The fight for gender equality has always featured prominently in human rights movements, both in the Latin American and Caribbean region and in Europe. Especially in the last few decades, enormous progress has been made. For example, in most countries in these regions, women have reached equal or even higher educational achievements compared to men, have increased their participation in both employment and political positions, and improved their access to social protection. However, enormous challenges remain – such as femicide and domestic and gender-based violence. In the Latin American region in 2017, at least 2,795 women were victims of femicide. In Europe, a 2014 survey by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency revealed that one in three women in the EU has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault since the age of 15. A similar survey in 2019, led by OSCE, carried out in selected South East and Eastern European countries showed similar disturbing numbers – with three in ten women having experienced gendered violence.
The strength of diversity in complex realities
At the same time, we are experiencing a backlash against women’s human rights, felt equally in Latin America and Europe. In both regions, there has been growing influence and pressure from powerful conservative and religious groups putting at stake some of the advancements in recognition and enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and LGBTI rights. Due to this, Panama, for example, failed to approve a comprehensive sexuality education plan for primary schools even though there were 4,130 pregnancies of girls/adolescents aged 10 to 19 from January to May 2017. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua maintain absolute bans on abortion. Attempts in Argentina to legalize abortion last year failed. We see these trends equally in Europe – for example through government plans for a complete ban of abortion in Poland or the defunding of academic gender studies in Hungary. In the UK and France, because of pressure by parents, some schools have stopped teaching LGBTI equality classes challenging homophobia and bullying. Moreover, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on experiencing a backlash in women’s rights and gender equality in the EU in February 2019, where it calls on Member States, among others, to combat sexist hate speech, harassment and misogyny, and to ensure that sexuality and relationships education is provided to all young people.
Conversely, gender equality and a genuine respect for women’s human rights are essential and integral to effective responses to global challenges– ranging from growing inequality, the impact of austerity, the invisibility of and discrimination against those most marginalized, including migrant and indigenous people, particularly women and girls amongst them, unabated rates of femicide, the rise of right-wing and violent extremism, climate change and the potential risks related to the digitalization of our lives and work. Bringing people of all walks of life together is powerful. True strength lies in diversity, inclusion and equality. More than 70 years ago, those principles were already a central part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have been translated into tangible obligations for States and society at large. But gender equality and diversity are not only a matter of justice and respecting human rights. Tapping into the talents, abilities and vision of a diverse group of individuals increases efficiency and ensures responses that are adapted to a complex and diverse reality – and do not respond just to the needs of some. When everyone is involved in designing changes, these changes will respond to their lives and realities, and have an effective and sustainable impact.
Gender equality as precondition for sustainable living
Women of both the LAC region and Europe are already leading the way in designing creative solutions for global problems. Indigenous women and rural women, who are disproportionally impacted by climate change, play a very important role in climate change adaptation efforts, and to ensure food security in their households and their countries – for example in Nicaragua by using agroecology and patio gardens and, in Cuba, women farmers managing irrigation systems using solar energy and shade cultivation. Women are also on the front lines in addressing both the talent gap and the diversity gap when it comes to coding and software development, for example through social enterprises such as Laboratoria – which is currently operating in Chile, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, giving women from low-income backgrounds access to a five-month fast-track course in coding. Women human rights defenders and women-led movements have risen to fight against femicide and discrimination, for example the ni una menos movement against violence against women which started in Argentina and reverberated through the entire continent. European initiatives are paralleling the Latin American and Caribbean ones – with, for example, massive civil society uprising in Spain after the so-called La Manada court case – which ultimately led to legal changes in the Spanish criminal laws on rape and sexual assault.
This need for gender equality and diversity for a shared future coupled with the backlash we are experiencing, point to the paramount importance of accelerating and joining our efforts towards gender equality. We need to continue supporting initiatives promoting this much-needed work yet to be done and create an environment where they can not only survive but thrive. Gender equality is not only about justice for billions of women and girls. It is the precondition for meeting the challenges of promoting resilient and sustainable development and building good governance. If there is no justice for half the population of our countries, we will not solve our problems – we will only make them worse.