Gender equality has drifted in and out of political dialogue for decades. The contentious issue seems to get repeatedly sidelined, yet what most world leaders fail to understand is that it is the root cause of a multitude of contemporary, global problems. Peace without gender equality is impossible. Since it has been almost two years since Emma Watson’s profound “He for She” address as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Women, we must ask ourselves: where are we now?
This week Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), highlighted the necessity of gender equality and youth engagement in combating humanitarian crises. Dr Osotimehin claims that “family planning is probably the most important intervention you can give to liberate a woman’s energy and life,” a powerful statement that must be echoed worldwide. Considering that 75% of people affected by conflict today are women and children, it is evident that women’s rights and gender equality are becoming dangerously compromised in today’s global environment. Despite the recent introduction of gender-neutral bathrooms, gender equality is so much more than reducing the victimisation of women or the further representation of women in leadership positions. It is the call for a new social narrative that fairly encompasses the experiences of both men and women worldwide, ultimately leading to world peace.
In light of Menstrual Hygiene Day on the 28 May, alarming images of menstruating Nepalese girls in forced isolation emerged to clearly illustrate how opposed small pockets of the world are in the fight for gender equality. Traditional cultural superstitions have culminated in a significant restriction on women’s rights, as non-government organisation WaterAid has recently discussed. Looking into mirrors are forbidden whilst girls are on their periods, as are touching flowers, fruit and vegetables because it is believed that they will infect them with their “demons”. Compounding the severity of the problem, 1 billion women don’t have access to a toilet during menstruation. The lack of menstrual hygiene and unbelievable social myths of south-Nepal communities showcases only one perspective on the necessity to prioritise women’s rights as a basic, human ethical standard.
Additionally, the recent UN World Humanitarian Summit featured the launch of UNFPA’s ‘Safe Birth Even Here’ initiative, demonstrating the positive infiltration of gender equality into the public health agenda. As a consequence of humanitarian crises, 500 women die in pregnancy or childbirth every day due to a lack of access to quality medical services. This is definitely a positive step forward in improving the lives of vulnerable women and will act as an important precedent for future international gender equality campaigns. Furthermore, UN Women has announced the goal to have a ’50-50’ planet by 2030, an objective that can be met through a grassroots solution and changing the traditional narrative of women. Social stigmas and regressive traditions can be eliminated through education, rather than amplified in an attempt to preserve cultural identities. The tragedy that only two Chibok girls have escaped the captivity of Boko Haram should be enough to revive global interest in the plight of women’s rights. Reluctance to act can no longer be an option; the world has done that for too many years already.
The promotion of women’s rights is in everyone’s interests; it is not just to the benefit of women and children. As Emma Watson proclaimed, ‘if not me, who? If not now, when?’ It is essential that gender equality is recognised as a vital element in the equation to prevent conflict and maintain international peace.