Youth blog: Reflecting on the Beijing+25 Road in times of COVID-19

By Marwa Azelmat

Date: Saturday, July 11, 2020

Marwa Azelmat, feminist advocate from Morocco. Photo: Global Campus of Human Rights

“We are only as strong as our weakest health system”, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. As an invisible disease emerged on the scene, calling off major annual convenings, and shuttering schools, offices, and places of worship. A wind of madness unprecedentedly instilled the beginning of this decade, bringing some of the world’s most vibrant industries to a standstill. While the race for appropriate healthcare pushed everyone to work around the clock, some once-important agendas were left for a mere afterthought.

The year 2020 was declared as the women’s rights year[1], taking stock of milestone events in the feminist advocacy journey. Among others, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which rallied in 1995 over 30,000 participants around securing political will that was remarkable in breadth and making commitments that were historic in scope[2]. This progressive blueprint has not only served to advance gender equality but also laid out a comprehensive framework for change that brought out 12 critical areas of concern[3]. Fast-forward to today, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a knock-out blow to this hard-won experience where women and girls shoulder the gendered brunt of the outbreak. 

As cities went into lockdown, people called to social-distancing and main activities suspended, a tug of war between heightened domestic duties and already simmering patriarchal mindsets is playing out against women. While governments are sparing no effort to slow down the spread of the disease, timely responses to the rise of gender-based inequalities remain confined to headlines. And while a large share of citizens is navigating online platforms for a daily dose of health information, internet connectivity is still a luxury for nearly half the world, with women lagging behind. Amid the present-day turmoil, such far-reaching implications don’t occur in a vacuum, COVID-like disasters rather lay bare the existing frailties of our systems that are deeply rooted in context. Hence, the centrality of digital inequality, a coming together of digital technologies and social justice has never been more critical to the feminist discourse to providing an equitable lifeline[4] to everyone regardless of their gender along the lines of race, ability, religion to name just a few.

Just as SARS informed Asia’s response to COVID-19, this crisis should not be allowed to go to waste. 2020 hasn’t lived up to its feminist strides when it has born witness to a long-running shadow pandemic[5] the international community can no longer afford to ignore. Violence against women and girls is not the only elephant in the room. Establishing an internet that doesn’t exacerbate existing unequal power dynamics sounds like a primary turning point of the bump in virtual traffics[6], as the heightened demand on digital communications takes a disproportionate toll on women’s access to social services including vital information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The Beijing road has not finished yet, though it might be shambling off down the way, nevertheless, we’ve never lost the momentum nor the willingness to build a world where women and girls can find freedom and keep it. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus disease, building a safe world online has to become a top priority. Embedding ICTs in the Beijing+25 consultation process as a subset of inequality rather than a special case, will contribute to tap into the vast potential women can bring about if they are to own their digital bodies and assert their agency online. Further, leveraging the digitization of the judiciary is a single step that would come a long way accounting for the importance to have emergency support at fingertips for violence casualties and other silenced voices.

The next years would be decisive for the gender equality pipeline, hence, each policy reform should be well thought of in terms of sustainability, flexibility, and risk mitigation. Otherwise, it would be like running blindfolded in a labyrinth looking for the nearest exit. Maybe, by sheer coincidence, we might find a collective way out, however, women’s rights can never be left to hazard. They matter in both physical and virtual setting and represent the lungs of the societies.

Marwa Azelmat is a feminist advocate and an IT engineer from Morocco. She has worked in the development of programmes and policies addressing violent extremism and gender through the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. She has conducted research and advocacy work on women’s digital rights and online gender-based violence. She is a member of UN Women’s Youth Gender Innovation Agora.

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/27/everybody-is-talking-about-it-womens-rights-to-take-centre-stage-in-2020

[2] https://beijing20.unwomen.org/en/about

[3] Ibid

[4] Deborah Brown, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/25/closing-digital-divide-critical-covid-19-response

[5] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic

[6] https://www.gsma.com/newsroom/blog/keeping-the-world-connected-development-challenges-in-times-of-covid-19/