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UN Gender Equality Forum will focus on labor

June 29, 2021

A gender equality forum is taking place in Paris 26 years after the previous such global gathering in Beijing. It is an important event, as gender equality benefits not just women, but societies as a whole.

Roula Seghaier yells into a megaphone at a march in Lebanon in 2019
The Tunisian activist Seghaier is bringing a critique of labor policy to the forum in ParisImage: Ahmad Abu Salem

Co-chaired by France and Mexico, UN Women's Generation Equality Forum in Paris will take place from June 30 to July 2 and feature 100 discussion panels, more than 700 speakers and delegates from 150 countries. The roundtables will revolve around four main topic areas: economic justice, sexual and reproductive rights, gender violence, and how to defend women's rights.

Gary Barker, one of the forum's panelists and the CEO of the Brazil-based NGO Promundo, which engages men as allies for gender equality, told DW that the binding agreements from the forum would have an impact on people around the world.

A bearded Gary Barker smiles in a grey sports coat with a dark blue collared shirt and tie
Barker, whose NGO supports male allies, says there has been a misogynist backlashImage: Privat

"For those of us who are activists, who hold our governments accountable, these agreements will allow us to say for example: 'Hey, government, why aren't you doing more to protect women against violence?" he said.

Barker said many societies had made strides toward gender equality since the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 — but, he added, there have also been regressions.

"We've got surveys in the US, Canada, the UK and Denmark showing that upwards of half of young men think feminism has gone too far," Barker said. "Brazil's voting pattern has also seen a move backwards. And you've had a conservative religious movement pushing back on a gender equality agenda in Mexico and parts of Central America."

'Shape the process'

Shantel Marekera, who grew up in Zimbabwe and is currently a Rhodes scholar in law at the University of Oxford, told DW that the fact that efforts toward equality can stall according to governments' whims makes the forum's binding agreements are all the more important. "The government of Botswana could, for example, later on create a legislation that forbids genital mutilation — and women on the ground won't even know that that's down to the country's commitment at the forum," said Marekera, who will speak at the event's opening ceremony and also participate in one of the panels.

Marekera was raised by her grandmother and only managed to go to universities abroad, because she was selected for highly competitive scholarship programs: "But many young girls in my native community, Glen View 8, which is part of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, will never get such a chance — also as parents tend to favor the boy child, who is supposed to carry on the legacy of the family. Girls are to be married off."

To at least partly balance that out, Marekera, now in her 20s, set up her own NGO, the Little Dreamers Foundation, which has opened its own preschool. But she's confident that this week's forum will help push for change. It will bring together community leaders and village chiefs who have more influence in their comunities than international organizations such as the UN do, she said.

"Plus, for the first time, young people will have a place at the decision table instead of just being participants," Marekera said. "We will have the power to shape the process."

Another first is that representatives of the private sector will also have a seat at the table — and be asked to make concrete commitments to gender equality.

"There is an overwhelming amount of research that countries that achieve closer to gender equality are safer and better for men, as well," Barker said. "Men live longer and are healthier; we report better relationships with our partners and our children."

"Countries that come out higher on the global rankings of gender equality, in Scandinavia, parts of Western Europe, and North America, have lower homicide rates, and better public security rates," he said.

Promoting gender equality in India

Preventing labor exploitation

Roula Seghaier, the strategic program coordinator at the International Domestic Workers Federation, told DW that tracking household and care labor was essential to gender equality. The federation represents 580,000 domestic workers worldwide: 80% of them are women.

"Domestic and care work is still seen as an extension of womanhood, and that's why it's underpaid in a lot of parts of the world," said Seghaier, who will appear on the Feminist Economic Recovery and Transformation of the Care System panel at the forum. She added that many governments have underfunded education, health care and nursing services and used meagerly paid domestic workers to fill the gaps.

Disrupting that model would be to the benefit of everybody, said Seghaier, who is from Tunisia. "Increasing the wages of domestic workers would mean less people could afford them in the short run," Seghaier said. 

That would create a care crisis that governments would have to respond to by opening up affordable institutions. "And so, after a transition period, these public services would indeed become affordable," she said. "Employers would have more disposable income and be more willing to have domestic workers and pay adequate wages," she added, using South Africa as an example. "People there first argued a minimum wage for domestic workers would create more unemployment," Seghaier said. "But the opposite happened, and it led to a more prosperous economy."

"Domestic and care workers are the people on the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis, without whom we wouldn't have been able to reproduce our livelihoods," Seghaier said. "So, when we think about a recovery, we do not need to recover to the status quo. We need to recover to a world that's better."

But, Barker said, the message of a better world through gender equality has not gotten through to everybody: "Our feminist activism has too much been around this zero-sum game idea that women's gains mean men's losses."

Changing that message might be one of the biggest challenges of this year's women's forum and the ones to come.