Perhaps the Ambition of Gender Equality Will Finally Become a Reality

By Joanne Lu

group photo

Photo credit: UN Women/Fabrice Gentile

At a time when the world is grappling with the urgent consequences of crises like climate change and the global COVID-19 pandemic, gender equality advocates say we need more women in leadership than ever.

That’s why, on July 2, the Generation Equality Forum Paris, hosted by UN Women, concluded with historic commitments – including nearly $40 billion of confirmed investments – from governments, philanthropies, corporations, civil society, and youth organizations to accelerate gender equality over the next five years. It’s an effort to put concrete action behind the intentions that were set in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the goals that were specified by Sustainable Development Goal 5.

“The Generation Equality Forum marks a positive, historic shift in power and perspective,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women in a press release. “Together we have mobilized across different sectors of society, from south to north, to become a formidable force, ready to open a new chapter in gender equality.”

The Paris event was preceded in March by a two-week-long kickoff gathering in Mexico City, where UN Member States adopted a set of Agreed Conclusions that recognized the need to significantly increase women’s full participation and leadership at all levels of decision-making in government and the public sector. It recommended, for example, setting targets and timelines to achieve gender balance in government through quotas, appointments and training, changing laws and policies that hinder women’s equal participation in public service, measures to eliminate, prevent and respond to all forms of violence against women and girls, measures to support young women’s participation in public life, and reinforcing women’s presence and leadership in all places where climate change-related decisions are made.

The Generation Equality Forum in Mexico was closed on March 31, 2021

Such changes are especially relevant as COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequities, resulting in problems like increased violence against women and worse economic impacts for women. Indigenous women, women of color and youth have experienced compounded risks and barriers. And yet, women have mostly been excluded from governments’ pandemic task forces, composing only 24 percent of the 225 task force members in 137 countries, according to the UN Development Programme’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.

Screenshot of Global Gender Response Tracker

Screenshot of Global Gender Response Tracker

That’s not the only disturbing statistic on women’s participation in leadership and decision-making. Only 22 countries have women Heads of State or Government; 119 have never had a woman leader. Four countries – Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia and the United Arab Emirates – have 50 percent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses. And globally, women under age 30 make up less than 1 percent of parliamentarians. Yet, there is growing evidence that political decision-making processes improve when women hold leadership positions. In India, for example, communities with women-led councils had 62 percent more drinking-water projects than those with men-led councils. Other studies have found that countries in which women enjoy greater social and political status produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions and have lower climate footprints.

But the work of getting more women into leadership begins with the basics, like ensuring that they have access to quality education. Globally, 130 million girls remain out of school. That’s why Sahar Education for Afghan Girls is working hard to provide girls in war-torn Afghanistan with schools that provide quality teaching and are designed with their needs in mind. Sahar also has a Digital Literacy Program that opens doors for girls to higher education and job skills through technology. They are currently serving 1,500 girls a year through their computer labs.


Photo credit: Sahar

Similarly, Rwanda Girls Initiative (RGI) founded a STEM-focused upper-secondary boarding school for girls in Rwanda. In addition to STEM subjects and English, the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology offers extracurriculars that empower students to develop political leadership skills, such as Community Service, Leadership, and Mentoring where they’re encouraged to change the politics of Rwanda in their generation, and the exceedingly popular Debate and Seminars club. The debate team in fact made history by being the first all-girls school to win Rwanda’s annual Youth Entrepreneurs Debate Competition. Since then they’ve also competed on regional and international levels.

For many girls around the world, acts of violence like early marriage are keeping them out of school and preventing them from thriving into positions of leadership. That’s what CARE’s Tipping Point Initiative is working to address. Based on the premise that “major change only occurs when those who have been excluded from power organize collectively…to challenge existing systems and their impact,” Tipping Point facilitates adolescent girl-led activism against early marriage in Bangladesh and Nepal. Through the initiative, they’ve strengthened their organizing skills, they’ve connected with government officials, religious leaders, teachers and others, and their voices have been elevated to the national level.

Care’s Tipping Point Initiative targeting child marriage in Bangladesh and Nepal

Girl Rising is also amplifying the voices of adolescent girls, especially in advocating for their right to education. But their most recent Future Rising initiative works at the intersection of gender equity and climate justice because, according to the ND-GAIN Index, every additional year of schooling a girl receives correlates with a 3.2-point improvement in her country’s resilience to climate disasters. One piece of the initiative is a fellowship that supports 10 young people (mostly girls) who work in their communities on these issues. These fellows are creating projects like short films, comic series, essays, and grant applications that will illuminate the urgency of the crisis and change cultural narratives around climate and gender.

There are also several organizations working within the legal framework to end violence against women and other barriers to gender equality. These include Every Woman Treaty, which is advancing the creation, adoption, and implementation of a global treaty to end violence against women and girls. And, Women’s Link Worldwide, which works in and beyond courts to promote social change that advances the human rights of women and girls, especially those facing multiple inequalities.

