AC6 Action 2: Create, expand and protect civic space for feminist action and organising
In order to create, expand and protect civic space for feminist action and organising, we must be informed by barriers women experience, and apply pressure or protection where women and gender-diverse people define it is needed, tailoring interventions to their circumstances and contexts. Respondents of the GC had the opportunity to answer if barriers to their progress were (1) political, (2) cultural/social, (3) educational, (4) economic, and (5) technological. By looking at the barriers to progress in this way, we will be able to direct efforts to advance protection measures through laws and policies, and expand civic space for action and organising. Here we will look closer into the sector barriers that are barring women and gender-diverse people from realising progress on the issues most critical to them.
The top three issues respondents chose as most critical, globally thus far, are ‘Ending Gender-Based Violence’ at 48%, ‘Education and Youth Empowerment’ at 29%, and Civil Rights and Freedoms’ at 22%. Here, we will analyse responses to the top three issues globally, and their greatest barriers to progress in relation to Feminist Movements and Leadership.
The fact that ‘Ending Gender-Based Violence’ at 48% was the most prominently chosen issue amongst those who responded to the question reflects the reality that we see in the volume and focus of feminist action and organising around the world. In just the first 6 months of 2021, increasing, widespread and prevalent violence against women triggered mass protests in Austria, Turkey, Mexico, Australia, India and the UK. In every region, (Africa, Asia, Europe the Americas, Oceania) the majority of respondents to the GC —56% globally—chose ‘cultural/social’ as the biggest barrier to advocating or campaigning to end violence. That ‘cultural/social’ was chosen instead of ‘political’, ‘educational,’ ‘technological,’ or ‘economic’ options for barriers, means respondents are pointing to the cultural and social environment as a promulgation of violence, harassment and abuse. This speaks directly to “norms”, and the AC’s plan to “eliminate harmful stereotypes that reinforce discrimination, entrench inequality, and stigmatize feminist activists, organizations, and movements.”
In order to eliminate harmful stereotypes that reinforce discrimination, respondents to the GC direct us to prioritise resources on changing cultural and social norms about violence, harassment and abuse.
For example, we can look at the story of a woman who lives outside of Lagos, Nigeria aged between 25 and 34 , who identified that the most important issue for her is ‘Ending Violence, Harassment, and Abuse,’ and that ‘social/cultural’ issues were the biggest barrier to progress on this issue. When asked what organisations have been useful on the issue, she listed a radio programme called the Berekete family radio programme as effective in mobilising to end violence, harassment and abuse in her local area. This example could be used to make an argument that increasing investments and attention could focus on ensuring the Berekete family radio programme mentioned can scale its work to implement cultural and social change, by changing hearts and minds on the subject of violence.
This example represents the value in listening to the voices of women and gender-diverse people about the issues and barriers that impact their individual progress toward equality, and it provides a tangible pathway for the plan to “eliminate harmful stereotypes that reinforce discrimination, entrench inequality, and stigmatize feminist activists, organisations, and movements.”
Civil Rights and Freedoms and the Political Barrier
In application to the need to create, expand and protect civic space for feminist action and organizing, we can look at qualitative and quantitative results from the second-most prominently chosen issue, ‘Civil Rights and Freedoms.’ The majority—75%—chose the ‘political’ barrier as the greatest hindrance to progress on ‘Civil Rights and Freedoms.’ The political sector acting as a barrier to progress on women’s violence is in line with the reality we have seen through feminist organizing in 2021.
In many cases around the globe, a singular narrative ties feminist activism together: women are organising in collective action against rape culture promulgated by authoritative systems, and are violently shut down and silenced by branches of the same governing systems as reported by the Human Rights Watch. When thousands of women gathered in Mexico City in March to protest the high rates of femicide in the country, law enforcement sprayed the activists with tear gas. A few days later in London, hundreds gathered for a memorial for a young woman who had been kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered by a police officer, and the vigil turned into a violent clash with police officers who belonged to the same force as the murderer. In Turkey, activists have organized mass protests against the government pulling out of the Istanbul Convention to protect women against violence, and police have arrested over a dozen women. In Australia, tens of thousands of activists organized protests in response to allegations of sexual assault by members of Australia’s parliament. Women all over the world are being met with violence and sexual abuse when organizing for women’s rights, protection and empowerment. When the systems designed to protect and support are the very systems that are violently shutting down women’s voices, we can confirm a shocking institutional neglect that underscores the need for radical pressure on the political sector.
