Advancing Women’s Empowerment & Gender Equality in the Next Decade

The new decade demands a boldness of vision, of action and collaborative action across constituencies.

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By Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA

Today, the women and girls of the world are echoing the same key issues that they raised twenty years ago as they gathered in Beijing for the 4th World Conference for Women. It’s the same 12 critical issues ranging from poverty, economy, violence against women, education, health, role of women in the media, rural women, the girl child, environment, and institutional mechanisms for which there is a call for greater implementation. This is in addition to the emerging issues of the last two decades that have found greater sharpness and focus, the concerns related to a bundle of issues related to health and rights ranging from maternal mortality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV and mental health, to the emergence of modern technologies and social media that is shaping the forms of communication, the norms of accountabilities and the creation of greater opportunities for accessing services. Yet the world remains with deep inequalities and inequities across regions, within countries, across the full spectrum of socio-economic indicators, and participation and access to opportunities as well as the digital divides.

In order to accelerate the actions for achieving empowerment of women, young women and girls and the reduction of gender inequalities,  there must be a strong investment of political will, technical and financial resources towards practical programmes in communities that impact the social and economic rights and well being of women and girls. These should be accompanied by a clear investment in mobilizing the leadership of the underutilized resource  contributing to and influencing decision making at all levels of society. The changing of norms and values is crucial towards achieving some of these, and requires harnessing the positive attributes, practices and tools that is engrained in the ways of living and knowledge banks of communities including indigenous knowledge. At the same time, we must  vigorously and openly work to reject negative practices such as female genital cutting, early and forced marriages. Fundamentally, it is not sufficient to address the manifestations of inequality, it is also important to root out the structural and patriarchal causes that often find expression in legislation, socialisation of men and boys and limiting opportunities for women and girls. The new decade demands a boldness of vision, of action and collaborative action across constituencies.

Accountability to existing commitments at the national level as enshrined in our constitutions; at the regional level as reflected in various policy and legal instruments, such as the Maputo Protocol; and at the global level as informed by Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW and resolution 1325 among others is crucial. It remains imperative that we advance the women’s human rights jurisprudence, and normative framework as part of global drive of vision.

UN Women, established in 2010 was a culmination of years of advocacy by women’s networks and engagement of the member states on the need for an effective mechanism within the UN that has status, is well resourced and can deliver impactfully in its mission. The position of Executive Director for UN Women therefore comes with huge and complex responsibilities! For which a greater expectation still exists for this organization, which is essentially in its infancy. The importance of providing policy, advisory and technical support, strategic partnership with civil society especially women’s groups and women’s fund and foundations, internal engagement for the UN to deliver effectively on gender equality for the individual mandates of programmes, funds and agencies as well as the role in leveraging quality and sustained relations with donors and the media remains at the core of success.

The founding Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet established a good foundation and raised the profile of the organization as it took its baby steps in the last two years. The emphasis on political participation, economic empowerment and violence against women remains at the centre of priorities today as it has done for years. What is key at this moment is to have a leader who can bridge the strong visionary perspective contributing to shaping the future of the development agenda especially at this moment with the MDG 2015 process underway, the 20 year review of the Beijing Platform for action and the ICPD review. It’s even much more important to have a leader who can leverage the opportunities that exist for delivering programmes and interventions in communities in a way that women and girl’s lives and well being is improved, that they have more opportunities for accessing education, healthcare services, food sovereignty, water and technology. These are the core social and economic rights that lie at the centre of daily struggles for billions of women across the world and through which gender inequalities manifest themselves. Women and girls should not continue to be a statistic, a case study and an anecdote in the humanitarian, development and security agenda. Rather, it is crucial that women and girls are leaders bringing knowledge, innovation, expertise and experience that lie at the centre of solutions and sustainable development.

For me, the daily struggle for women’s rights, a life of dignity and equal opportunities is not a job but a calling and a way of life since birth. Born and brought up in rural Zimbabwe during the war in a very resource poor family, selling vegetables and fruits to supplement school fees, raised by a widow, improvising the situation of women is not theoretical. I experienced first-hand the life of violence,  affected by health issues of family members such as HIV, walked the long distance to fetch water, firewood and goods. At the same time, I have also had the opportunity to access  good education, graduating as a lawyer and going further to study conflict resolution, human rights and gender. This theoretical and academic grounding is further reinforced by my experience. For more than twenty years, my professional life has been focused on women and children’s rights, spanning quality time in civil society, working in government and ten years in the United Nations.

Today, I lead the World YWCA, a global network of 25 million women and girls, present in 125 countries with services and programmes in 22,000 communities. Its main mission is to develop the collective leadership of women and girls for collective action towards a world of peace, justice, dignity, health and care for the environment. The intergenerational and transformative power of women, the commitment to take action and provide services in communities as well as raising the voice to in advocacy defines the organization’s approaches.

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