The 12th International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development, put on by AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), ended in Istanbul last week. With the global economic meltdown, women on every continent have been touched by hardship. As Global Issues writes, Jamaican activist Mariama Williams sums up well what women have been going through in the last few years: “In times of crisis, the solidarity we thought we had, the rights we thought were secured are again being questioned. Whatever is not convenient for growth is being questioned.”
Williams’ sentiment rings true here in the United States as much as it does anywhere else in the world where the state of national finances is forcing politicians to trim budgets and programs that often benefit women. Various American conservatives also haven’t wasted time in using the economic crisis as a way to cut funding for services that they deem unnecessary or immoral, as exemplified by the Planned Parenthood funding fight and the argument over who should be required to pay for contraception. While there is no doubt that women in some parts of the world fare better than those in many developing countries and that gender policies are more adequate in certain regions, the struggle for women’s rights isn’t over anywhere. The events post-revolution or during transition in North Africa and the Middle East have also made it clear that women there must keep pushing for their own, gender-specific rights. Despite their full participation in political movements and drive for a better society, forces within their own ranks are now discussing restricting women’s freedoms that would actually reverse the rights they won decades ago. At a time when, across various regions, it has become crucial to factor in gender specific problems into the growth and increased equality equation, a range of factions is working hard to turn the clock back on the many achievements and progress of women’s rights in past decades.
The theme of this year’s conference was Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice and the AWID site emphasizes that:
Regardless of the circumstances and contexts in which we live, economic power cuts across all dimensions of our lives, from negotiating household expenditures to allocating national budgets and campaigning for recognition of the care economy, fair wages, decent working conditions, and affordable, common access to the world’s resources – including food, water, energy and land. Economic power also impacts on and intersects with all women’s rights issues and agendas – from reproductive and sexual rights to violence against women, education, political participation and health.
It isn’t that economics didn’t always play a large role in the lives of women but the current turmoil within the global economy provides a distinct space for exploring how to make economic growth, social progress and development work for everyone in society. People’s lives are directly affected by the economy, social factors and the political situation both locally and nationally. Being unable to secure one’s own economic stability or the inability to control one’s reproduction, poor sanitation, disease management and healthcare are just a few elements that when viewed through the prism of universal human rights, present a clear call to action by those in power, since these are all determinants that have direct bearing on how a woman can function in society, her productivity and overall wellbeing.
The AWID conference united women from various backgrounds and challenged them to see how much they have in common as a result of a general, global disregard for their gender’s contributions. The participants agreed that “From national budgets to financial-stimulus packages, economic policy typically fails to address women’s needs — or to recognise the contributions they make through their unpaid labour.” In this regard any nation’s government must truly recognize how it is not alleviating its’ women’s problems, and work to remedy it; advocacy of women’s needs in legislative bodies would also likely be aided by more women being elected to political positions of power. It is encouraging to see capable women from so many diverse places banding together and calling for a definitive gender rights revolution.
International conferences of course often risk not representing or encompassing everyone’s view, since the poor, for example, are unlikely to be able to travel long distances for such events. The activists and politicians who do attend, ought to be tasked with lobbying for societies that leave room for a range of inputs and which find a way to allow each individual live their life with dignity and according to their wishes, as long as they don’t force their personal beliefs on others. At this juncture, at global events, cultural relativism often creeps into the discussion and standards for what counts as a human right is challenged. The climate at the conference in Turkey this year was fortunately one that stressed moving away from splintering relativism to a more universal understanding of humanity, which can transcend superficial differences among people.
While the world faces numerous problems, at least half directly resting on women’s shoulders, the women at the conference left encouraged. There is no shortage of people in developed countries who think that women have won all that they ever needed to win in terms of rights. In other regions, some simply want to protect women from public life or think that women don’t have viable needs. All these sentiments combined, spell a powerful call to action and that is exactly why now, is the time for change. Amidst the economic uncertainties there is room for significant progress for women’s causes and those who for far too long have remained disenfranchised in policy matters. The time to act is now and for women everywhere to shout loudly, with one voice, in order to be heard and have their rights and demands acknowledged. Surely the participants of the AWID conference would agree wholeheartedly.