Screenshot of Every Woman Treaty website

Screenshot of Every Woman Treaty website

The LGBTIQ community is especially familiar with multiple inequalities. Since 1990, OutRight Action International has been a leader in fighting for the human rights of LGBTIQ people globally. In addition to monitoring and documenting human rights violations, they help develop effective advocacy and capacity building for LGBTIQ rights and provide training to community members and allies. They also convene key stakeholders to exchange information on best practices related to ending violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, or sex characteristics.

It’s clear that even with limited resources, civil society organizations like these have been doing the hard work of advancing gender equality for decades. But now, with action commitments and investments from all sectors, like those pledged at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, perhaps the ambition of gender equality will finally become a reality.

The following Global Washington members are helping with gender equality and women empowerment.

APCO is the world’s largest independent and majority woman-owned advisory and advocacy communications firm. A passionate belief in breaking down barriers, challenging the status quo, and advancing equality has been in our DNA since our founding in 1984. APCO Impact is an advisory group that sits within APCO Worldwide and supports clients across business, government, and philanthropy. Our work helps clients be catalysts for progress and address the key issues of our time, including corporate purpose, ESG, climate and sustainability, racial and gender equity, and social justice.

Concern Worldwide

Concern’s approach to ending extreme poverty is rooted in the understanding that the cycle of poverty is fueled by a combination of inequality, vulnerability, and risk. The greatest form of marginalization, and a force multiplier for other types of discrimination, is gender inequity. Women invest up to 90% of their income back into their families (compared to the average 30-40% invested by men), meaning that when there is financial equity at home, families are more likely to break that cycle, and whole economies change for the better. However, there are many factors that hinder this progress for women and girls, including barriers to education, healthcare, sustainable livelihoods, and a seat at the decision-making table, as well as gender-based violence.

All of Concern’s programs are implemented through a gender-transformative lens. Concern critically examines and challenges the harmful gender norms and dynamics in each community where we work in order to build the equity necessary to sustainably end poverty. They engage women as agents of their own future through skills training, psychosocial support, and healthcare solutions. Concern also actively engages men as accountable allies. Finally, they pay special attention to the intersecting inequalities that leave many women further behind, including caste, ethnicity, and health. Learn more at:

Every Women Treaty

Every Women Treaty is a diverse coalition of more than 1,700 women’s rights advocates, including 840 organizations, in 128 countries working for a safer world for women and girls worldwide. Every Women Treaty envisions a world where every woman and girl everywhere lives a life free from violence. The Every Woman mission is to advance the creation, adoption, and implementation of a global treaty to end violence against women and girls.

Girl Rising

Girl Rising’s mission is to ensure that girls around the world are educated and empowered. Girl Rising works with local partners by providing customized tools and curricula to build confidence and agency in girls and to change attitudes and social norms so that entire communities stand up for girls and against gender discrimination.

Their story-based tools and curricula engage, energize and motivate young people to see beyond their borders, value their education, understand their rights and believe in their capacity to change their lives, communities, and even the world.

Global Leadership Forum

The Global Leadership Forum strengthens globally oriented social-purpose leaders through a 7-month peer cohort program that addresses leadership, management, and organizational development topics. In this trusting peer community, creative problem solving and real-time application of topics results in personal and organizational growth. More than 75% of the over 100 alumni of GLF are women. 100% of GLF participants experienced statistically significant growth in felt leadership skills and competencies. They strengthened connections with others in the development sector, solved thorny workplace challenges, and made career transitions that seemed impossible before GLF. Mid-career cohorts build a pipeline of leaders into the sector, and senior level cohorts provide space for renewal and clarity for leaders to sustain their impact. Alumni of the program form an enduring community who support each other to improve lives in communities worldwide.

Kati Collective

Kati Collective provides experienced, strategic, and pragmatic action focused on three of the most important drivers of change: gender, data, and partnerships. Using data as a tool to unlock solutions at every step of the development lifecycle, we align resources from across our network with global and local expertise to provide clients with targeted, cost-effective project resources.

We provide multi-national and multi-level clients and partners with the perspective and experience to navigate complex global health and development challenges, as well as the strategies and tools needed to improve data-driven health outcomes on a global scale – all with a gender equity lens firmly in place.

Kati Collective is a woman-owned and staffed organization built on the belief that achieving gender equity will change the world. Starting with our small core team, for each engagement we pull in diverse, international professionals with the talent and knowledge to provide the right skills at the right time to the right project.

We strongly believe that the community perspectives of women and girls must be included at all levels of stakeholder engagement and that by insisting on rigorous data science in the global ecosystem, we will advance gender equity.

Mona Foundation

Mona Foundation aims to alleviate global poverty so that no child goes to bed hungry, is lost to preventable diseases, or is deprived of the gift of education due to lack of resources. This can only be achieved when women and girls are able to equally participate in all aspects of socio-economic activity and fully contribute to the betterment of their communities.

