“We need to do something differently this time. We need to use this historic moment to do something differently. And my generation is calling for a new approach to leadership, intergenerational co-leadership because we cannot inherit systems we didn’t co-design…“
—Aya Chebbi, first-ever African Union special envoy on youth and youngest diplomat
Over the course of almost four hours, heads of state, leaders of international organizations, philanthropists, civil society and the newest generation of activists were introduced as co-visionaries of the Generation Equality Forum.
Throughout the opening ceremony, country leaders, directors of international institutions and donors declared their political and financial commitments to gender equality:
- Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced the foundation would be committing $2.1 billion toward three of the six Generation Equality Action Coalitions;
- the Ford Foundation likewise announced a $420 million investment toward five of those areas;
- Mari Pangestu, managing director of the World Bank, committed to major investment programs in 12 African states; and
- the governments of France, the European Union, the United States, Kenya, Germany, Argentina, Georgia, Finland, Canada and South Africa made both political and financial commitments, expected to reach $17 billion by the end of the three-day forum.
With stakeholders as influential as world leaders and billionaire philanthropists, is giving young people the microphone more than just symbolic at best, and a ploy of tokenism at worst? How can we hold international institutions accountable for their commitment to the inclusion of young people and civil society as co-leaders of Generation Equality?
With the goal of pushing forward commitments made 26 years ago at the Fourth World Conference on Women, and “building back better” post COVID-19, U.N. Women’s Generation Equality Forum was co-chaired by the governments of Mexico and France—the former and that of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador whose government has supported a lackluster response to gender-based violence, failing victims and advocates with his utter disregard for and discreditation of their fight; and the latter, that of Emmanuel Macron, whose government has validated discriminatory rhetoric and advocated femonationalist policy.
AMLO’s speech televised at the forum consisted of detracting the focus from gender, not including the word even when speaking of the “forum on equality,” and mentioning gender only briefly to state, “of course men and women are equal, and we must continue combatting machismo,” before moving the attention to economic and social equality for the remainder of his speech; his campaign promise to end corruption, and attention directed toward the class divide has left the cause of gender equality to suffer.
Macron’s remarks at the opening ceremony defended France’s model: “It is about reaffirming that no cultural or religious relativism, no regional or identity-based particularism, justifies that a woman cannot enjoy the same rights and the same opportunities as a man.”
The presidents fail to recognize the indispensable recognition of the intersection between class and gender; race and gender; ethnicity and gender; country of origin and gender; and so on. How can young women be assured they will be sufficiently supported by the international community whilst those denying their individual identities and collective plights are designated as leaders of gender equality and given the platform to expand their narrative? How can young women trust they will be acknowledged as capable of identifying their own needs and thus, the areas in which resource allocation would be most beneficial to them?
The point of this forum is “to do things differently,” according to executive director of U.N. Women, Phmuzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
The first point of divergence between 2021’s Generation Equality and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women is the emphasis of Generation Equality as a multi-stakeholder and intergenerational effort, with the involvement of civil society organizations, the private sector, philanthropies and youth-led organizations in addition to member states, United Nations agencies and international organizations.
The second is the requiring of all participants to submit measurable financial and political commitments in at least one of the key Action Coalition areas, identifying progress using the established accountability framework over the next five years.
Sharing the stage with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Mari Pangestu, managing director of the World Bank; and the youngest prime minister in the world, Sanna Marin of Finland (34); the youngest by a year and the only civil society representative onstage, Aya Chebbi (33), founder of pan-African feminist collective NALA fearlessly voiced what young people and civil society expect out of Generation Equality.
“Jobs. Freedom. Dignity. It has always been a revolution for economic justice led by women and young people.”
Speaking of the “revolution of dignity,” known in the West as the Arab Spring, she underscored the role young women played in the 2011 movement, connecting it with the international feminist movement, a movement that should also be a movement for economic justice and dignity.
She continued by denouncing the dominant narrative of Western countries, highly influential in intergovernmental and international initiatives, like those of the U.N. and its agencies, in limiting the equal opportunities available to young women of the African diaspora, and seamlessly alludes to global vaccine inequities and the exclusion of women from low-income countries from world conferences, including Generation Equality.
