Can Feminism Really be a Fix to Current and Future Global Crises?

By Njeri Kimotho

There is a new buzzword in the development sector that promises a way to make the world better and development more inclusive: feminism.

But how can one word be the response to so many global crises that the entire world is grappling with? Part of that answer is moving from the word to its application; Feminism is a commitment and it is also a political movement that pursues social justice and ending all forms of sexism. Feminism is not a one-sided note, rather it provides a wide range of perspectives – and actions – on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena. 

We are witnessing the profound effects that COVID-19, climate change, and wars like the one currently raging in Ukraine has had on health, economies, security and social protection. At the same time, we are also faced by the undeniable fact of the wide-reaching disproportionate repercussions each of these crises has had. They have affected both women, because of gendered roles and patriarchal norms that make them more vulnerable but also from an intersectional lens, they have affected disproportionately the elderly, migrants, people with disabilities, people without insurance, people with compromised immune systems, and refugee populations.

Many might ask, in the face of all this, is feminism just a daydream when it is entangled with patriarchal, capitalist ideologies and systems, and has to find breathing room for action in a wide range of social, cultural, economic, and political perspectives? One strategy for solving these problems would be to employ feminism as a set of ideas, beliefs or principles in policy and development aid response, complimented by the participation of local feminist movements. Involving these local movements is important as it allows isolated feminists to work together during a time when commitment to and advocacy for social justice is infringed upon by reactive government measures during crises.

On May 3rd, Yarrow Global Consulting, brought together civil society actors, decision-makers, researchers, humanitarian aid practitioners among others from Africa, Asia and Europe in an attempt to understand what makes feminism go from theory to action. The plenary session, “Feminist Responses to the Pandemic and other Global Crises” went beyond simple identification of crises to look at concrete examples of what the impact of the pandemic and other crises has been in different parts of the world, in order to facilitate social change through empirical evidence sharing, cross-exchange and learning.

To spark the conversation was seasoned policy advisor, Gender Equality & Social Inclusion (GESI) and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) expert in international development, Njeri Kimotho. A feminist herself from Global South judiciously centering do-no-harm in all her GESI, DEI and policy advisory work, she led participants in imagining what a positive feminist response could look like  when enabling governments, civil society organizations, locals and marginalized and vulnerable groups to deal with crises. She helped speakers pinpoint what would be critical and the ways in which this could be galvanized in public policies in a proactive way rather than the reactive way we have witnessed so far.

FEMINISM, A MULTI-LEGGED STOOL

Three  guest expert speakers brought in triangulated dimensions towards social change. The first panel speaker was Dr. Catherine Odenyo-Ndekera, a gender specialist with 15+ years of experience and an active advisor with the Uganda medical doctors platform and network. She showcased the interconnectedness of issues using real life examples of women in Uganda who sell their agricultural products in open-air markets. During Covid-19 these women were left vulnerable, and had to walk long distances to and from the markets exposing them to Gender Based Violence. At times, they had to sleep in markets due to curfew hour regulations, which further exposed them to malaria as there was no supply of mosquito nets. A feminist response would include collective planning and decision-making processes, as Dr. Odenyo-Ndekera pointed out, in which women would be deliberately given a seat at the table, taking advantage of existing feminist structures, government mechanisms, such as the ministry of gender and health, and ultimately enhancing coordination and broadening spheres of impact. 

DECODING EACH OTHERS WORK AND USING SDGs AS A TOOL FOR MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT 

Amrita Gupta, the second speaker and a New Delhi based researcher by both profession and passion, is currently heading Research Advocacy and Communications at Indian NGO Azad Foundation. She is also the National coordinator of a pan Indian Non-Traditional Livelihood Network. With the unfolding of Covid-19, Gupta was able to experience the power of collectives. Central to these collectives is knowledge sharing and learning – simple but practical tools of engagement and facilitating change. In areas such as Delhi where there is penetration of internet connectivity, locals harnessed the power of technology through creating regional and local podcasts in local dialects, helping people talk to each other, share and exchange new insights and approaches to health crises prevention and care. They used local community leaders, who are connected to communities, to be voices incorporated during mixed method data collection, and mobile learning libraries facilitating continuation of education and access to training for girls. It is important to recognize though that the gender digital divide still exists, which needs to be examined when adopting a digital strategy. 

