International Women’s Day 2021: Women’s leadership is essential to ‘build back better’ during and after COVID-19

  • 08/03/2021

The month of March is increasingly the time of year when global feminist movements take stock – of recent successes, of historical anniversaries, of continuing barriers to equality and the emergence of new challenges.

The United Nations hascelebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March since 1975, and in 1977 a General Assemblyresolution proclaimed “a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace” to be observed annually by Member States. Commemorations of International Women’s Day have since expanded beyond international affairs, finding expression in corporate commitments to improve gender dynamics in the workplace, campaigns to support women’s organizations, and a groundswell of personal testimonies about how daily life is influenced, impacted and interpreted by one’s gender. In certain countries — such asRussia, where the inspiration for the 8 March celebration originated – International Women’s Day is a national holiday; in other countries, cultural traditions mark the occasion with thegift of flowers (e.g. Italy) or with a half-day off from work (e.g. China).

This year’s International Women’s Day, or IWD for short, will certainly look different from past celebrations, as traditional in-person ceremonies are mostlyeschewed for online commemorations, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues towear away at the gains that women’s organizations and gender equality movements around the world have fought to secure over the past century. IWD 2021 finds itself at a peculiar moment of reckoning, as competing discourses debate the extent to which the pandemic may‘reset and reshape’ global social, political and economic inequalities in line with global sustainability objectives. At the same time, a vertiginous increase of wealth concentration among a few of the world’s richest individuals and increasing evidence of unequal health outcomes among demographic groups have caused many toreject the idea of the pandemic’s equalizing potential. 

Worldwide increases inviolence against women, women’sdepartures from the workforce en masse and widespread exhaustion from increasedunpaid care activities have instilled IWD 2021 with particular urgency; these events have also sketched the ongoing challenges with remarkable detail – thanks in part to an increase indata collection and analysis of factors that to contribute to unequal gender outcomes during the pandemic. Through efforts to demonstrate how gender inequalities are structured into our current institutions, there is hope that gender equality principles will exert significant influence over strategies to‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis, amplified by global events such as the IWD 2021 celebrations and the upcomingGeneration Equality Forum.

With many of our institutions destabilized or in transition, this past year has affirmed that human systems are only as strong as the beliefs that we ascribe to them. While younger generations of feminists have more or less accepted gender equality as a self-evident human right, analyzing the development of the concept of ‘gender equality’ reveals contentions behind the term: historic contingencies, political negotiations and struggles for interpretive power to define and fix the parameters of this concept. There are also tensions among feminist movements about which issues to prioritize, who may participate, and what qualifies as true ally-ship vs.purplewashing – when discourse and commitments on gender equality are mobilized primarily toimprove a political or corporate entity’s image, including todownplay or ‘wash out’ related negative aspects of that entity.

What might it mean then, to ‘build back better’ from a gender perspective, and what specific opportunities exist for this maxim to be put into practice within – and beyond – the development sector?

TheIWD 2021 theme, ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’, suggests that any gender-just response and recovery will include an increase in women public leaders and decision-makers. This theme also aligns with the focus of the upcoming 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 65): ‘Women's full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’.Recent research from UN Women highlights that  while countries headed by women have tended todemonstrate more successful national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its broader health and socio-economic impacts, “women are Heads of State and Government in only 20 countries worldwide.” This under-representation of women in leadership and public life also extends to women’s inadequate representation in COVID-19 decision-making spaces.

In other words, not only are societies better off when more women engage in leadership and all levels of collective processes, but these same societies are harmed when the participation and perspectives of women and girls are excluded from these decision-making spaces. As it is increasinglyrecognized that including women in peace and security processes creates stronger and longer-lasting peace agreements, more inclusive leadership willhelp us not only to ‘build back better’, but to build a more diverse, sustainable and equal future.

1. UN Women note: This number is as of 8 November 2020. These data are compiled by UN Women based on information from UN Permanent Missions; only elected Heads of State are taken into consideration. Source link: 


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