World of Work to #BeBoldForChange by a business coalition of multinationals, and I’ve been reflecting about what achieving the goals of these campaigns actually means in practice.

At a minimum it could mean proper implementation of all the existing ideas, programmes and policies to eliminate discrimination and violence, captured in countless progress reports from the Commission on the Status of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, just to mention the UN’s efforts. Financing, incentives, regulation, legislation and proper enforcement are needed to strengthen accountability.

But it strikes me that we are at a different point in history right now, one that is fundamentally calling into question how we relate to other people across the world and within our own countries.

An era of gaps

One could describe it as an era of gaps. A large majority of people live in countries where income inequality has grown over the last 40 years. The wealth that has trickled up to elites in both rich and poor countries has often been accompanied by political power, which has tended to reinforce privilege. Rich people are able to move freely across the world, while poor and vulnerable people—often fleeing from conflict—are increasingly boxed in and forced to remain where they are. Environmental degradation and climate change hit people living in poverty first.

Because of this, women at the bottom of the ladder are facing overlapping, multiple disadvantages. But the risk to women and girls is universal. In response to what people see as unfair globalization, political debate is polarizing in many countries around a populist right or left. Those on the right have started to brazenly question equality and women’s rights, and in some cases are beginning to wind the clock backwards on past progress.

What does this mean for those around the world who are still fighting for women’s rights? To be #BoldForChange for women and girls in this context, at this point in time, needs much more. Not only do specific measures need to be enforced to ensure the rights and safety of women and girls, but the broader context of global inequality, conflict and environmental degradation must also be addressed. Otherwise we are not amending the root conditions that are fanning the flames of discrimination and violence.

UNRISD’s contribution to tackling the contemporary challenges the world is facing is captured in our most recent Flagship Report, Policy Innovations for Transformative Change. Our research on social policy, the environment, care systems, domestic resource mobilization and governance provides practical examples and guidance to governments and others across the world on the actions they can take to turn the tide in this era of gaps.

I would contend that the case studies captured in the report, each of them with their potential and limitations, are a key building block for not just protecting but also advancing progress on women’s rights. Now that would indeed be bold.

Paul Ladd is the Director of UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.