“Sexist, discriminatory, Islamophobic laws today ban young women from wearing hijab in some countries and enforce hijab in other countries. … Young women in Africa do not have access to vaccines and cannot afford $80 COVID tests and 150 Euro visa fees and many of them are not here because of that. So how are we gonna change that? What action are we gonna take today? This is intersectional. It cannot be fixed by creating jobs and teaching girls how to code.”
Addressing the gender gap in STEM in low-income countries has long been a band-aid solution to global inequities caused by a neocolonial system. What is the solution to this temporary fix that has failed us for so long? A new approach to leadership to rectify international priorities.
Echoing Phmuzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Chebbi declared, “We need to do something differently this time. We need to use this historic moment to do something differently. And my generation is calling for a new approach to leadership, intergenerational co-leadership because we cannot inherit systems we didn’t co-design… we have the demographic power, the voting power, the innovation power, the youth-led accountability power. I don’t as a millennial want to build back better [the economy]. I want to build forward with equity and feminist economics.”
“We need to change the system because the current system does not work for us,” she continued. “The current racist, patriarchal, neocolonial system does not work for us, does not provide equal pay for equal work.”
At the base of the revindications of grassroots activists in low-income countries historically left behind? Equitable and transparent funding.
“40 billion [dollars] is an amazing commitment but that funding should go directly to women and girls most vulnerable, should go directly to organizations in the grassroots. … Why is it that when there is [a] terrorist attack[s] in the Sahel region countries go to fund militarization but do not fund with the same urgency 20 million girls in the Sahel right now under the age of 18 who have no economic opportunities. So, there is money. There is enough. Where is it spent. How is it spent. That is what we need to do differently moving forward.”
Though the only panelist to be twice interrupted during her five-minute discourse by Elisabeth Moreno—French minister for gender equality, diversity and equal opportunities and moderator of the panel—Chebbi rightfully claimed her time.
By the end of the forum, governments and public sector institutions combined had committed to invest $21 billion, the private sector $13 billion, and philanthropy $4.5 billion. U.N. entities, international and regional organizations $1.3 billion.
At the closing ceremony, during her last remarks of the Generation Equality Forum, U.N. Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “During the last few days a few people have called me aside wanting to know what’s going to happen to these resources… the resources that have been put forward by the many commitment makers that were here today will go to grassroots organizations in communities. They will go to Member States, who need to implement programs that will address women and girls that are facing trouble. They will also go to the U.N. agencies that have programs that must be scaled up and taken to a much larger scale.”
And lastly, speaking about young people, “They will look much further than we can look, and they are a new generation. What was born in Beijing, these young people are going to take forward for us, who are older now. This is the new birth of a new generation and new leadership for women…”
In order to truly build back better after the global pandemic, we must build forward. Our approach must be intersectional, recognizing all identities and all communities and addressing all inequalities as a necessary precursor to policymaking. The UN and its agencies must prioritize funding grassroots organizations, acknowledging those most affected will benefit most through direct funding. Young feminists must be incorporated into decision-making, and accountability frameworks must be co-created and overseen by those in the grassroots and young people.
With notable accountability mechanism modifications these next five years, we can expect governments to get closer to reaching their political commitments; what is left to be seen is whether the international community will have adequately supported all communities of women and girls, equitably distributed resources to the appropriate organizations, and met young people’s demands of inclusion in collaborative leadership.
*Aya Chebbi, first-ever African Union special envoy on youth and youngest diplomat, founded the pan-African feminist collective NALA, a Pan-African group of 17 feminists under the age of 40 with a mission to foster, enable and mobilize young women from Africa and Diaspora, while bridging the gap between policy and implementation, intergovernmental and grassroots as well as generational spaces. As an attempt to bring closer African Young Women to the global phora offered by the GEF Chebbi convened Africa Young Women Beijing+25 Regional Barazas and Global Intergenerational Dialogue, which led to the creation of the Africa Young Women Beijing+25 Manifesto.
*Other youth groups who were heavily involved in the conception of the forum include the Youth Task Force whose 40 members collaborated in the nine months leading up to the forum in the creation of the Young Feminist Manifesto.