Are we getting closer to gender equality or further away?

Date: 30 July 2020

Recently World YMCA was represented at the UN Women Hearing on gender equality by 3 delegates who were supposed to attend the Commission for the Status of Women meeting in New York City earlier this year. As the pandemic severely affected all of us, UN events were also postponed or cancelled, and in this case partially moved online. 

We wish to thank Rachael Rinaldo (YMCA of Greater New York), Priscilla Dunn (YMCA Gambia) and Abigail Freeman (YMCA Liberia) for their representation and active participation. Now let’s explore some of their takeaways and highlights from the event: 

Rachael Rinaldo, 

Senior Director, YMCA of Greater New York

“Gender inequality is the greatest, longest lasting pre-existing issues in society” – Nyaradzay Gumbonzvanda,

Chief Executive of the Rosaria Memorial Trust, Zimbabwe.

On July 21, 2020, the United Nation’s Multi-Stakeholder Hearing “Accelerating the Realization of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of all Women and Girls” opened with the above quote. Immediately, I was struck by the historical nature of this statement. For hundreds of years, women and girls have faced inequalities that stumped their progress in free and restricted societies. This hearing was organized twenty-five years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive and transformative global agenda for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Its 2020 progress review for the first time takes place in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda, including SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, highlighted the centrality of gender equality to progress across all the Goals and targets. My immediate concern and challenge is why it has taken 25 years to check progress and why does it appear to be no progress. I was not alone in these thoughts. Several amazing, powerful women raised the same questions and challenged the same thoughts. The following is a very short summary of my thoughts and reflections of the eight hour meeting I attended.

During Covid-19, the continued glare of inequality is evident. Women and girls around the world are faced with increased physical violence. In Sierra Leone, over 10,000 pregnancies since the pandemic started have been reported; domestic violence is on the rise due to the restrictions on migration and increased isolation and countries are realizing the impact climate change on the survival of women and girls; access to critical life sustaining resources such as food, water, health services and education have all been affected by the pandemic. 785 million people worldwide lack access to water. Employment for women has tanked. In the United States, during the Covid-19 pandemic, women who were employed in the technology industry, were laid off 30% more times than men. Same education, same career, different gender. Moreover, during the pandemic, women have borne the brunt of both paid and unpaid work. The onslaught of the economic and health crisis has sidelined women’s issues and concerns in Covid-19 related policies and measures. Democratic spaces for participation of NGOs and women-led organizations continue to shrink. Women are at the frontline, responding to the crisis; yet, 70% of the world’s poor – are women.

Historically, especially in developing countries, we learned that women and girls have been tortured, victims of genocide and it is only recently that certain governments have started to acknowledge these acts as a crime and pass policy to protect the victims. In Armenia, for example, it was only recent that gender based discrimination laws were passed; advocates are now working hard to include women and girls who identify as LGBTQI+, ethnic minorities, victims of domestic violence, women with disabilities, etc. to insure all women and girls have protection and access to sufficient medical care, including sexual reproductive health information and treatment. Southern Algerian women and girls, often, do not receive secondary education, due to the lack of secondary institutions; distance and access play a significant role. This contributes to the lack of female representation in senior positions and sector industries. Even if a woman were to obtain her degree, the community in which she came from is an identifier and used against women. As one person noted, “she is still seen as a woman inhabiting tents in the desert.” These are but a few of the examples.

Intersectionality is critical. To achieve full inclusion, everyone should have equal rights and the right to fully participate in society. They don’t. It is imperative that data be collected beyond gender and race. Data can be used as a tool that helps us understand how gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and the many other aspects of one’s identity and how they interact to shape the social, cultural, economic, and political inequalities, oppressions, and privileges that we all members of society, including women, men, transgender, white people, people of color, indigenous, etc. experience. States and governments must fully understand that human beings must be put above human interest. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fact that critical services are not in place for all. Basic needs such as food, water, secure housing, safety and security, education are lacking for millions.

