Women’s low participation in decision-making one of the main gender equality challenges

It was an international breakthrough for gender equality when 189 countries agreed on an action plan to strengthen women’s rights 25 years ago. Some years later, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, rooted in the action plan. The 2020 anniversary of the resolution is an occasion to celebrate women’s rights. But what is the status of gender equality today?

– Gender equality is under pressure in a way that I have not seen before in my lifetime, says Gertrud Åström, one of Sweden’s foremost gender equality experts.

In the beginning of the 1990s, she was part of the development of a strategy called gender mainstreaming that is widely used today, and she formulated the Swedish position ahead of the United Nations women’s conference in Beijing in 1995. The ambition was to change the way gender equality is seen, from being seen as a side issue to being viewed as fundamental, and an aspect to take into account in all other types of issues.

– It was not possible to improve women’s lives and conditions if we continued to rely on some spare money. We had to dare express that inequality is a structural problem, and demand a redistribution of resources, Gertrud Åström says.

Sweden’s position is almost literally reflected in the Beijing declaration and platform for action, which covers twelve areas, from violence against women in conflict situations to women’s economic autonomy.

– It is possible to have an impact if you use sharp formulations and argue for the importance of gender equality to achieve social development. Gender equality leads to stronger economy, more robust families and less violence, Gertrud emphasizes.

Gender equality entails that women and men shall have the same rights and opportunities, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that no discrimination can be made based on gender. But even though the world’s countries have agreed on paper, different conditions for men and women are often accepted in reality.

FBA strengthens efforts for gender equality

The UN Security Council has emphasized that all peace operations must have a gender equality perspective, and take women’s needs and rights in armed conflicts into account. And today there is a broad consensus peace and security is a policy area that affects all other policy areas.

– The international focus on the special vulnerabilities of women is quite new. For a long time, women’s issues were considered domestic issues with no place in the public domain, says Gabriela Elroy, head of FBA’s women, gender equality and youth unit.

FBA is the Swedish expert agency within this field, tasked with strengthening Sweden’s implementation of the women, peace and security agenda.

– We strive to make gender mainstreaming possible, and we try to simplify the process of gender mainstreaming without diminishing it. It must be doable and achievable, Gabriela Elroy explains.

FBA makes sure to carry out its own activities in a gender equal way. The government agency also supports gender mainstreaming in international institutions and organizations. Gabriela Elroy’s experience is that FBA’s partners around the world are interested in gender equality and motivated to work with gender mainstreaming.

– However, we have to make sure that gender equality is not seen as a separate matter. We must highlight that a gender equality perspective has to be applied to all activities. Most people  eventually find it interesting and feel that it can increase their understanding of the world, she says.

Human rights in decline

On behalf of the Swedish government, FBA coordinates the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network.  Annika Söder, former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and now President of the European Institute of Peace, is the newest member of the network.

Together with Margot Wallström, the Foreign Minister at the time, she launched Sweden’s feminist foreign policy in 2014; often described in terms of rights, representation and resources.

– It highlights that this is an issue of equal rights, women’s participation, and economic and social preconditions, Annika Söder explains. She adds that a “reality check” is also needed to ensure real impact.  

Sweden prioritized gender equality as a principled member of the UN Security Council during 2017–2018, and managed to get across writings about women’s participation and role in peace processes in most decisions taken by the Security Council.

– It is a huge success that we managed that. It is not enough to say nice things about gender equality once a year, Annika says.  

While women’s access to education and health has improved globally, political decision-making is still prone to gender inequality, according to the World Economic Forum that produces regular reports on the global gender gap.

Female role models are important, but most important is actual politics, says Annika Söder. Decision-making processes have to acknowledge women as actors, so that they do not only become tokens for leaders who want to legitimize their power. In addition, men have to be engaged in efforts for gender equality.

– Even if 50 percent of the members of parliament in a country are women, it will not go far if they cannot push for the necessary decisions.

That is why the members of the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network act as mentors in trainings for women in conflict-affected countries like Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan, in order to strengthen their capacity to reach out to decision-makers.

With ten years remaining until the deadline for fulfilment of the sustainable development goals in Agenda 2030, the objective of a gender equal world is still far away. Right now, democracy and human rights are declining in large parts of the world. Women’s rights are restricted in many areas, and political polarization is increasing.

– On one hand, there is greater global understanding of the benefits of gender equality. On the other hand, some people feel threatened and do not understand that power has to be shared. We have to accelerate; hold on to international rules and support those who are fighting for a change, Annika Söder says.

Photo 1: Annika Söder, Gertrud Åström and Gabriela Elroy (from the left).

Photo 2: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein


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