Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls.
As a former senator in the Australian Federal Parliament, I understand the power of law-making. I know that legislation can change lives for the better or for worse.
In more than 90 percent of countries worldwide, women’s opportunities are limited explicitly by the unequal treatment of women that is enshrined in legislation. This ranges from laws that govern personal and marital status (including early, forced, and child marriage, the inability to travel freely outside the home, and the absence of protections from rape and domestic violence), to laws relating to economic recognition (those that bar women from owning or inheriting property, opening a bank account, or managing their own assets).
These structural barriers both reinforce, and are underpinned by, attitudinal and cultural barriers. The effects of legislative discrimination are significant and far-reaching. Lower levels of gender equality in national laws are associated with fewer girls enrolled in primary and secondary education; fewer women in skilled work; fewer women owning land; fewer women accessing financial and health services; and higher rates of domestic, family, and sexual violence.
The case for legislative reform is compelling.
I have joined advocates for gender equality—including organizations such as Global Citizen—in their work to make ending gender discrimination in legislation a major campaign for the coming fifteen years, over the lifetime of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Since my appointment in 2013 as Australia’s global Ambassador for Women and Girls, I have traveled to twenty-four countries to advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. My focus is the Indo-Pacific region: a part of the world where there are enormous challenges to women’s participation in leadership, decision-making, and economic life, and where violence against women is pervasive. I am one of a handful of gender equality ambassadors globally and, in addition to my advocacy for the empowerment of the world’s women and girls, I call on other governments to create positions comparable to mine. An expansion in the ranks of high-level advocates for gender equality will undoubtedly give women a stronger voice in the 2030 Agenda. This is necessary and important.
In recent decades, we have seen significant progress for women and girls around the world, but in no country has gender equality been achieved and this comes at a cost to all of us. As we were reminded during the negotiation and adoption of the global Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, much remains to be done to ensure women’s full and equal participation in the political, economic, and social affairs of their countries.
This is not just a question of what is right and fair, it also makes good economic sense. Women are now regarded as the most powerful engine of economic growth and drivers of national and global prosperity. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that advancing women’s equality would add between $12 and 28 trillion dollars to annual global growth by the year 2025.
I was in New York attending the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit last September and witnessed the celebrations when the 2030 Agenda was adopted. The mood was euphoric, both in the halls of the United Nations and on the streets, or, more specifically, in Central Park, where the Global Citizen Festival welcomed in the global goals. Looking out across the tens of thousands of people who gathered at the festival to celebrate, I was reminded of the power of activism, and the collective voice of global citizens, because undoubtedly the 2030 Agenda echoes the voice of civil society activists who were an essential presence in the negotiations that led to its adoption.
Now the hard work of implementation of the Global Goals begins, and once again we turn to global citizens to carry this work forward.
We need them to be advocates, to be ambassadors, to work individually and collectively to call for change, for reform. We need them to leverage media and international fora—such as the United Nations, the Group of Twenty (G20), and the Commonwealth of Nations—to highlight injustice and discrimination. We need them to say to leaders and legislators: “This isn’t right, this isn’t the present we want or the future we believe in; it’s time for change.”
There already exist many brave activists on the ground fighting for gender equality and organizations such as Global Citizen and CHIME FOR CHANGE, which have launched #LevelTheLaw to support existing campaigns to end gender discrimination in legislation. Campaigns such as the one led by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who is calling on the Pakistani government to outlaw honor killings. Or Nadia, a Yazidi activist campaigning to have the genocide and rape of her community referred to the International Criminal Court. And young men like Aristarick who are willing to speak out on behalf of their mothers, sisters, and friends to end child marriage in Tanzania.
We can help these advocates access the tools, publicity, and leaders who have the power to level the playing field for good. While these are issues that require solutions at a local level, they reflect a broader global challenge to secure gender equality.
Last week, I attended the United Nation’s sixtieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York for this very purpose: to lend my voice to international efforts to identify solutions to global gender equity problems. While attending CSW, I proudly endorsed #LevelTheLaw as a campaign of practical and tangible responses to longstanding discrimination.
I hope others will join me.