At a crucial juncture for women’s rights, here is our agenda for change

4 Jul

– Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action

Now is a moment ripe with possibility for making strides forwards on women’s rights. Just last week, the Executive Director of the first ever United Nations women’s agency, Michelle Bachelet, announced UN Women’s strategic plan. For One World Action, it felt like a huge milestone to see women’s leadership and participation as UN Women’s first priority – an issue we have been campaigning on for several decades. This year, the power of women’s participation was most vividly demonstrated to me by the pivotal role women have played in protesting for democracy and freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the region, women have stood alongside men and demanded change. Another particularly poignant example of the key role of women leaders in mobilising social change came last year with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s courageous pro-democracy leader.

Yet alongside these inspiring examples, I sense an aching disappointment among many feminists – particularly those of us engaged with or situated within the development industry – at the gap between aspirations for social transformation and the limited and fragile gains that women have made towards equality and freedom. We have seen the transformation that comes when women know their rights and entitlements and are able to make demands and put pressure on the state to deliver these. Yet, increasingly, narrow and instrumental economic and security agendas seem to be trumping more positive agendas based on human rights and well-being. We know that in order to transform the unequal position of women we must build collective power, particularly at the grassroots, so that women themselves define and drive their own change. Yet we have watched as donor resources have shifted away from supporting women’s organising towards interventions which show more readily “measurable” returns in the short-term.

The future is perhaps more precarious still, with the fascinating rise of new emerging donors – China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa – whose aid is focused primarily on south-south economic cooperation rather than poverty reduction or human rights. What will the consequences be for advancing a positive women’s rights-based development agenda in the longer-term? Another group of new donors – the New Member States of the European Union – are also channelling their aid in support not of rights or even poverty reduction, but political interests and regional stability. At this time of shifting global dynamics, the presence of strong feminist movements surely becomes all the more critical to pressure governments in emerging donor countries to invest in the kinds of interventions that can truly transform the lives of women and girls.

At this crucial juncture for women’s rights, it seems time to ask some difficult questions. How can we close the yawning gap between abstract legal rights and frameworks and women’s access to a justice system that treats them fairly and equally? In a world marked by the resurgence of fundamentalisms and persistent attacks on sexual and reproductive rights, what will it take to realise one of the most basic yet contested of rights – women’s right to control what happens to their own bodies? How can we make women’s work safe, fairly paid and valued when the race-to-the-bottom in labour standards and wages continues unabated and when un- and under- employment grows in the aftermath of the financial crisis? With decision-making still dominated by men the world over, what will it take to get women’s voices heard and taken seriously?

Our agenda for changeConstruction workers and members of the Self Employed Women's Assocation, India

It is in this context – marked by huge opportunity but also a darkening political environment for women’s rights – that One World Action believes a feminist approach to development is more important than ever. This is why we work in partnership with women’s rights organisations around the world to empower women so that their voices are heard, their rights are observed and their choices respected. In Zambia, for example, we are supporting the national Women’s Lobby to run Girls’ Leadership Clubs in schools to build girls’ confidence and leadership skills. Our groundbreaking project in India is linking high street companies such as Next, Monsoon and Gap to buy directly from women embroiderers who work at home – as a result 1,000 women are now being paid on time and have seen their wages double. In Malawi, we are supporting the first ever platform for women living with HIV to challenge cultural norms, sensitise communities, and make women aware of their human rights and confident in claiming them. And in Tanzania, we are working with the Women’s Legal Aid Centre to strengthen women’s legal literacy through an innovative radio programme.

Strengthening women’s voice, agency, leadership and decision-making power – none of these are quick or easy to achieve. Yet we focus on these changes because we believe they are fundamental cornerstones of achieving gender equality and catalysing positive social change. Only when women are supported to act as agents of change – as leaders and decision-makers rather than as victims in need of rescuing by development agencies – is it possible to truly transform the position of women in their societies and create a fairer world.

One World Action has launched a new campaign to find One Hundred Unseen Powerful Women who change the worldFor more information and to nominate your unseen powerful women please go to:  

We will be awarding prizes to the top ten women within several categories. To donate to the campaign fund, which will also support One World Action’s work to empower women leaders around the world, please visit the following page:  

Or text POWA00 followed by £2, £5 or £10 to 70070


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