Participants at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris. It takes places amid concerns of an estimated additional 47 million women falling into extreme poverty due to Covid. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Billions of pounds will be pledged to support efforts to tackle gender inequality this week at the largest international conference on women’s rights in more than 25 years.
The Generation Equality Forum, hosted in Paris by UN Women and the governments of France and Mexico, will launch plans to radically speed up progress over the next five years.
After two years of consultation between governments, feminist and women’s rights groups, philanthropic foundations, the private sector and UN agencies, the three-day forum takes place amid concerns the pandemic has exacerbated a crisis in women’s rights.
An estimated 47 million more women will fall into extreme poverty due to Covid, according to the World Economic Forum. And the International Labour Organization has said unemployment for women rose by 9 million in 2020 compared to 2019 and is projected to increase by another 2 million in 2021. The pattern for men is different – they are projected to see unemployment decrease in 2021.
“The world has been fighting for gender equality for decades, but progress has been slow. Now is the chance to reignite a movement and deliver real change,” said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced a new commitment of $2.1bn (£1.5bn) over five years to economic empowerment, health and family planning, and accelerating women in leadership. “The beauty of our fight for gender equality is that every human being will gain from it.”
French Gates said that while there has been some progress since the fourth world conference on women brought 47,000 activists to Beijing in 1995, nowhere in the world are women on equal footing with men. Waves of opposition to women’s rights have emerged, and structural barriers still exist.
Other pledges of funding, and legislative changes, will be announced in six areas: gender-based violence, economic justice, sexual and reproductive health rights, climate justice, technology and innovation and feminist movements and leadership.
A compact addressing women’s role in peace and security and gender equality in humanitarian programming is also due to be unveiled.
In response to the pandemic exacerbating digital inequities, the Global Fund for Women will launch its System Reboot campaign to support feminist technology innovators in the developing world and to “mobilise technology as a force for gender justice”.
The Ford Foundation, which last year sold its social bonds to raise cash to help tackle the economic fallout of the pandemic, will pledge $420m (£300m) over five years. Nicolette Naylor, a programme director at the foundation, said talk about gender equality had not been matched by action. “As some parts of the world start to emerge from the pandemic, it is essential that gender equality is at the heart of building back better. It’s time to stop talking and start funding the organisations that are driving change and the necessary progress on global gender equality.”
Heads of state from Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Kenya, South Africa and Tunisia will join French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in person. While online, US vice-president, Kamala Harris, is due to speak and former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is also scheduled to appear.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said the forum was a reaction to the slowness of achieving both the Beijing action plan and the UN’s sustainable development goals, and made more urgent by the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women.
“Beijing was not financed and we’ve struggled in the last 25 years to implement it,” she said.
But there have been concerns over how the money will be spent. Hakima Abbas, co-executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, said: “We have no sense yet of where that money is going, or to who, or for what.
“It’s really great that we are talking about billions being committed, especially because the resources were part of the problem of Beijing. There has not been political will or the financial backing to make the [Beijing] platform for action’s implementation possible.”
She added: “The key drivers of change are feminist movements. If you don’t have strong feminist movements you’re not going to drive gender equality. If these billions go to private/public partnerships, that’s not going to be catalytic. You need to make sure the majority of the funding goes to feminist movements.”
Some of the hundreds of activists recruited globally to ensure young people participated in discussions have also expressed frustrations.
A young feminist manifesto, published earlier this year, said unequal power dynamics and disregarded opinions resulted in young people “finding it very difficult to participate in these spaces, not to mention to co-lead and co-own them”.