Generation Equality Forum – the Paris edition: More bold commitments, less empty promises

by Vany Cortés, Universal Rights Group Geneva Gender equality, Thematic human rights issues

On 30 June, UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the second session of the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) alongside UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and French President Emmanuel Macron. The GEF is a global gathering co-organised by UN Women and the Governments of France and Mexico in close cooperation with youth activists and civil society organisations from around the world. The GEF 2021 consisted of two sessions, which were aimed at reviewing progress made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 26 years ago and addressing current challenges, including climate change and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s lives. 

The Forum started with a first edition in March hosted in Mexico City and concluded on 2 July in Paris with a three-day event enlightened by diverse participation and bold commitments. The Paris forum online platform gathered more than 40,000 viewers across the world and was attended by Heads of State, members of governments from the Global North and Global South, the private sector and civil society activists. Youth and women human rights defenders were always at the centre of the discussion. The result? A set of 1,000 progressive commitments, USD 40 billion in investments, and the Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality, a 5-year road map to champion women’s rights and accelerate gender equality by 2026. 

The GEF shares similarities with the four UN World Conferences on Women held between 1975 and 1995, where States have previously come together to establish a global agenda on women’s rights. However, the GEF proposals also have a number of specific and unique features that stand to make gender equality a reality once and for all. 

Stop talking and start funding!

Contrary to the Beijing Platform for Action and previous World Conferences on Women, it seems this time there is more sincere support and engagement from stakeholders, including States, members of civil society and the private sector. Paraphrasing GEF Ambassador and General Secretary Delphine O, one particularity of this Forum is that while every State was invited to participate, not all were admitted as they had to fulfil a condition: stakeholders were required to submit at least one feasible commitment. The idea behind this was that only actors truly willing to make a difference over the next five years were encouraged to join the event. Additionally, the proposed actions were subject to States’ capacity, meaning that States from the Global North pledged primarily (but not exclusively) to invest and finance, whereas developing countries mainly committed to adopting or amending policies and laws. 

Lack of investment and support has been commonly identified as the main obstacle to implementing and adopting measures to tackle gender inequality. Before GEF Paris, countries frequently discussed the urgent need to advance women’s rights, and the severity of the problem was widely acknowledged. Nonetheless, there was often a lack of financial and economic support – in the words of activist Aya Chebbi, ‘We need to stop talking about gender equality and start funding gender equality!’. 

The GEF Paris solidified the groundwork laid in Mexico City by building on new pledges and raising a record amount of USD 40 billion in investments. Amongst the major investors are governments, which will invest USD 21 billion over the next five years to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to fund health care in low- and middle-income countries (most notably, France with EUR 100 million, and Canada with USD 100 million). The private sector has pledged around USD 13 billion in total, of which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend USD 2.1 billion towards family planning over the next five years. This landmark figure is expected to increase even further in the coming years, as hopefully more States will join the ‘Generation Equality’ movement. Such economic mobilisation was much needed, but it is merely the foundation of a series of measures that must be undertaken to advance gender equality holistically and to overcome potential barriers along the way.

Pushing back against the pushback

The GEF represents a real opportunity to settle a historical debt and put the world on the right track towards gender equality, but important challenges remain. There has been an unfortunate rise of anti-rights movements in the past years, and this wave has been fuelled by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the root of these movements lies a political or ideological rejection of women’s rights in general and a person’s right to bodily autonomy in particular. These challenges may take the form of discriminatory laws and policies, which attempt to restrict the expression of women’s sexuality and gender beyond traditional binary expressions; harmful cultural traditions, which force people to live up to certain societal expectations; patriarchal ideas that perpetuate gender inequality, as well as the reluctance to recognise the free choice to decide over one’s own body. 

The outbreak of the pandemic has further exacerbated inequalities and has contributed to a reversal of the progress made in some countries. While in other countries anti-rights trends were brewing long before COVID-19 came on the scene, recent developments in Poland, Turkey and Hungary are particularly instructive. On 20 October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal issued a controversial decision further restricting access to legal abortion, which was already limited to three exceptions. Furthermore, on 20 March this year, President Erdogan issued a decree withdrawing Turkey’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention. Turkey’s withdrawal is particularly worrying, as it could create a domino effect for other State Parties to follow suit, thus endangering the rights of millions of women and girls; not to mention the fact that the country is the first to withdraw despite its leading role in the adoption of the Convention in the ancient Turkish city of Istanbul in 2011. In Hungary, the dissemination of LGBTQI+ content in schools and on daytime television has been banned following a bill passed on 15 June, which will enter into force despite warnings from the European Union. Critics have stressed that this law is incompatible with international human rights standards, and the European Commission, whose President Ursula von der Leyen has characterised the law as a ‘shame,’ has taken legal action on the basis that the legislation contravenes several EU laws.

During the GEF Paris opening ceremony, UN Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the rise of these regressive movements and forcefully advocated for ‘push[ing]back against the pushback,’ calling on States and civil society to overcome the conservative ideologies that are challenging the achievements made in the 26 years since Beijing. As a show of resilience, participants championed the concept of sexual and reproductive rights as well as other progressive language, including the right to abortion, comprehensive sexuality education, bodily autonomy, and references to women and girls in all their diversity. Such political and rhetorical support is crucial, and strong civil society engagement must be at the heart of every strategy to counter the myriad challenges and setbacks.

No turning back

The Generation Equality Forum has proven that there is no turning back as young leaders raise their voices to call for a better future. This demand concerns not only how to rebuild after the pandemic but also climate change, violence against women human rights defenders, and the recognition of the right to bodily autonomy. Civil society advocates urged governments to adopt gender-responsive stimulus and recovery plans which place women and girls in all their diversity at the frontline of decision-making processes to tackle the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Unfortunately, women and girls still remain underrepresented at all levels of decision-making, and adopting measures to ensure gender parity is essential to redistribute power and assure equal representation of women and girls from all walks of life. In this regard, French company AFNOR Group presented AFNOR Spec X30-020, which is an international guide aimed at creating an ISO standard on gender equality and promoting the equal representation of women in the labour market, both in the public and private sector. 

The participation of women and girls in all their diversity is non-negotiable in the fight for gender equality. It is thus essential that governments adopt an intersectional approach to ensure that no one is left behind. GEF 2021 was certainly a benchmark in this respect as it featured panellists from marginalised groups, including LGBTQI+ people, displaced women, women living with HIV/AIDS and women with disabilities. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement, as the online platform did not always provide subtitles and sign language interpretation, thus women and girls with certain disabilities were not able to take the floor. Situations like these must be avoided at all costs, and future efforts need to be not only gender-responsive but also include a disability perspective to ensure that everyone can actively participate in discussions. 

What sets the GEF apart most from other conferences is the fact that non-State stakeholders were at the forefront of the discussion, and are actively engaged in ensuring that governments and corporations deliver on their commitments. After all, up to this day, these are just promises that have yet to be translated into actual policies and legislation. Hence, the implementation of effective accountability mechanisms to monitor compliance is crucial, and participants at the Forum were particularly concerned about holding States accountable to avoid empty promises and sloganeering.

While the role of civil society organisations is paramount for achieving the 5-year action plan, it is also our global responsibility to ensure that States and companies live up to their commitments, and we finally get to witness real progress on gender equality as we ‘build back better’ after the pandemic. There is no turning back now. 

Featured photo: Opening Session of the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, 30 June 2021. UN Women/Fabrice Gentile. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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