By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka | Business Day | 14 June 2023
30 years ago I never thought we would still be fighting against child marriage, female genital mutilation, and ensuring access to basic reproductive and sexual health services.
The rights of women and girls are being eroded across the world. Over the past few years basic rights have been rolled back under a barrage of anti-feminist rhetoric and legislation that UN Women believes have greatly widened the global gender gap.
From young women prevented from attending high school in the Middle East to government targeting of women’s groups in Europe and Asia, the US rescinding the constitutional right to abortion care, and the persecution of women and girls in Afghanistan for violating Taliban decrees, we need to recognise the global threat to gender equality.
In SA we are far from immune to this worrying trend. The pandemic has worsened inequality and led to higher costs for basic health care. There was also an increase in violence against women, and many women bore the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic and beyond on families.
As Michelle Obama said a few years ago: the way a society treats its young women and girls is an indication of whether it will prosper or perish. When you deny sexual and reproductive health and rights — either through legislation or simply by making them unaffordable or inaccessible, forcing young women to have unplanned and unwanted pregnancies and births — you are fuelling poverty.
It is a nation’s youth who determine its rate of development, and countries where sexual and reproductive health and rights services are being denied are the countries failing to break poverty cycles.
There are times where I find it hard to believe that, in 2023, we still require such vehement activism. I did so 30 years ago, and never thought we would still be fighting against child marriage, female genital mutilation, and ensuring access to basic reproductive and sexual health services. Yet for the situation not to get worse we have to keep talking, keep fighting, and build a new generation of activists.
One of the major reasons I began working with Women Deliver is its focus on catalysing conversations with activists from across the world, regardless of their age and background, to advance gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. There is a nuanced understanding in this organisation that the solutions to gender disparity will be vastly different depending on region, history, and cultural context, which is why we need the views of young people to do relevant work. I think it is important that young women pilot these efforts — to show up, take up, and fiercely push back against exclusion.
It is vital that we remind girls and women that they are most of the planet’s population, and their perspectives are important. When you’re not invited to the table, bring your own chair. Many young activists are already able to share their views on social media, and finding these new avenues and platforms is essential. However, it is our role as established activists to help galvanise the youth and harness this political will into tangible action.
My go-to advice for this new generation? Join feminist movements, educate those around you — not just online — and insist that your government legislate the protection of women and girls. We must act as though we are fighting for our rights from scratch because if we don’t, the backlash will continue and societies will continue to devolve.
But this action shouldn’t only be the burden of women — especially young women. We ask a lot of women, and our plates are already full. Boys and men need to realise their role in the gender disparity conundrum. We need men to do the right thing and join us in the struggle for equality.
Parents need to invest in educating their girls. Businesses must transform their policies to ensure equity among their employees, and policymakers and governments must listen to and involve young people — particularly, young women — in creating the laws that affect their lives. Civil society groups must be the watchdogs.
It is the duty of the Women Deliver board to set goals that are measurable and shine the light of accountability when those in power are off-track. That is one of our central goals at the 2023 Women Deliver conference; to gather the changemakers, policymakers, activists and content creators to help set these targets.
As Women Deliver president and CEO Maliha Khan recently said: “Make your voice heard and create the space for other marginalised voices to be heard. Let us unite and forge a path towards a future that embraces equality.”
Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka, a former deputy president of SA, UN under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women, chairs the board of Women Deliver.