High Ideals vs. Hard Reality

March 31, 2015| by Priya Desai, UNA Women

The 21st century has been hailed as the century of women. Yet a recent Google search shows just how much prejudice and discrimination towards women and gender equality persist. Women still bear the brunt of poverty, war, disease, and famine. Women and girls are done with the rhetoric. They want meaningful action and implementation now.

Achievements have been made since Beijing; however, “today, two decades later, it’s clear: We are not there yet. We still have a lot of work to do,” reported Hillary Clinton while addressing the United Nations on March 10, 2015. She also noted that in 2015 more than half of the world’s nations still don’t have a law on the books banning domestic violence. In 2015, 35% of women and girls worldwide have experienced violence. This is atrocious considering that violence against women and girls is a man-made pandemic. As stated by UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, “A country that does not respect its women in peacetime, will not protect them in conflict.” In 2015, the rights of women and girls are still being traded off for votes in elections and are used as bargaining chips in political negotiations between countries. Some of the largest barriers include unchanged norms, attitudes & stereotypes. In 2015, women and girls still face inequalities and injustices from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman and girl may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common.  It is hard to be undaunted in spite of these obstacles, but the courage and unrelenting voice of non-governmental and civil society organizations speaking up for their constituencies keep the momentum and commitment to action going.

While the Beijing Platform for Action laid the blueprint for gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment, there have been several roadblocks and apathy from some member states of the UN in regards to recognition and implementation. This is evidenced by the pre-negotiated political declaration and working methods document. At the request of certain member states, any references to women’s rights activists, human rights, non-governmental organizations, and civil society organizations had been removed which led to a bland and uninspiring political declaration. This exclusion dealt a huge blow to the organizations that are on the ground and delivering services. This lack of acknowledgment points to the larger problem of lack of commitment, accountability, funding, and transparency from member states, their governments, and various entities in and around the UN to follow up on the promise they made when they endorsed the Beijing Platform for Action.

The progress that has been made is not nearly enough to eliminate any of the critical areas of concern identified at Beijing in present time. Some might see the issue of women and girls’ rights and empowerment as lack of awareness, but that is not the case. The awareness is there but the funding and commitment is not. Commitment and funding go hand in hand. The UN as a whole does good work for the most part; however it is more idealistic than operational in certain areas, more specifically women and girls’ rights and empowerment. The overarching failure of member states to recognize the untapped potential, dignity, and humanity of women and girls in domestic and foreign policy is nothing less than gross negligence. The Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon said it best, “The world will never realize 100% of its potential, if 50% of its people are held back.” Women and girls make up half of the world’s population and yet represent a staggering 70% of the world’s poor. For the millions of women and girls living in poverty, their lives are a litany of injustice, discrimination and obstacles that get in the way of achieving their basic needs of good health and nutrition, safe childbirth, healthcare, education, employment, and citizenship (citizenship being understood not only as a status or identity, but also, as a practice and a process through the exercise and claiming of rights and through participation in governance and civil society). Lydia Alpizar, the Executive Director for the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), concisely identified the problem faced by non-governmental and civil society organization: member states are cherry picking the rights of women and girls instead of recognizing ALL women and girls’ rights. Ms. Alpizar pointed out that the cherry picking of rights leads to loss of gender equality, sustainable development, and peace. Women and girls’ rights have to exist in practice and not just on paper.

As Ian Birrell from The Guardian pointed out, the UN has conflicts of interests as they have three roles as donor, coordinator, and implementer of programs. To reduce the number of conflicts there needs to be greater inclusion of NGOs and CSOs and their perspectives as service providers, as well as accountability, transparency, funding (more in the form of investments) and participation from the public and private sector and all levels of government. These are the change vehicles needed to reduce the gaps between the ideal and reality. There is a desperate need for reform, leadership training, and renewed commitment from all levels of government.

Enough lip service. Now is the time to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable for meaningful action and implementation.