The pandemic has not stopped the rise of the women’s movement

In early July, world leaders addressed the United Nations Generation Equality Forum in Paris, reaffirming the role of gender equality in prosperity and stability and commemorating the historic 1995 Beijing conference which enshrined women’s rights in international law. But two and a half decades later, little has changed for women around the world, at least on the surface.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep-rooted structural barriers to gender equality, widening persistent gender gaps. Women already struggling with an unequal burden of care have seen their responsibilities multiply with the closure of schools and daycares, giving them a 173 hours of unpaid work over the past year, on average, about three times more than men. These economic setbacks have been compounded by rising rates of intimate partner violence, as many women have taken refuge at home with their abusers.

Female-dominated industries, such as hotels, restaurants and retail, were particularly vulnerable to the initial coronavirus crisis. In the United States, nearly 3 million women– and disproportionately women of color – have lost their jobs, sending women’s participation in the labor market to a Lowest in 33 years. Although women make up only 39 percent of the world’s workers, they have experienced the majority of job losses during the pandemic.

In early July, world leaders addressed the United Nations Generation Equality Forum in Paris, reaffirming the role of gender equality in prosperity and stability and commemorating the historic 1995 Beijing conference which enshrined women’s rights in international law. But two and a half decades later, little has changed for women around the world, at least on the surface.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep-rooted structural barriers to gender equality, widening persistent gender gaps. Women already struggling with an unequal burden of care have seen their responsibilities multiply with the closure of schools and daycares, giving them a 173 hours of unpaid work over the past year, on average, about three times more than men. These economic setbacks have been compounded by rising rates of intimate partner violence, as many women have taken refuge at home with their abusers.

Female-dominated industries, such as hotels, restaurants and retail, were particularly vulnerable to the initial coronavirus crisis. In the United States, nearly 3 million women– and disproportionately women of color – have lost their jobs, sending women’s participation in the labor market to a Lowest in 33 years. Although women make up only 39 percent of the world’s workers, they have experienced the majority of job losses during the pandemic.

But even the challenges to gender equality presented by the pandemic cannot stop the rise of the global women’s movement of the 21st century. The digital organization has fueled the most widespread cultural calculus in history on women’s rights. Unlike 1995, the current wave of the global women’s movement cannot be measured by the number of delegates rushed into a United Nations convention hall. The fight for gender equality has amassed power in new ways, using digital tools that have democratized and diversified the movement, accelerating change across borders and creating the conditions for unprecedented progress.

Our research into the front lines of the 21st century women’s movement confirms its unique power. Historically, women have only achieved transnational gains after having spent a lifetime organizing. The struggle for women’s suffrage, for example, has been extremely slow. In the early 1900s, the marches for international suffrage took months, if not years, of planning, and it took decades for women around the world to finally gain the right to vote. Even at the end of the 20th century, the campaign to recognize women’s rights as part of human rights doctrine took decades, starting with the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975 and culminating with the Beijing historic conference.

In contrast, today’s feminist movement uses social media to engage millions of people in weeks, if not days. The historic 2017 Women’s March, the largest coordinated global women’s protest in history, took place on every continent just 10 weeks after the controversial 2016 presidential election in the United States. The same year, in less than a month, #MeToo, symbol of the movement to recognize the omnipresence of sexual assault, appeared 77 million times on Facebook alone, going viral in more than 190 countries and disrupt generations of discriminatory social norms.

Digital tools, from social media to communication platforms like WhatsApp, have diversified the women’s movement by empowering anyone with an internet connection. While leaders of previous eras tended to be professional activists or government officials from privileged backgrounds, millions of women of all races, ethnicities, creeds and social classes have now made their voices heard online. This late inclusion has strengthened the movement, amplifying marginalized and economically disenfranchised communities and adding considerable strength in numbers.

Can this rise in women’s activism be sustained in the wake of the pandemic? Even in the face of the coronavirus-related setbacks, there are encouraging signs that the latest wave of the global women’s movement has survived. Despite physical barriers, such as blockades and school closings, women have used digital tools to post about sexual harassment and abuse as well as to demand change. And despite the risks of the coronavirus, many protesters continued to take to the streets.

At the height of the pandemic, Argentinian women, who began to protest against gender-based violence under the #NiUnaMenos campaign before # MeToo — donned face masks and organized marches, leveraging their new political power to push for legal abortion. Their historic victory had ripple effects across Latin America. Around the same time, women in Iran stood up to join their sisters around the world and say #MeToo, voicing allegations of sexual abuse against prominent Iranian men and pushing the government to consider a revolutionary bill criminalize sexual assault and harassment.

While the pandemic has undermined women’s participation in the economy, it has not silenced women’s voices. Already, women have used their new collective power to demand that recovery efforts include long-neglected priorities, such as investing in infrastructure to support care that increases women’s earning capacity. And as nations begin to vaccinate their populations, reduce the spread of the virus, and reopen schools and businesses, that activism will only grow.

To maintain this momentum, governments and private sector leaders must increase their support for grassroots organizations leading the movement, which remain significantly underfunded. Investing in women’s movements is helping close the types of economic gender gaps that have widened during the pandemic. Recent to research of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development found that less than half a cent of every dollar in core grants goes to women’s rights advocacy. Around the world, the top 30 government donors spend just 4% of development assistance on gender equality, even among governments that proclaim their support for women’s rights.

Greater investment in women leaders and the organizations leading this digital activism will help accelerate the pace of change, especially in developing countries. Canada’s Equality Fund offers a strong model, with funds dedicated solely to providing resources to women’s organizations and investment decisions guided by a diverse group of leaders from local movements around the world. Local feminist leaders have had a significant effect on the advancement of women’s economic opportunities in recent decades. Proof suggests resources for locally led women’s movements pay powerful dividends, changing attitudes towards violence against women and promoting women’s economic participation.

Local leaders have used modern tools to transform the scale and reach of the global women’s movement in record time. Governments seeking to advance gender equality should capitalize on the speed, scale, diversity and transnational nature of this digital wave and support a generation of women who have already proven their resilience.

Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone are the authors of Awakening: #MeToo and the global fight for women’s rights, published on July 13 by PublicAffairs. Listen to Rachel Vogelstein’s conversation on the pandemic and gender equality with FP editor Ravi Agrawal on Global restart.