Gupta also shared two live and successful examples of feminism participation from various sectors that pushes for legislative reforms in the Mumbai and Delhi  level urban master plans. They created inclusive public spaces for hawkers and available sanitary and safe toilets and restrooms for women and nursing mothers. Those vivid examples not only give us hope, but spur a call to action for changing circumstances permanently that are unfavorable to many. Gupta highlighted that governments, CSOs, NGOs and the public decode development through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) lens, this lens also provides feminist with windows of opportunities to build allies, talk to each other and co-create solutions from multi-sectoral dimensions. 

CAN FEMINIST POLICIES AND PLANS WORK IN A WORLD SYSTEM RUN BY A CAPITALIST MODEL?

 The third speaker in the invigorating conversation on feminist response to global crises was Dr. Silke Staab. An accomplished researcher, she’s published such reports as Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice and  UNDP-UN Women COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker, which was an inspiration for feminist plans at national and sub-national level in different countries. She emphasized the interlocking nature of the current crises we face: jobs and livelihoods, global care, accelerating climate and environmental change and political rollbacks, all of which need concrete steps for recovery from these crises. 

Empirically and from a ground practice experience sharing standpoint, the UN Women feminist plan outlines a vision and concrete pathways to transformation while subsequently demonstrating priorities by countries that have taken steps in this direction. These included successful activities like: 

  • Promoting women’s access to protected employment and economic safety nets e.g. Brazil, Togo, Chile and South Africa, which are currently experimenting with cash transfers as a way to close gaps in their social protection systems
  • Directed public investments in the care economy to support women’s re-entry into the labor force with popular examples from Argentina, Canada and Mexico.
  • Countries rapidly shifting their economies on to a greener and more sustainable path particularly in energy and agriculture sectors, while using this avenue to bring women on board.

With the realities of cutbacks in public spending to meet debt obligations for most countries in the global south, practical solutions such as global macroeconomic policies and multilateral cooperation are a must. The North has to commit to shared and differentiated responsibilities as well as cancel historical existing debts and much recent accumulated debts so that Global South countries have resources to respond to global crises.  

POWER IN GLOBAL HEALTH, WHO HAS IT?

The final speaker on the panel was Sophie Gepp, a research associate at the German Alliance on Climate Change and Health (KLUG in the team of the forthcoming Center for Planetary Health Policy (CPHP). She is an expert in Public Health, medicine, and planetary health. She shared how research and advocacy in progressive feminism work on climate change and health has been a major build up to continue with intentional openness in interrogating patterns of power and inequities in medicine which to close assessment. Sophie pointed out that this lagging gap is prevalent in the medical and other fields. The call for action is therefore  to stop concentrating power but rather distribute it.  An obvious example is the historical emissions of greenhouse gasses by high income countries with deep reluctance for these countries to compensate for the loss and damage caused to the largely affected producing countries who bear the burdens and responsibilities of these actions. 

She also pointed out further power imbalances and disparities. The Global Health 50/50 report showed only 1% of board seats in the nonprofit sector were from low income countries and there were no women from the profit sector. Half of the board seats were from representation from high income countries. Dismantling these kinds of systems institutionalized for decision making is a first step in intensifying the fight against inequities.

THE CONCLUSION: AS FEMINISTS, ARE WE TOO LATE OR RIGHT ON-TIME?

To summarize the contributions of the panel speakers,  we can clearly see a set of feminist principles in areas where there are commitments and practices:

  • Delegating authority to local levels
  • Use of collectives in decision-making processes
  • Focus in securing access to reproductive health services
  • Pre-established connections between movements and governments 
  • Multilateral and multi-sectoral flexible and pragmatic engagement 

We also need to interrogate why  the strong push from feminists themselves in planning and decision-making during Covid-19 was limited at all levels, from local to national and to some extent on the global level. Examining this will allow us as feminists to understand remaining gaps,  and build stronger bridges for cooperation and engagement. 

Feminism gives birth to a global community that appreciates and exercises cooperation, pushes for human security, pragmatism, transparency, and inclusivity in policies and management modes. Every window of opportunity therefore counts in the quest for social justice, equity, gender transformation and inclusion. While these ( social justice, equity, gender transformation and inclusion) are names loaded with meaning, they actually have practical implications and actions on the ground.  To get there, we have to listen and amplify the voices of all including the marginalized from their intersecting identities – race, age, social status, dis(ability) gender identity, sexual orientation, education etc. Tokenization needs to be swiftly replaced with co-led and co-owned movements and, now more than ever, an intersectionality lens is needed to understand the systems of oppression, privilege and discrimination from a crises perspective. 

Solidarity is a step towards the right direction but we need not wait for the red light to go on: “feminists, start planning now” was the de-facto call to action from this Feminist Action Week. 

Photo Credit: Taymaz Valley/ Fickr Creative Commons

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