Gender equality and education for all are strategic development priorities as well as birth rights. Nearly all of Mona’s 19 partner organizations  in 12 countries work to educate and empower girls. The results have been dramatic. In India, the Barli Institute (Indore) educates illiterate rural young women and has graduated 8,500 “change agents” from 800 villages. All are driving sustained positive change in their communities as health workers, teachers, and independent entrepreneurs; 94% contribute to the income of their family.  The Aarohini Girls Empowerment Program (Lucknow) teaches girls to resist and overcome gender injustice and educates boys to champion gender equality. As a result, child marriages dropped from 54% at risk in 2016 to 0% in 2019.

Gender equality is a reality of our humanity. Mona works to ensure this spiritual reality finds lasting form in every community.


Oxfam America’s work to advance gender justice is multifaceted and tailored to the people Oxfam serves. In some countries, Oxfam is the largest and most prominent organization to take a stand for women and gender-diverse people, and alongside them, often supporting the infrastructures of burgeoning movements. In other countries, like Sri Lanka, Oxfam helps rethink entrenched systems and remap biases to shift attitudes and overcome barriers. In all places, Oxfam strives for sustainable change. Oxfam does so first by acknowledging women, girls, and feminist actors as effective social change agents who must have a hand in ensuring their own rights and in the development they most want to see – development that will transform their families, communities and countries.

Rwanda Girls Initiative

At Rwanda Girls Initiative, they know that education is the key to gender equality.  They believe that investing in girls education, especially secondary education, is one of the most powerful levers one can pull to spark systemic change. When girls receive an education, they are more likely to lead healthy, productive lives, earning higher wages and participate in decision making in their community. Girls education fosters economic development, peace, and reduces inequalities between boys and girls.  Still today, there are more than 132 million girls left out of school worldwide and only 25 percent of countries have achieved gender parity in upper secondary education.

As an all-girls boarding school in Rwanda, they have removed the most significant barriers to education for their students. Rwanda Girls Initiative is one of the most socio-economically diverse schools in Africa, with 100% of their students receiving some amount of financial aid. Their teachers and staff support an environment of academic excellence, problem solving, leadership and service; ensuring that graduates will become tomorrow’s leaders. To date Rwanda Girls Initiative has graduated 705 students; future scientists, entrepreneurs, advocates and thought leaders, who will bring insights and solutions to the biggest global challenges we face.


For 20 years, Sahar’s mission has been to provide safe spaces for girls to receive a quality education. Sahar partners with the Ministry of Education and Afghan-based organizations to build public schools and implement educational programs for girls, empowering and inspiring children and their families to build peaceful, thriving communities. Each academic year, 25,000 girls attend the thirteen public schools built by Sahar. The organization also provides a range of programs including: early marriage prevention, teacher training, digital literacy, and building gender allies to improve the achievement gap between girls and boys. In order to address this disparity, Sahar developed and implemented the Early Marriage Prevention program in 2015. Since its founding, 1,473 students have graduated from the program. In this program, girls are introduced to the importance of continuing their education, leadership skills and professional development.

As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Sahar’s Board of Directors and staff have reaffirmed an enduring commitment to providing education in northern Afghanistan.

The Starbucks Foundation

Starbucks commitment to ensuring a sustainable future of coffee for all starts with strengthening the communities that grow coffee and tea around the world. Women play key roles in these communities for their households, farms and businesses. We believe that investing in women and girls in coffee- and tea-growing regions makes a significant impact for both families and their broader communities. The Starbucks Foundation’s Origin Grants help these communities continue to break down barriers to education, promote clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and create economic opportunities for women and girls. On International Women’s Day in 2018, The Starbucks Foundation announced a goal to empower 250,000 women and girls in origin communities by 2025. To date, The Starbucks Foundation is more than halfway towards achieving this goal, having reached more than 125,000 women through programs around women’s leadership, access to finance and healthy homes in coffee- and tea-growing communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America. This includes collaboration with other GlobalWA members, such as Mercy Corps empowering women in Indian tea communities as leaders around COVID-19 awareness. Learn more about the impact here.


Tostan’s three-year holistic Community Empowerment Program brings about positive social transformation for improved gender equality, which is manifested through improved voice, agency, and leadership for women and girls. Using participatory, culturally relevant educational techniques, the human rights-based curriculum provides new knowledge and skills in democracy, health and hygiene, literacy and numeracy, and project management and encourages communities to define their own vision for well being, review their current practices and adjust outdated social rules. Community Management Committees, with at least 50% female membership, advance community priorities and manage Community Development Funds that stimulate women’s economic empowerment.

Gender equality is reinforced through the program’s curriculum which incorporates dialogue, skills, and information that leads communities to reexamine women’s roles within their communities and beyond. The Community Management Committees provides women members the opportunity to practice leadership skills and act as role models for future generations. Increasingly, the program is grooming new women leaders who run for local and higher government positions. As women gain confidence  and visibility in new roles, this strengthens new gender norms, making it possible for qualified women to more openly represent their interests and improve government institutions for all.