Aug 05, 2021
On 2 July 2021, the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) concluded in Paris. Headlines trumpeted the announcement of an unprecedented funding pledge of USD$40 billion and a new set of "revolutionary commitments" to accelerate efforts for gender equality across the globe. The 3-day gathering convened by UN Women and the French government under the theme, "Moving from Rhetoric to Action," culminated the international conference that began in Mexico City in March.
An estimated 50,000 people, including Heads of State, members of civil society, feminist and women's rights organizations, youth, philanthropists, and leaders from the private sector, gathered virtually and physically to assess where we are today and to recommit to gender equality. There was consensus that despite important gains since the milestone 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, the path to progress has been disappointingly slow. In fact, the participants expressed a heightened sense of urgency and concern in light of the Covid pandemic and a rise in fundamentalist and right-wing movements, which have further eroded or even reversed many hard-won gains for women's rights.
Against this backdrop, and with so many investments and expectations built up over the years, GEF Paris was intended to be a momentous occasion and a unique opportunity to spotlight and advance gender equality. The celebration of the glossy outcomes of GEF, however, masks highly problematic dynamics that undercut the stated goals.
Unlike its predecessors--Beijing Women's Conference and GEF Mexico--the Paris Forum implemented excessively restrictive and rigid guidelines and rules that stifled the meaningful participation and inclusion of many women, especially those from targeted groups and the Global South.
In a world where the defense of women's rights and gender equality are under attack, this exclusion served to further politically marginalize and jeopardize those constituencies and undermine much-needed feminist movement momentum and solidarity.
What went wrong? A Paris detour on the road to equality
From the outset, there were challenges. A highly restrictive approach to the selection of civil society and feminist movement sessions for GEF Paris, arguably the heart of gender equality agenda-setting, began with the allocation of a mere 45 session slots. Feminist groups were stunned to learn that none of the approved sessions included a focus on sex workers, women with disabilities, or trans-inclusive LBTI spaces, thus excluding entire constituencies and the kind of robust political discussion needed to advance the full rights of millions of women.
JASS (Just Associates) and the Urgent Action Fund-Africa's session, "Our Bodies, Our Land: Women Human Rights Defenders Leading Protection of Life & Land" was among that small pool of sessions approved by GEF. Our initial enthusiasm quickly dimmed as we encountered the many barriers that made GEF Paris difficult, risky, and even impossible for many women activists to participate.
"By comparison--and in spite of social media--GEF seemed much more like an insider's game with all of these processes of applying and getting accepted for a small number of places," comments Joanne Sandler, a JASS Board Co-chair who was working with UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the Ms. Foundation for women during the planning for the Beijing Conference in 1995.
Session applications were accompanied by a dense and daunting set of rules. Perhaps most notably was an extraordinary and mandatory consent form that granted GEF permission to use the images of all session presenters in whatever way they wanted for up to a year. When we raised safety concerns, given the risks that high-profile exposure can incur for women activists and human rights defenders, the Forum organizers were unbending as though safety was not a priority, nor viewed as an integral part of gender equality.
The session format was a non-negotiable 45 minutes with tight regulation of every aspect, including approval of videos and run of show. We were prohibited from developing our own social media promotions for our event and mandated to use their approved templates, messaging, and presentation, "to ensure the harmonization of the programme." The unfamiliar and difficult platform entailed a steep learning curve and access challenges. Many participants reported either not receiving the registration link or having bad or intermittent transmission during the session. We have not been provided with a recording of our session and have received no assurance that we will. An international coalition of disability alliances registered a complaint about the lack of accessibility for the 19.2% of all women who have some sort of disability.
But most problematic, especially for women and movements in the Global South was the condescending tone, and frankly, neo-colonial norms which presenters had to navigate. GEF Paris organizers required a dress code prohibiting, "prints such as stripes or polka dots," ostensibly for video clarity. Almost unbelievably, the organizers were unwilling and unprepared to support simultaneous interpretation, and only after much negotiation, agreed to allow Spanish but not Bahasa translation, despite our offer to provide the interpreter. As a result, we had to use consecutive interpretation for our speaker from Indonesia, cutting into our already short session. The French organizers showed similar inflexibility on scheduling, despite knowing the countries of our participants in advance. Our speaker from Honduras could not attend what would have been a 3 AM session for her and submitted a recording instead.
The situation was so challenging that we had to confer several times with our group of presenters to hear if they wanted to go forward. Despite the many obstacles, they felt it was still critical for women human rights defenders to claim this political space and bring attention to their important work. After much deliberation with them and other allies, we went ahead with our session as a sign of solidarity and commitment to support their struggles. JASS and our Count Me In! Consortium partners also developed and shared a dissent statement, "The GEF guidelines and rules pose unnecessary, exclusionary, oftentimes colonial, and even risky obstacles to WHRDs in terms of language justice, cultural expression, time zone and accessibility of the platform--obstacles that once again diminish and invisibilize the perspectives and agendas of feminists in the global South and structurally excluded people everywhere."
Taken together, these barriers, whether by design or not, restricted women's voices and diminished their political contributions to what should have been a dynamic and exciting space of engagement for women activists from around the world.
From Beijing to Paris - a brief comparison
Undeniably, the celebrated 1995 Beijing Women's Conference had its shortcomings as well. The host, the Chinese government, censored and controlled access, including cutting off part of Hillary Clinton's speech and making no provisions for differently-abled people. And yet, despite these exclusions, the conference went down in history as a groundbreaking moment in women's rights. It opened up space for discussion and forged connections among thousands of participants and their organizations, placing women's equality squarely on global and national agendas. The dynamic convergence of women activists from diverse movements all over the world alongside government officials created an exciting, accessible, and inclusive forum for political discussion on a range of important issues. The result was a bold agenda to gender equality that would drive meaningful political, social, and economic gains for women in the subsequent decades.
Similarly, GEF Mexico made a concrete effort to include a wide range of women's organizations in civil society and encouraged parallel processes in both the preparations and the proceedings. The co-organizers--the Mexican government and UN Women--provided simultaneous language translations and the Forum was hosted on the widely-used Zoom platform, which eased access and usability. GEF Paris, however, as demonstrated in the preceding section, was altogether different.
What now and what next?
The approach taken by GEF Paris ran counter to a commitment of creating a truly global space for gender equality. In the end, the Forum was an exclusive and controlled global space. It certainly was not the political space many Global South feminists needed and wanted.
It raises the question of whose agenda and interests were served and why? How can we ensure that multilateral spaces such as this one, center the voices and participation of women who have been historically and structurally marginalized?
While we welcome the six priority areas led by the associated Action Coalitions underpinning the Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality, we worry whether these fully reflect the needs and ambitions of the diverse movements working for gender equality.
As we look to 2026--the next benchmark review of progress--we hope for clear mechanisms of accountability for tracking the committed funds and goals. Most of all, we hope that those communities at the forefront of gender equality work--and ironically, most excluded in the agenda-setting of GEF Paris--are the main beneficiaries in the translation and implementation of the grand vision and path to gender equality.
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