This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in the campaign for global women’s rights when Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of the United States, proclaimed at an international conference in Beijing that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.
But in the last 25 years, for women and girls caught up in conflict – and there are now many more of them – the gap has widened between global progress and the reality of their lives. Now with the Covid-19 crisis disproportionately disrupting the lives and livelihoods of women and girls living in conflict, lessons need to be urgently learned to make any hope of equality real.
Since the Beijing Platform for Action, there has been a 110% increase in the number of women in national parliaments. Maternal mortality has decreased by 38%. Women’s literacy has increased by 18%.
But for women and girls living in conflict and crisis-affected settings, the story is different. Since 1995, the number of people caught up in humanitarian crises has risen dramatically. For instance, there has been a 44% increase in the number of refugees, 50% of whom are women.
When it comes to literacy, healthcare and safety, the gap between the life experience of these women and girls and their peers in richer, more stable countries has grown. In a recent analysis conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on the status of women and girls in 10 refugee-hosting countries, in education, the global progress towards gender parity within primary and secondary school enrolment increased by 11%. However in states affected by conflict, such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), this global standard has not been met. While literacy has improved more for women than men since 1995 (18% v 8% respectively), Myanmar has reported decreases in female literacy. Despite a 32% global decline in teenage pregnancies, they only reduced by 2% in the DRC, 6% in Thailand, and 8% in Iraq. So, the gap in life chances has grown.
For many women and girls living in the settings where the IRC works, these disadvantages begin at birth. While 73% of people around the world are now registered at birth, 75% are not in the DRC. Without birth certificates, children often cannot access basic services such as education and healthcare. For girls in humanitarian settings, lack of registration can compound the already high risk of child marriage, making it harder to fight back against a marriage when she cannot prove her age.
In other areas, we don’t even have enough proper data to assess if we are making progress. For example, global data on gender-based violence is missing and where country-specific data exists, it tells a striking story. The percentage of women in Colombia, the DRC and Pakistan who believe “wife beating” is justified has not improved by any measurable degree.
Women and girls caught up in conflict suffer many inequalities. Their gender makes them a target and gender norms make them more vulnerable. What’s more, they are too often overlooked by the actions of the international institutions that respond to humanitarian crisis.
Only 0.12% of humanitarian funding went to gender-based violence (GBV) between 2016-2018 and two-thirds of funding requests were unmet. With Covid-19, less than half of 1% of the funding request for the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, which sets priorities for the global response to Covid-19, was for GBV programming. This is despite the fact that reports of gender-based violence have increased to more than 50% in some of the places the IRC works. Protecting women and girls from violence should be a given in 2020, but it continues to remain an afterthought.
Covid-19 exacerbates the problem. Women do 70% of caring work around the world and economic lockdown has added to the dangers.
Within refugee-hosting countries, refugees are 60% more likely to work in sectors of the economy most affected by Covid-19, with refugee women making up high proportions of these industries. School closures and increased economic hardship have also left as many as 13 million more children at risk of child marriage over the next 10 years. For example, there has been a dramatic threefold increase in the number of teenage pregnancies in regions of northern Kenya as a result of school closures and lockdown.
If we are serious about creating a better world for all women and girls, we must do so consciously and act on what we have learned in the past 25 years. Women and girls need to be counted in gender-disaggregated statistics. There needs to be accountability for aid donors and implementing agencies for how they serve women and girls (the IRC’s gender action plan, for example, and our progress to meeting its goals are on our website). Programmes to support the economic livelihoods and independence of women have been shown to have a big impact and need to be added to social-service programmes. Gender-based violence needs to be tackled as a manmade crisis, not a fact of life. The voices of women need to be heard from programme design to peace negotiations.
A feminist approach means taking structures of power seriously and seeking to remove imbalances of power in the design of humanitarian programmes. Women and girls caught up in conflict deserve nothing less.
• David Miliband is chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee