Will 2013 Be a Banner Year For Gender Equality Around the World?

At the end of January, as Hillary Clinton prepared to leave her position as U.S. Secretary of State, she emphasized how crucial expanding women’s rights and equality would be to current and future U.S. foreign policy. The need to focus on gender equality was not only a moral obligation, she explained, but important for international security and stability:

"[I]t’s not a coincidence that virtually every country that threatens regional and global peace is a place where human rights are in peril or the rule of law is weak. More specifically, places where women and girls are treated as second-class, marginal human beings. Just ask young Malala from Pakistan. Ask the women of northern Mali who live in fear and can no longer go to school. Ask the women of the Eastern Congo who endure rape as a weapon of war ... [T]he jury is in, the evidence is absolutely indisputable: If women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity, and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere. So this is not only a moral issue, which, of course, it is. It is an economic issue and a security issue, and it is the unfinished business of the 21st century. It therefore must be central to U.S. foreign policy."

Since Secretary Clinton has left office, the global women’s movement has continued to take off. 2013 appears to be a year that holds promise of substantive changes towards empowering women around the world. However, this promise can only be realized if governments around the world respond to their citizens’ cries for change. Whether or not governments will respond more effectively to gender inequality remains to be seen, but it is clear that citizens are becoming more vocal on the issue. 

On February 14, citizens around the world participated in the One Billion Rising movement to end violence against women and girls in what was most likely the largest campaign ever on this topic. As organizers of the campaign explained, "One of every three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends violated." However, One Billion Rising is more than just a one-time campaign, where participants take part in one day’s worth of events and then return to their normal routines. Rather, using the attention garnered worldwide, the organization and its partners urge that everyday citizens tackle difficult conversations on taboo topics; civil society groups that are affected by violence against women collaborate to procure creative solutions; leaders pay attention and take concrete actions to address discrimination against women in their societies.

Just a few days ago, on February 20, students and faculty of the University of Cape Town (UCT) through their #WeSayEnough campaign took steps to address violence against women and girls in South Africa. The protest march was in response to several tragic incidents involving crimes against women, including the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen. At the #WeSayEnough rally, Vice-Chancellor Max Price noted, "Our constitutional right to be safe in our homes and communities is breached hundreds of times every day, particularly for women and girls ... In this sense, government [has] failed society." Aside from criticizing the South African government for its failure to address the issue, the most notable aspect of the UCT protest was that students highlighted the role of males in ending violence against women, and the stakes that men have in the issue. As one student eloquently performs,

"Men, we are slowly losing our women and children; slowly forfeiting the future of our phenomenal nation in aspirations of rape, dominance, and discipline; slowly witnessing the demise of our sons and daughters ... blind to the responsibilities of protecting our families ... So our sons will inherit the martial arts of how to strike an innocent significant other; so our sons will falsely conclude that the male figure is a 'breadwinner' that would justify to trigger his fingers and plates or palms and plant as many arms in the name of domestic violence ... Have you heard the cries of our helpless women? Have you heard about their desperation to escape the mayhem, but can’t because father pays the bills and feeds the children? Have you heard about their misfortunes of being manacled in marriage as savage binded to the abuser by a little bundle of joy? Lastly, have you heard that she blames herself for not being able to bare him a boy? These are the realities that confront our modern day international sisters."

Similarly, thousands of miles away from South Africa, Stanford University students in California will attempt to build a similar movement to that of UCT’s outcry against violence against women and girls. The Stanford Association for International Development (SAID) is hosting the "Gender and International Development: Recentered" conference to address women’s roles in international development. Speakers including USAID Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg, President and CEO of Global Fund for Woman Musimbi Kanyoro, former President of Peru Alejandro Toledo, leader of the Ethiopian Unity for Democracy and Justice Party Birtukan Midekssa, and former head of UN Gender Program in Pakistan and current Director of Mehergarh Fouzia Saeed will be amongst those in attendance to address how the increased participation by women in government, education, entrepreneurship, and justice can increase international peace, security, and prosperity. While the event is not a protest, this year’s annual SAID conference theme is further proof that students are mobilizing on the important issue of gender equality.

However, even as civil society mobilizes against women’s disempowerment and exclusion from everyday societies which occurs in too many places of today’s world and citizens demand that 2013 be the year for the change, it is ultimately in the hands of governments and leaders to prioritize and create widespread gender equality.

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Jessica A. Pham

Jessica graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in International Relations.

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