Don’t You Dare Leave Us Behind

The G7 should deliver progress not promises on gender equality.

By Aya Chebbi, African Union’s first ever youth envoy.

Nearly 10 years have passed since the beginning of what we call the revolution of dignity, many of you refer to it as the ‘Arab spring’. I was a part of it. We were angry, we wanted a future where we could fulfil our potential. To break up old and entrenched structures limiting our potential, we, the young generation, realised that we needed to become leaders of our own development. Our struggle was also a struggle for voice as we did not see our views and hopes represented within our own governments. Even if the outcome and the progress of the protests vary from one country to another, there can be no doubt that the youth has changed the course of history.

What is particularly interesting, is that young women were powerful drivers of this movement. Their involvement went beyond direct participation in the protests. Be it as organizers, journalists or political activists – young women became the leading force in cyber-activism. Before I became a youth envoy of the African Union – I was one of these women. We seized the momentum to make our voices heard and our actions seen.

Take a closer look at the current situation in Sudan. The country is just starting a long journey moving away from decades of dictatorship. Very often women who were leading the calls for peaceful uprising against the military government. This is not a coincidence. Women have all the reasons in the world to stand up and take what is theirs. We are still miles away from having equal rights. According to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of change, it is going to take not less than 108 years to achieve gender equality. We can not wait that long.

Poverty is sexist

Just to give you an idea of how far away we are from gender equality: Most countries in the world limit the economic opportunities of women by law. More than 100 countries  even exclude women in particular from obtaining certain jobs. There are 18 countries, where it is legal for men to forbid their wives to work at all. Can you believe it? The poorer a country, the harder girls and women are hit. Poverty is sexist.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 52 million girls have no access to education – compared to 45 million boys. One out of three women do not have a bank account. Girls and women in Africa are at a significantly higher risk of contracting HIV than men. There are more child brides in the world than people living in the whole European Union – with unthinkable consequences for their psychological, social and economic development. This list could go on and on. So of course women take the streets. There will be no sustainable revolution without feminism. 

Gender equality – everyone benefits!

Not that the legal argument wasn’t reason enough but this is not just about justice. You literally couldn’t come up with a more stupid idea than leaving half of the population behind if you wanted to strive forward as a society. To phrase it positively: Girls and women have the biggest potential to bring extreme poverty to an end – once and for all.

If all women had full primary education, this would already lead to a massive drop of maternal mortality (-70 percent!). With higher education, women will not only have fewer children at a later point in life but they will also make significantly more money – which they often reinvest in their families and communities. This way everyone benefits. Equal access to education would generate more than 112 billion US dollars worth of tax revenues for developing countries. If women were given the same land rights as men, the harvest yields would improve so much that it could lift up to 150 million people out of chronic hunger. There are thousands of good reasons for gender equality and not a single one against it.

G7 summit: progress not promises

So, what is keeping us from changing the situation for girls and women? Unfortunately, the wheels of politics turn slowly at times. Sometimes, it needs an igniting moment for things to start changing for the better. This moment could be in one week’s time when African leaders, such as, President Ramaphosa, and Macky Sall  will meets with other world leaders at the G7 summit in Biarritz (France). French president and host Emmanuel Macron has put the fight against inequality front and center of the summit’s agenda – with a focus on gender equality. If you only look at the rhetoric the attending leaders used in the past, you could get the impression that equal rights for men and women are within reach. No one is getting tired of highlighting how important it is to strengthen girls and women. But these are merely words. Nothing changes only through speaking. It’s action that counts. We should all demand progress not promises. And we should demand it right now.

It goes without saying that one summit alone will not change the world in the twinkling of an eye. But as I said: It can be the spark that ignites the fire for gender equality worldwide. For the first time ever, the G7 have not invited African leaders only for the family picture and a bit of chit chat in the end, but they have actually involved them in the whole negotiation process leading up to the actual summit. This is an absolute novelty and an opportunity for both an open dialogue and citizens holding their governments accountable. If the attending world leaders are truly interested in moving gender equality forward, there are three things we can and should expect:

1) Legislative and policy change

Every participating country at the G7 summit should commit to implementing at least two legislative or policy changes on gender equality by 2022 – either by abolishing discriminatory laws or by putting in place progressive ones. This could for instance include for Senegal criminalizing rape or ensuring national policies such as on education are gender responsive. Equal pay for equal work is another example. And that is the case for all countries.

2) Financial commitments

As described above, financing gender equality is one of the smartest investments one can make to fight extreme poverty and to spur a country’s development. The G7 should put money on the table to strengthen women and girls. They should ensure that the vast majority of their development aid contributes to gender equality and that at least 20 percent of their aid promotes this as a primary purpose. But also the African governments need to do their homework and invest their domestic resources in unleashing the potential of girls and women within their countries.

3) Accountability

In order to ensure that we don’t end up with empty promises but real progress, the G7 should put in place a new accountability and monitoring mechanism focused on delivering on gender equality. The monitoring process of course needs to be undertaken by an independent actor and in close cooperation with civil society.

The upcoming Biarritz summit is a litmus test to see what the G7 is made of. Historically, international cooperation, joint decisions and initiating global processes were what enhanced the legitimacy of the G7. Let’s hope we see progress not promises for women’s rights. We are not waiting 108 more years to receive what should be ours already.

Aya Chebbi, an award-winning Pan-African feminist. She is the first African Union Youth Envoy  and the youngest diplomat at the African Union Commission Chairperson’s Cabinet.

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