Gender sense is common sense…but we need to work together

'But isn’t that all just common sense’, someone said during the London press conference for the launch of UN Women's Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016 report held on 27 April. It was a similar sentiment expressed at the subsequent launch event which I attended.’Progress for women is progress for all’, states UN Women's Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and ‘when you have a gender diverse presence in companies they perform better’.

Gender rights should be at the heart of discussions about equal rights. Yet apparently it isn't a message that is being translated into progressive economic and social policies for women, and women's rights and gender equity are still falling far short. And developed countries need not be complacent, the figures from the report show it to be quite clearly a universal issue. But as noted during the launch discussion, there is very little in the current UK election debates about women's issues.

Figures quoted at the event made for discouraging listening. In the European Union 75 per cent of women in management and higher professional positions reported to have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Globally, in their lifetimes, one out of three women experience some form of sexual or physical violence. Around the world 82 per cent of domestic workers are women, women who are often in poorly paid jobs and unable to access social protection – yet only 17 countries have signed the International Labour Organisation Convention on Domestic Workers. The UK is not one of them. On average, globally, women earn 24 per cent less than men. And in 2014, across six of the most influential global economic institutions, women's representation on their boards ranged from 4 to 20 per cent. Participation in decision making in both governance and business is so shockingly low that at this rate we will have to wait 50 years for equity, predicts Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Her rallying cry ‘not on our watch’ must be met with strong determination by women's rights activists across the world.

It is, however, not all doom and gloom. The report sets out ten priorities for public action around issues such as decent work; recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work; strengthening women's income security; and supporting women’s organising. Laura Turquet, Progress of the World's Women Report Manager, gave the example of lower income countries like Bolivia and Botswana which have already implemented elements of progressive social policy – social pensions that don’t require prior contributions that can lift women out of poverty in old age. Dotted throughout the report are positive stories of change including the example of a transformative social protection programme initiated in Egypt with which Pathways of Women's Empowerment was involved. The programme, based on feminist principles and inspired by similar initiatives in Latin America, has seen positive associated impacts such as improvements in children's school results and decreases in incidences of domestic violence.

One of the most striking impressions I took away from the launch was the importance of collective action. One of Pathways of Women’s Empowerment’s key findings is that women's organising is vital for sustainable change. At the launch Pathways director, Andrea Cornwall, emphasised the importance of recognising the fundamental role of multiple activisms in driving change. She cited the example of the Brazilian feminist activist-politician, Cristina Buarque, who turned an existing safety net programme in her state into a transformative model which worked for women.

My colleagues in BRIDGE, have also noted the importance of engaging on issues of women's rights across social movements, and a clear example of the effectiveness of activism across multiple sites was given by one of the speakers at the launch, Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladeshi Center for Workers Solidarity. Akter described how, following the Rana Plaza disaster, in which 1,137 people were killed most of whom were women garment workers, collective action by international NGOs, consumer groups and workers unions has applied pressure on clothing companies to sign a new legally binding accord which addresses health and safety issues within the Bangladesh garment industry. This does, however, highlight a big gap in global governance, as Laura Turquet observed, there is a need for responsibility on human and legal rights across borders.

It is undeniably evident that there is still much to be done for positive change on women's rights, and we need to continually fight and be constantly observant of the risk of regression – particularly in an era of austerity. This year, however, marks a pivotal moment for taking stock of where the world stands on these issues and pushing for implementation of progressive policies around the priorities outlined in the UN Women report. A first step is to make women aware of their rights and to create critical consciousness: as Andrea Cornwall noted, to enable women to become aware their ‘right to have rights’.

Collective action follows on from this. The panel were asked for the one thing that would make most difference to realising gender, economic and social justice. Cornwall called for ‘unconditional cash transfers for women's rights organisations to allow them to set their own agendas’. For Akter, it was to recognise the power we all have: ‘consumers have the power to make a difference for decent work’. And Phumzile called on us all now to have conversations with our politicians about the need to talk about women and to hold them to account for delivering on women's rights/ making women's rights real.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Women's Empowerment Research Programme Consortium

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