At the end of April, gender equality advocates from around the world gathered for the Tunis Forum on Gender Equality. It was an important and successful meeting in a time when authoritarian tendencies are spreading.
“At the same time, we must not forget that in other parts of the world, there is a sense of momentum for gender equality,” said Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström in her opening speech.
More than 600 participants from around 80 countries gathered in Tunisia for the Tunis Forum on Gender Equality. They included students, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians, researchers and bloggers.
“Imagine how many cultures, religions, traditions, societies are represented. In this diversity, we are all united in our work for gender equality. And, believe me, this is a time when such unity is badly needed,” said Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström.
“The world belongs to those who work to make it better. And that means all of you!”
The Tunisian Ministry for Women, Family, Childhood and the Elderly co-hosted the forum with the United Nations Development Programme in Tunis and UN Women. It followed the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, which was held in April 2018.
As in Stockholm, hundreds of civil society actors and human rights activist from around the world gathered in Tunis, including many from Africa and the Middle East. Unique to Tunis was that half of the participants had to be under 35, which meant that young people were well represented in panels and discussions.
Sweden was a partner, not least through our Embassy in Tunis, and provided financial support through Sida.
Ms Wallström painted a picture of the situation around the world:
“Women are always the first to suffer the consequences of authoritarianism, of a shrinking democratic space, of the questioning of human rights. For some reason, these authoritarian leaders always start by caring about women. They care about how they dress, how they behave, their sexuality.
At the same time, we must not forget that, in other parts of the world, there is a sense of momentum for gender equality.
Recently, one of Africa’s largest countries, Ethiopia, appointed a government in which half of the ministers are women. I recently received news that a women mediators network in Asia has been initiated by the largest Muslim country in the world – Indonesia. World finance institutions such as the World Bank talk increasingly about the role of gender equality in economic growth.”
Ms Wallström sees this as part of a larger struggle: between trends of democracy and authoritarianism, openness and repression, hope and fear. And yes, she says, one might even call it a struggle between good and evil.
“We need to recognise this division, and the fact that we have a responsibility; that it is up to us to fight for what we believe to be right.”
She also talked about solutions. That results can be achieved, and that’s why Sweden is pursuing a feminist foreign policy. For example, she says there is so much we can do to improve girls’ and women’s social and economic rights. And that, in this area, the conditions for girls need particular attention.
“We should do more to support girls’ right to education. And let me ask all of you to join me in the battle against child marriage. This practice has such a high price. It deprives girls of the right to be children, of their education, and of their right to their own bodies. And imagine what an obstacle this is to development, how much a society loses, when so much potential is trapped.”
There is only one option, says Ms Wallström: to keep up the fight.
“Gender equality is a matter of democracy. Of human rights. Of social development. Societies where men and women are equal are more prosperous. They are healthier, their economies are doing better, they are better educated.”