What it will take to unleash real feminism

By Bathylle Missika, Head – Networks, Partnerships and Gender Division, OECD Development Centre

Gender equality frequently makes headlines. Even before the #metoo movements, political leaders started to place gender equality at the top of their agendas. Beyond OECD countries, the G20, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as well as the African Union’s 2063 Agenda made achieving gender equality a priority.

Yet, translating these political commitments into durable changes for women and girls is far more difficult. Progress has been limited. When it comes to universal access to reproductive health, for example, which has been on the global policy radar since the Millennium Development Goals, 12% of women who do not want children still do not have access to contraception; that rate doubles to 24% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, eliminating girl child marriage is at centre of various regional and international conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; yet each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 23 girls every minute.

So if political will is real and genuine, why are we still falling short?

First, although laws are in place, what is practiced on the ground is often different. People stick to what they know and what makes them accepted members of their communities. They abide by the customs, social norms and religious doctrines that define a set of expectations about how women should believe and behave. This is an issue because it means that the most powerful agents of change (men and women as members of the community) end up blocking change and restraining women from benefitting from the same rights and opportunities as men. In some African and Asian countries, for example, dowry, although banned by law, is practised in almost all weddings, and 80% of the population is not ready to abandon the practice.

Second, as development practitioners, we tend to stick to conventional approaches for tackling gender inequality. Yet, what we need to be is more creative in finding entry points for change. For instance, while more governments are introducing paternity leave provisions — the case in 91 countries — the uptake remains low. Men often choose not to take leave for fear of social stigma and/or of losing momentum in their careers. Rather than focusing on making paternal leave longer, the priority should be to address the reasons why dads prefer to avoid the risk of staying away from work for too long.

But how do we identify the norms that are causing these inequalities? Innovative instruments are emerging to help policy makers identify these causes. The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) is one of them. The 2019 edition of the SIGI is unique in two ways. First, it points to prevalent discriminatory social norms and practices. Second, it analyses the ones that are particularly challenging and hardest to change.

For instance, discrimination in the family is the most acute form of discrimination universally. Restrictive norms in that sphere subjugate women to their husband’s authority and confines them to their reproductive and caring responsibilities. Discrimination in the private sphere is also the most pervasive one: while you can always create more job opportunities for women or put in place quotas to promote women’s political representation, as long as customary laws and social norms governing the family stigmatise working mothers and women in politics, women’s participation in labour markets and parliaments will remain low. And if you believe that these norms are a thing of the past, think again!

Globally, women’s role is confined to their caring and reproductive responsibilities: women perform 75% of unpaid care and domestic work worldwide. Half of the world’s population thinks that if a mother works outside the home, her children will suffer. Half of the world’s population think men make better political leaders than women. In 24 countries around the world, women need the permission of their husbands or legal guardians to choose a profession or work.

To close gender gaps in outcomes, such as the number of female CEOs or the number of girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), more women need to be eligible for such positions. But achieving these outcomes is far harder if girls marry as teenagers and/or if they were denied an education in the first place. This is why approaches and policies have to be context-based and developed by looking at the ex-ante drivers of inequality. Passing a law mandating 50% of women on companies’ boards in a country where child marriage is tolerated is likely to have a limited effect if the issue of girl brides is not addressed.

So where do we start? We need to help women become their own champions of change. Many of them have internalised the social norms and beliefs of their community. They are part of the norms cycle and have to disrupt it. Today, an alarming 23% of women believe that the practice of female genital mutilation should continue, while 27% of women think a husband is justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances. Innovative approaches need to be developed further. For example, engaging men in active fatherhood to redistribute domestic responsibilities is critical. So is encouraging dialogue within communities to promote women’s right to inheritance or providing gender-sensitive trainings to justice professionals to increase women’s access to justice.

Thus, in light of the alarming statistics, the sense of urgency is not exaggerated. Gender inequalities are likely to keep making headlines for a while. So we cannot wait 100 more years to achieve equality, which is what will happen if the current pace continues. We need to change the way we envision gender equality — from how we understand the root causes of discrimination to how we find new entry points, innovate and measure progress. Ultimately, feminism should not be about women behaving as men; feminism is about rethinking ways in which women can be drivers of their own change. This includes — and requires — men and women alike. And the time to act is now.

Source: OECD (2019), Gender, Institutions and Development Database, http://stats.oecd .org.