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International Women’s Day (IWD), has marked a celebration of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women for well over a century.
What we can learn from the heroes of our time
In the last decade in particular the impact of coming together to champion gender equality and rally for change has started to move the needle. Major achievements include the rise of the #MeToo movement allowing women to speak up against abuse, the world’s first ever all-female spacewalk, rising numbers of girls attending school (pre Covid-19 pandemic) and more women serving in parliament and positions of leadership. The list goes on...
This year’s IWD theme ‘break the bias’ invites all people to cross their arms in solidarity against gender bias. At both a conscious and unconscious level gender bias is a global issue and many biases are universal – a recent United Nations report indicates that 90% of men and 84% of women worldwide report biased attitudes towards women. However, some negative stereotyping is more specific to women in fragile contexts and is influenced by many factors such as unequal access to education and a lack of legal protections.
There’s an ongoing narrative entrenched in society that means women and girls are often seen as victims who are unable, or unwilling to take control, requiring others to ‘save’ them, particularly those living in developing nations. Even our language plays into this, with research delving into how certain everyday phrases, such as ‘chairman’ or ‘salesman’, could be holding women back. In fact “women deserve equal treatment to men not only in our world, but in our many languages”.
Meet the changemakers
We know that women have the power to break down barriers through determination, resilience, strength and innovation. These are a selection of agents of change overcoming biases and making an impact both nationally and on the international stage.
Yemeni journalist and women’s rights activist Tawakkol has been breaking gender biases by reporting on injustices and human rights abuses in her country. She founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains to support and rally women writers. Dedicated to change, Tawakkol has received some recognition for her vast achievements, becoming the first Arab women to win a Nobel Peace Prize and being crowned Time Magazine’s most influential woman of the year in 2011.
Key takeaway: In Tawakkol’s own words, “The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together.” In times of instability, it’s crucial for the international community to stand with women at the forefront of oppression.
Former Nigerian Minister of Finance, last year Okonjo-Iweala became the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization, after a unanimous vote from the organisation’s 164 members. As the first woman and the first African leader ever to hold the post, her legacy is momentous.
Key takeaway: Okonjo-Iweala shows that with an unwavering determination to overcome barriers, great levels of success are attainable despite gender. She also instills the value of not forgetting to have fun along the way and famously got everyone dancing during a TED talk.
Amika is a British activist who campaigns against period poverty. Aged just 17 she launched the #FreePeriods campaign to raise awareness of the issue and destigmatize menstruation. Now aged 22 her non-profit Free Periods had enacted policy change in the UK and last year she was the youngest MBE recipient for her services to education.
Key takeaway: In this digital world enacting change from your bedroom is possible.
Wendy Beatriz Caishpal Jaco
An inspiring entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, and spokesperson for the rights of disabled people and survivors of armed conflict, Wendy refuses to accept biased views that consider these groups as ‘weak’, or unable to achieve great things.
She is El Salvador’s representative at the Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability and International Mobility USA and champions for global development.
Key takeaway: “Women and girls with disabilities experience double discrimination, which places them at higher risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation.” Wendy’s work deserves heightened support to change this tide.
Mphokuhle (Mpho) Mabhena
Mpho is a Senior Trainer at Sonke Gender Justice, a human rights-based organisation working throughout Africa to further social justice and advocacy for gender equality, prevent gender-based violence and reduce the impact of HIV and AIDS. Sonke have been a partner of Concern Worldwide’s for many years. In Mpho’s words this has been focused on “strengthening Concern’s capacity to carry out gender-transformative programming, which really started by assessing the attitude of Concern staff in Malawi.”
Key takeaway: International agencies need to take note and follow Mpho’s example by changing staff attitudes through training, particularly using the ‘Engaging Men and Women on Gender Equality’ methodology. Mpho states “we need to engage men and boys because they have their own gendered vulnerabilities and their own specific health and social needs. It is also essential in fostering positive views in relationships and behaviours among men from an early age.”
Diversity and Inclusion - the key to unlocking a bias free world
Although these inspiring women are accelerating change and igniting hope, there is still much to be done to ‘break the bias’.
In addition to what we can learn from the above stories, agencies play a key role and need to change how they communicate. Women of Concern celebrate women across the globe as agents of change. This is through the narratives we propagate and the images we use to showcase women and girls and it is only through widespread uptake that this approach will begin to reframe society.
Diversity and inclusion must also play a part in breaking the bias worldwide in 2022. From employers adopting unconscious bias training in the workplace, which has been proven successful by Harvard Business School, to international non-governmental organisations becoming more diverse. Concern Worldwide is currently working with brap, an equalities charity, to devise an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) plan. Danny Harvey, Concern UK’s Executive Director said, “We want to be more diverse and more inclusive and we have reflected this in our new strategic plan where we aim to ‘Increase diversity at all levels and commit to inclusive leadership that models, represents and nourishes a culture where all identities are accepted, valued and belong.’” Only by fostering partnerships to enable information and best practice sharing, will we be able to reach our common goal together.
As to what we can all do day to day, the UN’s list of 12 small ways you can push for gender equality is a good start, but most importantly we must continue to come together to amplify our voices.
Stand with us in joining the IWD campaign and be a part of #breakthebias.
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