The digital divide is a great area of concern. The faster technology advances, the more women and girls are being left behind. A question emerged, how can we develop an on-line education system to ensure equal access for all girls? What would that have to include? Internet access, internet safety and access to technology. It is critical that we focus on developing women and girls knowledge and skills that will support their adaptation to an ever moving environment. How do we stop 8 out of every 10 women/girls from being sexually harassed on-line? Education with technology, especially in rural areas, will boost employment and economic stability.

Men play a critical role and it is important that they partner with women and dismantle the old systems of patriarchy. This is a global issue. Stereotypes on the definition of masculinity must be thrown out. We acknowledge that inequality takes place in many forms, and this includes men. Educational attainment, health care systems, political empowerment and economic participation of women is vital. Sexual violence, exploitation, trafficking and child rape must be stopped, on a global scale. International laws protecting the most vulnerable (which includes elderly people, people with disabilities, children and others) need to be put in place and those who violate said laws must be held accountable. Men play an important role in dismantling these systems. They are encouraged to partner with women, disengage in damaging systems of multilateralism and tear down the old power structures.

Across societies the impacts of climate change affect women and men differently. Women are often responsible for gathering and producing food, collecting water and sourcing fuel for heating and cooking. With climate change, these tasks are becoming more difficult. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have a greater impact on the poor and most vulnerable. With the stark details of poverty affecting women, policy need to be developed that rebuilds the economy and climate emergency that is gender responsive.

Business, advertising and media play an integral role in portraying people. Brands need to take a stand against critical societal issues, gender-based violence and reproductive exploitation being two critical areas. We cannot achieve gender equality without partnerships that require diversity and encourage the active participation of women. Businesses, advertisers and the media must recognize and acknowledge their exploitation of the female body while taking interest, participating and supporting the causes against violence and discrimination. They can also boost the role of democracy and governments at the macro and micro levels, forcing positive changes to public services, human rights and holding governments accountable.

Naming issues is important; however, it must be accompanied with policy, action, and accountability. We must respect our diversity, stand strong on inclusion, and insure we leave no one behind. Girls are our future; they are our leaders of tomorrow. They are smart, they are informed, and they are ready to act; they need the leaders of today to unlock their power and unleash their knowledge.

As the leading youth serving organization around the world, we must ensure our Emotional IQ is at its highest; we must recognize internal and external roles of oppression. We can play a critical role in thousands of communities across the globe and help deliver on the goals of SDG 5. I have a lot of ideas on how we can move forward. 

Our first step would be removing the word “Men’s” from our name.

Priscilla Dunn 

Programme Director, YMCA Gambia


The key highlight for me was how similar the cases of gender equality are around the world and how different it can be depending on where we are from.

There are still a lot of challenges that need to  be resolved when it comes to women and girls empowerment. The struggle is still as real today as it was before in various parts of the world with a greater need for the  inclusion of women and also taking into consideration the need to involve men in the campaign and advocacy for gender equality. 

One thing that is certain is that the importance of  gender equality cannot be overlooked as it is still a vital need for  women’s inclusion in all areas for a better community and a better world.

It is also important to note that gender equality cannot be achieved without the active participation of all women. Everyone has a role to play towards this goal for it to be achievable.

However it was pointed out that not all women are the same and different women face different challenges based on the situations in which they find themselves with regards to gender equality . This is because women’s rights are not protected enough nor are they given equal opportunities. Their inclusion in all contexts is paramount.

The political sphere of most countries is by far and large reserved for men alone. Women are not encouraged and their representation if any is by far a lesser percentage than men. Few of the issues that women go through in such cases especially in Africa is that they face alot of discrimination and challenges as soon as their intentions are made known.Their  families fear for their lives and society also categories the woman’s place to be  in the home and not politics. These pose a lot of challenges in having the right representation of women in decision making and having access to key political positions with a need for more economic power to be able to stand without fear.

The need for women’s financial independence also plays a great role  socially, politically and economically. Without financial independence it limits their capabilities and thus creates a great divide in achieving their potential.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article belong to their authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the World YMCA.