What’s at Stake?
Promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women is key to ending extreme poverty worldwide. Closing gender gaps, providing access to sexual and reproductive health and making education accessible to all women and girls uplifts communities

The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) has been 25 years in the making, and a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic is not stopping the opportunity to push gender equality efforts forward. 

The international conference is convened by UN Women, the United Nations’ organization dedicated to empowering women, and co-chaired by France and Mexico in partnership with youth and civil society. After kicking off March 29 through March 31 in Mexico City, the GEF will culminate in Paris from June 30 through July 2. 

Lopa Banerjee, UN Women director, civil society division & executive coordinator, Generation Equality Forum, is bringing years of experience in fighting against gender-based violence and advocating women’s media representation to the GEF to ensure that it upholds the feminist and inclusive principles it was founded on.

Global Citizen spoke with Banerjee ahead of the GEF to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted feminist movements, about gender equality commitments that have already been made to support the GEF, and more. 

Global Citizen: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted feminist movements?

Lopa Banerjee: The Generation Equality Forum is the next biggest movement for gender equality after the last big mobilization towards gender equality was leading up to the 1995 Fourth World Conference [on Women]. We've seen progress, but progress has also stalled. There has been regression. We've seen different kinds of pushback against gender equality. We have seen war, conflict, all kinds of socioeconomic phenomena in the environment that have led to a decline in gender equality.

Before COVID, at the 25-year mark of the Fourth World Conference on women, we were already in a world of profound inequality, whether it was related to gender-based violence, whether it was related to unpaid care work, whether it was related to women's leadership, whether it was related to women, peace, and security and the presence of women as peace negotiators — we were falling way, way behind. 

People who are already structurally excluded and marginalized felt the impact of that. People of color, LGBTI communities, Indigenous groups, refugees and migrants, and already marginalized groups felt the impact much more at one level. At another level, 70% of health care and frontline workers were women. Civil society organizations, women's rights groups, [and] young feminist organizations revamped to become service providers in communities because the state was not able to deliver at the scale that was required. Community organizations and communities repurposed themselves to become first responders and service providers and communities, but at what cost to them? To themselves, at cost of physical safety and cost ... they were already underfunded. 

Enduring COVID, those funds shrank further because whatever funds [they had] were repurposed to provide emergency response. It's not that new movements were born, but the movement organized itself differently in order to respond to the pandemic. A whole new means of mobilization was born.

Which investments and policies are you hoping to see announced at the GEF in Paris and why are they crucial to achieving gender equality?

We have already seen over 1,500 commitments coming through. Some of the crucial actions where we're seeing a lot of commitments coming through are radical steps to end violence against women and girls. We are seeing funding coming through for this, including accelerated introduction and implementation of laws and policies to prohibit all forms of gender-based violence. 

The actions focus on protecting 515 million more women and girls worldwide from gender-based violence. We are also seeing a big set of commitments coming through around the globe [that] will be set on care, work, and equal pay, and on policy efforts to recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work alongside the creation of an additional 18 million decent care jobs. 

How can applying a gender lens to COVID-19 recovery efforts around the world accelerate the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action?

We have already seen how severely affected and how fragile gender equality gains had been that they were rolled back so quickly during COVID. Any recovery from COVID to ensure sustainability has to centralize gender equality because unless it does that, it is not systemic transformation. Building back from COVID has to be about systemic transformation. We are already seeing that, for example, in the United States, if you look at the stimulus package, it focuses so strongly on care. 

This is an opportunity to transform these systems and therefore address some of these fundamentals around care work, around women's leadership and participation, around gender-based violence, around the participation of women in the economy, around addressing the gender digital divide. Some of these systemic issues are absolutely crucial to building back from COVID for a sustainable future that will prepare us for the next pandemic so that we are in a space where systemic transformation has already taken place so that we are not unequal to begin with when the next pandemic hits and it will, we know this new science tells us this already.

What are some of the biggest challenges to engaging civil society in the gender equality fight? How can everyday people get involved to support?

Civil society has been at the forefront of the fight for gender equality and UN Women is grounded in this. It was formed out of civil society activism and civil society is a central constituency for UN Women overall and for the Generation Equality Forum in particular. Civil society, like many other sectors, has tensions, has issues. What is crucial is this movement building that is intergenerational so that we draw from young people who are there and are leading and mobilizing in very different ways and who are both the present and the future because they form the largest population in the world. 

Second is looking at intersectional and inclusive partnerships. The need for this is both a challenge and an opportunity. It has tried to expand the constituency of advocates for gender equality, bringing together new advocates with older advocates and existing advocates, and creating new cohorts and solidarity and partnerships for gender equality. 

Register right away [for the Generation Equality Forum]. You can be part of the conversation. It is not an event. It has been a movement over the last two years and it is a movement for the next five years and beyond. There is time. And if you haven't joined already, join, be part of the forum, be part of the future so that we can draw on your leadership and activism.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.  

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