Recommitting to achieving gender equality only became more necessary in 2021 as progress continued to stall in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The global public health crisis has added 36 years to the amount of time it will take to close the gender gap, which means it will now take approximately 13.5 years for women and men to reach parity. Poor economic growth across countries is mostly to blame.
As women and girls continue to carry the weight of unpaid care and domestic work and continue to be passed up for leadership roles, gender inequality persists. Women’s employment rates have plummeted and domestic violence rates and legal discrimination steadily climb in countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria.
But that hasn’t stopped global citizens, activists, and lawmakers from persevering to ensure women and girls’ rights are defended and improved. Governments still banned harmful practices like child marriage, leaders eliminated the discriminatory tampon tax, and women leaders won historic elections.
Here’s a list of 12 celebratory moments for women and girls in 2021 that serve as a reminder to keep up the fight to achieve gender equality worldwide.
1. The Tokyo Olympics Became the Most Gender Equal Games in History
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) took several steps to promote gender equality across events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July. Changes to the highly anticipated event included requirements for teams to have equal gender representation, 4% more female athletes participating than at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, new competition categories for women, and double the number of mixed-gender events. IOC also made efforts to improve representation within the organization.
Many welcomed the efforts yet others pointed out that women still have several barriers to overcome, from funding gaps to less news coverage.
2. Two US States Banned Child Marriage
Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee signed a bill prohibiting children under the age of 18 to marry in June. Prior to the legislation, children as young as 16 could obtain marriage licenses with permission from a parent or guardian. Children younger than 16 could also get married if they held a family court hearing. Despite having the right to marry, children who entered these marriages could not legally file for divorce.
A month later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill raising the legal age of consent for marriage to 18 without exceptions. The age of consent had previously been raised to 17 with parental or judicial consent four years earlier, when activists warned that parental or judicial consent allowed child marriage to continue, especially in situations where parents push religious and cultural traditions.
3. New Zealand Passed a Bill Guaranteeing Paid Leave for Miscarriages and Stillbirths
As of March, couples who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths are legally eligible to receive three days of paid leave. New Zealand’s parliament unanimously voted on the measure after the law was in development for several years. The country became the second in the world, after India, to mandate such a law.
Previous regulations required employers in New Zealand to provide paid leave only for stillbirths, which occur when a couple loses a fetus after 20 weeks or more. Couples who experienced miscarriages or stillbirths before that window had to ask for sick leave. The new law allows anyone who loses a pregnancy at any stage to qualify without having to show proof.
4. Two Countries Eliminated the Tampon Tax
The UK abolished its 5% tampon tax on period products in January. UK activists had called for an end to the discriminatory tax for decades, and in 2016, advocate Laura Coryton launched a petition supporting the effort that received more than 300,000 signatures that moved the effort forward.
“There are not enough social and economic circumstances to create safety for young women,” Emma Theofelus, Namibia’s deputy minister of information and communication technology, declared following the announcement.
5. France’s Universities Started Requiring Free Period Products
Free period products became mandatory in French universities in February with an aim to implement the regulation fully by September. The mandate required schools to install free tampons and pad dispensers in campus health centers and dormitories.
6. Estonia Elected Its First Woman Prime Minister
Kaja Kallas became Estonia’s first woman prime minister in January. Kallas, a 43-year-old lawyer and leader of Estonia’s Reform party, took office after a far-right EKRE party coalition ruled for two years. The prime minister’s win made Estonia one of the few countries where women hold the positions of both prime minister and head of state (President Kersti Kaljulaid took office in 2016).
7. Air India Made History With an All-Woman Pilot Crew Flying Across the World
A group of four women completed the longest non-stop commercial flight ever operated by an Indian national airline from South India to the US between Bengaluru and San Francisco in January. Air India’s flight 176, a Boeing 777, marked the first time an all-women pilots team flew over the North Pole.
8. The Dominican Republic Banned Child Marriage
Dominican President Luis Abinader signed a bill into law banning child marriage under the age of 18 in January. Women’s rights campaigners warned that the country’s culture would need to shift to view women as more than housewives for the new legislation to be observed. A report conducted by UNICEF and the World Bank in 2017 showed that banning child marriage and early unions in the Dominican Republic would decrease the country’s poverty rate by 10%.
9. The German Government Passed a Bill Requiring Companies to Hire More Women on Boards
Germany’s cabinet approved legislation in January requiring publicly listed companies to have at least one woman on their management boards. The bill also included stricter gender equality guidelines for government companies and required boards with more than two members to have at least one woman.
The legislation is an extension of a quota introduced in 2015 that requires publicly listed companies with more than three management board members to allocate 30% of supervisory boards to women. The new law impacted around 70 companies, 30 of which did not have any women on management boards, according to a joint statement released by Germany’s family and justice ministries.
10. Samoa Elected Its First Female Prime Minister
Fiame Naomi Mataafa became the first female prime minister in Samoa’s history in May.
After head of state Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II attempted to overturn the election results, Samoa’s top court overruled his opposition and refused a post-election decision to add a parliamentary seat to the long-standing Human Rights Protection Party.
Fiame’s Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (or Faith in the One True God) party secured a victory 26-25. She become only the second woman throughout the Pacific to lead a government, following the election of Hilda Heine as president of the Marshall Islands in 2016.
11. France Passed a Measure to Offer Free Contraception to Women Under 25
France became the latest country in the European Union to offer free contraception in September. Women under the age of 25 will be eligible to receive access to free birth control in the country starting on Jan. 1, 2022. The government allocated about 21 million euros (almost $25 million) to cover several methods of contraception including IUDs, birth control pills, and contraceptive implants, as well as medical appointments, tests, or other medical procedures related to procuring birth control.
The move was in response to the government noticing a decline in the use of contraceptives among a certain group of young women. Many young women who are no longer covered under their parents’ health care plans end up giving up contraception because of the expense. The government decided that at 25 years old, women tend to have more autonomy due to economic situation, social life, and income.
12. The World’s Richest Countries Agreed to Send 4 Million Girls to School Within 5 Years
Members of the G7 — the world’s most developed economies — signed an agreement to help send 40 million more girls to school within five years at a G7 foreign and development ministers’ summit in London in May. Through the push to collectively agree to a commitment of a $15 billion (£10.8 billion) two-year support package, G7 countries will also aim to ensure 20 million more girls can read by the age of 10.
The new goals will help young women achieve 12 years of education. Through the pledge, G7 governments are also recommitting to promote sexual and reproductive health while increasing gender-based violence prevention and elimination.