It is Women’s Equality Day today. One of the most profound social transformations of the past century is the deep and broad shifts in the status of women, and more importantly, in the worldwide acceptance of the notion of women’s rights and gender equality as desirable goals. This incredible shift has occurred not by accident but by design – through the conscious and determined struggles of courageous women and the movements they have built. Through their activism and advocacy, our very understanding of what constitutes social justice has been indelibly altered, and the once seemingly normal forms of gender-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion are now at least recognized as problems, if not resolved.
No other struggle for social justice has had quite the same depth or breadth of impact – and the proof of this lies in the increasingly violent backlash against women’s growing equality seen in almost every part of the world – from the rolling back of women’s reproductive rights in the United States, to the lashing of jeans-clad young women in Sudan or Indonesia, the banning of girls’ schools by the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, or the killing of women’s rights activists across Mesoamerica.
It is truly surprising therefore that women’s rights organizing and movements have been functioning, often with quite minimal financial support, even as their experience and effectiveness has increased. Worst of all, many of the very strategies they originally advanced to meet women’s practical needs and advance their position in society have been disconnected from the comprehensive approaches of which they were a part, and isolated as “magic wands” that will empower women without dealing with the deeper gender power structures that are at the root of gender inequality: micro-credit and micro-entrepreneurship programs, for instance, or quotas for women in politics, or legal interventions on violence against women and girls; the steady and essential processes of organizing women, raising their consciousness, helping them analyze the root causes of their disempowerment, building women’s collective power and collective strategies for change, supporting women to challenge the cultural and social norms that justify their subordination.