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2020 has been a year like no other, 2021 must be the year we change the game

A crowd of protesters holds up signs saying "The future is equal" and "Make equality reality"

2020 has been a year like no other, exposing damaging inequalities in every facet of society. For those experiencing systemic discrimination and abuse, the revelation that the world is a terribly unequal place was not a revelation at all. With the world in flux, let’s take the chance to build a fairer world for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends, and our communities.

Since 1992 the basic belief that gender equality is a global imperative–not just for the betterment of the individual but for the health of the world–has been at the center of our work. While we have never wavered in our commitment to this premise, 2020 has highlighted the urgency in dismantling systems of oppression that entrench inequality.

For the past eight months, the world has been fundamentally altered by COVID19. While the pandemic has left no person or country untouched, it is clear that women and girls have carried a disproportionate burden of the virus’s fallout.

From a dramatic rise in sex trafficking in Malawi to spiraling rates of sexual violence in India, from subversive restrictions on access to abortion in parts of the United States to an increase in teen pregnancy in Kenya, it is clear that COVID-19 is a deeply gendered crisis. While these trends are shocking, it is important to remember that coronavirus did not create these harmful practices–it simply exacerbated them.

Long before the world knew what the coronavirus was, women and girls faced structural and systematic gender-based oppression. While child marriage has risen during the pandemic, the virus did not create societal conditions that judged a girl’s worth on her ability to be a wife. While domestic care-workers have been unable to receive paid sick leave, it did not create an economy that devalued reproductive labor. While government relief packages have excluded refugees and undocumented immigrants, it did not create political institutions that preferenced the powerful and privileged at the expense of the marginalized. But what it did do, was force the world to acknowledge that women and girls continue to face both sex and gender-based discrimination.

All of this comes against a backdrop of the continued rise of authoritarianism, police brutality against Black men and women, and the rollback of human rights, and women’s rights in particular. We’ve seen attacks on reproductive rights in countries like the United States and Poland, numerous governments failing to protect women from domestic violence within their COVID19 responses, and continued attempts to silence women human rights defenders across the world from Iran to Zimbabwe. However, the solidarity between human rights movements around the world in response to these crises has never been so strong.

The world will never be the same, and while it is difficult to see silver-linings, we can look to the future with hope. We have an opportunity to define a new and inclusive future and we must not let it slip by. Now is the time to build a world we want to live in, using the law to create an equal world that works for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends, our communities.

For women’s rights activists, that means harnessing people’s newfound awareness of the systemic barriers women and girls face that make their equal and free participation in social, economic, and political life more challenging–and in some instances nearly impossible. These obstacles are not uniform and women and girls from marginalized communities face overlapping forms of discrimination which makes them vulnerable to abuse and exclusion on multiple faultlines of intolerance. However, regardless of geography or circumstance, patriarchal values have dictated the foundational laws and institutions that are governing societies around the world, entrenching these barriers in the very fabric of society.

Sex-discriminatory laws play a critical role in fueling the continued systemic oppression of women and girls around the world. Laws that permit girls to marry younger than boys, such as in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Tanzania have contributed to the rise of girls being married during COVID. Laws that do not recognize marital rape, such as in the Bahamas and India have made it more difficult for women abused in lockdowns to access support services. And lack of constitutional guarantees against sex discrimination, such as in the United States, makes it easier for employers to fire women who have been forced to juggle work and childcare as schools have gone remote.

2020 has put into sharp relief the persisting problem of gender inequality and intersecting forms of discrimination. 2021 must be the year we change the game and embed equality in the law once and for all. In doing so, we can ensure that women’s rights cannot be trampled on by political trends and that every woman is represented and protected.

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch. Our foremothers have been doing this work for centuries and activists have been carrying on their work in every corner of the world. We are here, standing firm. Now is the time to join together and build on this legacy to create a more equal future. To build the world we want to live in, we must legislate for equality.

Are you in?