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Women’s equality at a tipping point

Foto de Julie Delahanty

Julie Delahanty

President, IDRC

Julie Delahanty was appointed IDRC’s president and CEO, effective July 4, 2023. Julie brings tremendous expertise and experience to her leadership role based on nearly 30 years in the international development field.

The push for gender equality around the world has improved the lives of women and girls – more girls are in school, fewer are forced into early marriage, and women’s voices are increasingly prevalent in shaping government policies worldwide. 

And yet, global progress on women’s rights is “vanishing before our eyes,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned earlier this year, citing UN Women estimates that, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 300 years before women achieve equality

Climate change, conflict and COVID-19 have conspired to set back women’s rights, threatening progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — specifically Goal 5, which seeks to achieve gender equality and empowerment for all women. 

Globally in access to financial services, own only 20% of the world’s land and spend, on average, twice as much time on housework and other unpaid activities as men. Every day, almost 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

This confluence of global crises and entrenched hurdles places women's equality at a tipping point.

As leaders and advocates from around the world gather in Kigali, Rwanda for Women Deliver 2023, one of the most important global conferences on women and girls’ equality, they must empower local women’s rights organizations and spearhead collective action to reverse these unjust trends.

Transformative change is needed — and it is needed now — to build on progress and solve intractable challenges that are relegating women’s equality to a distant goal. 

Feminist researchers have long emphasized the importance of addressing deeply rooted and structural gendered power relations to move the needle on women’s equality. 

Gender-transformative research starts from these premises, seeking to examine, question and unseat rigid gender norms and power imbalances. Looking at how to tackle both these power structures and the attitudes, norms and behaviours that perpetuate gender inequality is key to transformative change.

Projects and programs that embody a gender-transformative approach have grown over the past two decades, with women’s rights organizations and movements on the vanguard of building evidence on the conditions that lead to change. IDRC is working to build and support more of that empirical evidence. 

IDRC commissioned a study to examine a decade of projects from 2008 to 2018 to uncover common patterns, findings and lessons. From a sampling of 219 research projects, six were chosen for study. They demonstrated that to activate change, development and humanitarian actors must step up efforts to engage those who hold power and perpetrate inequality.

In Egypt, where more than 95% of women have experienced sexual harassment at least once, a real-time map crowdsourced data and testimonial on sexual violence overturned misconceptions about violence toward women. A network of young researchers, activists and volunteers leveraged the data, galvanizing communities and authorities to create safe zones in harassment hotspots and even influenced the development and implementation of a sexual harassment policy at Cairo University, ensuring women’s safety in the public sphere.

IDRC continues to invest in gender-transformative approaches through initiatives like the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa initiative, which recognizes that empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work are critical to achieving gender equality. 

In Kenya’s construction industry, GrOW-supported researchers are studying the effectiveness of an innovative initiative that fosters entry and retention of women in the country’s construction sector. In this rapidly growing sector worth USD4.4 billion, women account for only 3% of the workforce. More construction jobs could transform women’s ability to feed, educate and sustain their families. Early findings are exploring how training providers, employers, and governments can ensure a greater number of women are supported as they break barriers in this booming industry and other male-dominated sectors. 

Ultimately, gender-transformative approaches must be bold and ambitious, leverage feminist theory and values, and clearly outline what norms, attitudes, structures and behaviours this approach to research has targeted for change. 

Further, organizations and their leaders must remain responsive, sharpen their skills and their understanding of the evidence, and amplify their findings to inspire new experimentation, new research and new granting partnerships toward achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls.

We at IDRC are making important strides in nurturing a shared vision and understanding of gender-transformative principles across our organization and embedded in the research we support. Our gender equality and inclusion programming framework, for instance, is guiding the integration of gender and inclusion in the research we fund in a consistent and systematic manner, allowing us to lay the foundations for greater impact for and by women around the world.

As part of our commitment to decolonize knowledge systems and international assistance, we worked collaboratively with an interdisciplinary group of IDRC and Southern experts from around the globe to develop a gender equality and inclusion glossary. Because language for matters relating to gender equality and inclusion are context-specific, constantly evolving and often contested, the glossary provides our partners with a shared understanding of concepts and constructs. 

Mounting evidence demonstrates that to improve the lives of women and their communities, investments in Southern-led feminist research and locally led empirical solutions must increase. 

Women’s equality is at a turning point. In spite of marked progress made by women and girls around the globe, the triple threat of climate change, conflict and COVID-19 have slowed or eradicated their gains and set them back decades. 

Women Deliver 2023 marks an important moment in the ongoing work to build momentum and galvanize support for transformative change. We must seize opportunities to set women on the path to equality, shifting attitudes and perceptions, shining a light on women’s contributions and enshrining women’s equality into policy and practice.

Because losing hard-won and much-needed progress is not an option. Women cannot, and will not, wait 300 years for equality.