That the majority chose the ‘political’ barrier as the greatest hindrance to progress gives direction to the intention to “advance protection measures, policies, and enforceable legislation to protect the human rights and security of feminist activists, organizations, and movements.”
Open-ended answers from the question ‘What does progress for women’s human rights look like for you in 10 years?’ can inform the AC for Feminist Movements and Leadership how to approach that advancement. In many responses, women describe an appetite for an intersectional approach to police reform, and ensuring that women are empowered to leadership positions in authoritative institutions such as law enforcement.
For example, a woman from Montana, USA, responded “To me (progress for women’s human rights) looks like a total restructuring of our society, meaning patriarchy is not the dominant structure and that our governments, policing system, economy, schools and jobs are less hierarchical, less fueled by toxic masculinity, and more collaborative.” This response provides a vision for a world which recognises the role that patriarchal power structures play in the the activities associated with governance, and the prevalence of a culture of masculinity and rape, where sexual violence is condoned by the constructs of the society which are set up so that women have less power than men. The need to radically change how institutions operate, and the appetite for that change is evident through responses to the GC.
Youth Empowerment and the Educational Barrier
Lastly, we look at qualitative and quantitative responses included in those who selected ‘Education and Youth Empowerment’, which is thus far, marked as the third most critical issue globally. The most popular barrier cited for this area was ‘education’ with 29% of respondents selecting it. In this case, it can be interpreted that a lack of education is the problem when related to youth empowerment, and access to education is the solution.
Sub action four of AC6 intends to “strengthen adolescent girls and young feminist leaders, their movements and organizations,” yet young women’s leadership is undermined in the civic space despite the advances in youth engagement over the years. The current configuration of youth organisations is not enough to ensure or sustain the effective leadership of young women in international development and any progress within youth spaces is still largely affected by the preferences of young men in power. Within the current global context, women are given promises of equal representation but often find the reins of power in the hands of others. The need for radical change in how the systems support young feminist activists and movements is particularly urgent across the African continent, where nearly 60% of the population is under the age of 25. In a report by the World Bank currently, less than 10% of African students are enrolled in higher education. This explains why the majority of the young people identified access to education as youth empowerment.
Open-ended answers from the question, ‘What does progress for women’s human rights look like for you in 10 years?’, can inform the AC for Feminist Movements and Leadership how to approach education in relation to youth empowerment.
For example, a respondent from the UK wrote that she envisions progress for women’s human rights as the “girls I work with having (sic) aspirations for their lives and full ownership of their own bodies – an understanding of their rights. And, conversely, the young men I work with understanding (sic) what respectful relationships look like and being able to break free of the culture of toxic masculinity many of them are embedded in.” This response underscores the need to involve young men in the project of empowering young girls. Further, it proposes advancing a culture change by ensuring young people of all genders are enabled, via access to education, to build societies that embody gender equality as a foundational value.
Centering the experiences and expertise of young people is key to ensuring their voices are heard and enacted upon. The GEF’s approach to including youth is welcoming but it is how young people are included in decision-making beyond just conferences that will enable institutional change and this starts with giving young people the tools and resources to lead.
In recent years, governments have adopted new laws and policies that shrink civic spaces, taking away rights and freedoms and using the police as a force to dismantle peaceful protests and deter freedom of speech and assembly. Whilst women turn out in the thousands all over the world to protest against institutional violence, it is time to redefine how global institutions work toward gender equity, and time for women to be informing solutions to problems that have festered for centuries. For us to have a world free from poverty and violence and where equity and dignity is possible, women and youth must drive the development agenda and be active agents of change