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The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped the Rise of the Women’s Movement

Digital tools have multiplied collective power around the world. Leaders must invest in sustaining it.

By , the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and , an adjunct senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Members of the Non Una Di Meno feminist group stage a protest.
Members of the Non Una Di Meno feminist group stage a protest against the Turkish president’s decision to formally exit a treaty combatting femicide and domestic abuse in Piazza Castello in Turin, Italy, on July 1. Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images

In early July, world leaders addressed the United Nations Generation Equality Forum in Paris, reaffirming gender equality’s role in prosperity and stability as well as commemorating the landmark 1995 Beijing conference that enshrined women’s rights in international law. But two and a half decades later, not nearly enough has changed for women around the world, at least on the surface.

The coronavirus pandemic unmasked deeply rooted structural barriers to gender equality, widening persistent gender gaps. Women already saddled with an unequal caregiving burden saw their responsibilities multiply as schools and child care centers closed, giving them an extra 173 hours of unpaid work in the past year, on average—around three times more than men. These economic setbacks were worsened by increasing rates of intimate partner violence as many women sheltered at home with their abusers.

In early July, world leaders addressed the United Nations Generation Equality Forum in Paris, reaffirming gender equality’s role in prosperity and stability as well as commemorating the landmark 1995 Beijing conference that enshrined women’s rights in international law. But two and a half decades later, not nearly enough has changed for women around the world, at least on the surface.

The coronavirus pandemic unmasked deeply rooted structural barriers to gender equality, widening persistent gender gaps. Women already saddled with an unequal caregiving burden saw their responsibilities multiply as schools and child care centers closed, giving them an extra 173 hours of unpaid work in the past year, on average—around three times more than men. These economic setbacks were worsened by increasing rates of intimate partner violence as many women sheltered at home with their abusers.

Female-dominated industries, such as hospitality, food service, and retail, were especially vulnerable to the initial coronavirus crisis. In the United States, nearly 3 million women—and disproportionately women of color—lost their jobs, sending female participation in the labor force to a 33-year low. Although women comprise only 39 percent of workers globally, they suffered the majority of job losses during the pandemic.

But even challenges to gender equality presented by the pandemic cannot stop the rise of the 21st-century global women’s movement. Digital organizing has fueled the most widespread cultural reckoning on women’s rights in history. Unlike in 1995, the current wave of the global women’s movement isn’t measured by the number of delegates squeezed into a U.N. 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.

Digital organizing has fueled the most widespread cultural reckoning on women’s rights in history.

Our research on the front lines of the 21st-century women’s movement confirms its unique power. Historically, women achieved transnational gains only after lifetimes of organizing. The fight for women’s suffrage, for example, was painstakingly slow. In the early 1900s, international suffrage marches required months or even years of planning, and it took decades for women around the world to finally win the right to vote. Even in the late 20th century, the campaign to recognize women’s rights under human rights doctrine took decades, beginning with the first U.N. World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975 and culminating in the historic Beijing conference.

In contrast, today’s women’s movement uses social media to mobilize millions of people in a matter of weeks or even days. The historic 2017 Women’s March, the largest coordinated global women’s protest in history, took place on every continent only 10 weeks after the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election. The same year, in less than a month, #MeToo—a symbol of the movement to recognize the pervasiveness of sexual assault—appeared 77 million times on Facebook alone, going viral in more than 190 countries and disrupting generations of discriminatory social norms.

Digital tools, from social media to communications platforms like WhatsApp, have diversified the women’s movement by granting power to anyone with an internet connection. Whereas leaders in previous eras tended to be professional activists or government representatives from privileged backgrounds, millions of women of every race, ethnicity, creed, and class have now raised their voices online. This overdue 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 coronavirus-related setbacks, there are hopeful signs the latest wave of the global women’s movement has survived. Despite physical impediments, such as lockdowns and school closures, women used digital tools to post about sexual harassment and abuse as well as 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 protesting against gender-based violence under the #NiUnaMenos campaign before #MeToo—donned face masks and organized marches, leveraging their newfound political power to push for legal abortion. Their historic victory has had ripple effects throughout Latin America. Around the same time, women in Iran rose 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 groundbreaking bill to criminalize sexual assault and harassment.

Although the pandemic has undermined women’s participation in the economy, it has not quieted women’s voices. Already, women have used their newfound collective power to demand that recovery efforts include long-overlooked priorities, such as investing in infrastructure to support caregiving that boosts women’s earning capacity. And as nations begin to vaccinate their populations, reduce spread of the virus, and reopen schools and businesses, this activism is only likely to grow.

Investment in women’s movements helps close the kinds of economic gender gaps that widened during the pandemic.

To sustain this momentum, governments and private sector leaders must increase support of the grassroots organizations leading the movement, which remain dramatically underfunded. Investment in women’s movements helps close the kinds of economic gender gaps that widened during the pandemic. Recent research from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development found less than half a penny of every dollar in foundational grants goes toward women’s rights. Around the world, the top 30 government donors spend only 4 percent of development aid on gender equality, even among governments that proclaim support for women’s rights.

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

Local leaders have used modern tools to transform the scale and scope 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 about the pandemic and gender equality with FP Editor in Chief Ravi Agrawal on Global Reboot.

Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @rvogelstein

Meighan Stone is an adjunct senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former president of the Malala Fund. Twitter: @meighanstone

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