By any standard, 2020 was a devastating year– not least of all for women and girls who disproportionately bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. From increased rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation in India and Kenya to the rise in forced pregnancies in the United States due to constricted access to contraception and abortion, it is clear that the gendered impacts of the pandemic will far outlast the virus itself. But 2021 offers a light at the end of the tunnel.
While 2020 put into sharp relief the persisting problem of gender inequality and intersecting forms of discrimination (although for those experiencing systemic discrimination and abuse, the revelation that the world is a terribly unequal place was not a revelation at all), 2021 we must be the year we face these problems head on and commit to #BuildBackEqual.
Paramount to building back equal must be a commitment from governments and multilateral organizations to prioritize the rights of women and girls. Gender equality must be enshrined into the very foundation of international, regional, and national law so that neither crisis nor political upheaval can erode the ability of all people to live freely, equally, and on their own terms.
Laws are the building blocks of political, social, and economic life. While good laws are not sufficient in and of themselves, they are a fundamental component to ensuring an equitable society. Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen how weak legal protections for women and girls have made the gendered impacts of COVID even more pronounced. From insufficient protections for caregivers and pregnant workers– the majority of whom are women, to laws that permit girls to be married off as children or prevent women from inheriting wealth, legal inequality disproportionately left women and girls vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the COVID crisis.
As part of our campaign focus for 2021, Equality Now is calling on governments and international institutions to address sexist and outdated laws and legal systems that treat women and girls as second class citizens. As always, our focus is global and we are committed to tackling systemic inequality and promoting structural change.
Our top priorities for 2021 include:
Promote family law reform: The economic impact of the coronavirus has been devastating and many countries will be focusing on rebuilding in 2021. For holistic and equitable economic reconstruction, it will be critical for governments to address discriminatory family laws that restrict women and girls’ ability to receive an education, participate in the labor market, own property, and make independent financial decisions. Not only will repealing these laws benefit national development, but it will also address domestic violence and sexual exploitation.
Equality Now is working with activists in South Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, and Kenya to call on their governments to examine how codified, religious, and customary family laws are limiting the rights of women and girls.
Ensure all African states adopt the Maputo Protocol: As the most progressive women’s rights agenda in the world, the Maputo Protocol is a binding legal framework that holds African governments to account for the continued violation of the rights of women and girls across the continent, including the types of abuses that spiked during COVID. When the protocol was established in 2003, the African Union set a 2020 deadline for ratification but 13 countries are yet to ratify. Equality Now calls on those remaining states to sign and ratify the protocol to protect the rights of women and girls.
Incorporate the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) into the US constitution: When it comes to guaranteeing constitutional equality on the basis of sex, the United States is an outlier. 85% of UN member states have explicit constitutional provisions that prohibit sex-based discrimination; however, the United States is not one of them. Equality Now calls on the United States to incorporate the ERA so that women, girls, and other marginalized genders have equal protection under the law.
We welcome the recent news that the US has rejoined the UN Humans Rights Council, and are hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration will continue to drive progress towards gender equality in the US and around the world.
Strengthen laws against sexual violence: In two upcoming reports, Equality Now will analyze rape laws in jurisdictions across the Americas and South Asia. These publications follow Equality Now’s 2017 publication The World’s Shame: The Global Rape Epidemic, and the 2019 report Roadblocks to Justice which analyzed sexual violence laws across Eurasia. Our research and legal analysis show that many countries are failing on their commitment to protecting women and girls from sexual violence and survivors are facing numerous barriers to accessing justice.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, we believe that these four priorities are critical to undoing the harms of the past year as well as creating a positive enabling environment for future reform and progress.
2021 is the year that we must build back equal. Are you in?