There can be no human rights without gender equality

• Recent global gender gains are under threat from growing conservatism.
• The universally agreed language of equality is also under attack.
• Governments must lead on fighting retrograde forces, supported by civil society.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ memorable phrase perfectly describes the world of today.

Health and science have advanced as never before. Yet health systems in many countries remain ill-equipped to combat the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

We are interconnected more than ever through digital platforms. But the online glue that binds us together virtually has – ironically – sown and amplified real-life divisions, even hatred.

The world has more democracies than ever, but the latest Freedom House report also indicates that democracy and pluralism are under increasing attack.

There are many casualties in this challenging global scenario – truth, compassion, basic decency.

And, not least, human rights and gender equality.

These twin pillars have underpinned landmark global frameworks ever since the founding of the United Nations itself 75 years ago – from the UN Charter of 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, all the way to the Programme of Action that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and, a year later, the Platform for Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Women are still grossly under-representated in leadership tiers.

The collective and complementary vision of all of these guide the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals, including Gender Equality.

Yes, gains have been made on several fronts globally, including in Asia and the Pacific, in recent decades.

But efforts to advance ICPD, the Beijing Platform and the SDGs are under sustained and concerted attack on multiple fronts in this age of escalating conservatism.

Universally agreed-upon language in UN and other global documents pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, as envisioned by ICPD, is being targeted by various actors seeking to turn back the clock, leading to damaging consequences for women’s health in the most resource-challenged countries.

The very concept of gender equality is under threat – and “gender” more than ever serves as a rallying cry for those who would perpetuate patriarchy, sexism and harmful practices against women at multiple levels of government and civil society.

These attacks take aim as well at the rights and well-being of individuals of diverse sexual identities, those living with disabilities and indigenous peoples – groups that have long been marginalized and excluded by society.

How do we counter all of this?

We need governments to demonstrate genuine leadership and be held accountable – with ICPD, Beijing and the SDGs as the yardsticks to be measured and judged by. At the ICPD25 Nairobi Summit last November, 145 countries, including 26 from Asia and the Pacific, made commitments to achieving the Programme of Action, recognising how integral it is to the SDGs – but it’s just a start.

We need civil society and communities to be empowered and ever bolder and courageous, to do what is right for women and girls around the world. The #MeToo movement to combat sexual harassment, for example, has gained global traction, but far too many voices remain silenced.

We need to forge a coalition of those who are already champions and those that still need to be convinced by enabling genuine dialogue – using our interconnected, online environment to unite, not divide. We’ve seen some progress in addressing gender-based violence through wide-ranging coalitions like UNiTE globally and Partners for Prevention in Asia-Pacific. And this year’s observance of Beijing25 seeks to bring governments, civil society and the UN together under the umbrella of #GenerationEquality.

We need robust, disaggregated data on women’s rights and gender equality to reveal where needs are the greatest, and ensure the inclusion of those furthest behind. The kNOwVAWdata Asia-Pacific initiative, gathering data on the prevalence of violence against women to spur governments to act, is a strong example.

We need to always remember that gains achieved should never be taken for granted. Without human rights, there will simply be no gender equality or women’s empowerment – and without gender equality, there can be no realization of human rights.

Twenty-five years after ICPD and the Beijing Platform for Action, let’s remain true to the ideals of the remarkable frameworks that were, after all, crafted collectively by countries themselves.

Talk is cheap. Gender equality, women’s rights and human rights cannot be values we simply aspire to, but must be regarded as the very foundations that ground humanity itself. These must serve as our collective lodestar, as we navigate this decade of action on the SDGs to a better future for all.

Bjorn Andersson – Asia-Pacific Regional Director, United Nations Population Fund. Read more on


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