“Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower ALL Women and Girls” – Sustainable Development Goals, n.d.
What exactly does it mean to be empowered?
For one woman this may mean freedom to walk safely at night without fear of assault, or equal opportunity and equal pay in the workplace. For another, it may be the freedom to choose their own marriage partner or ability to own their own plot of land. Whatever the definition may be, it is clear to see that empowerment, as a concept and an action, is something to be individually determined. Yet, the cause of gender equality and female empowerment is one that needs to be collectively fought. By including gender equality in the Sustainable Development goals, the UN is not only recognising how female empowerment is a crucial stepping stone to a truly sustainable future, it is also recognising that efforts made must be entirely collaborative. However, looking at past and present day actions, one can observe that the fight for female empowerment is often riddled with mistakes that need to be corrected in order to present a successful outcome. Therefore, the basis of this article will be to highlight these indiscretions and offer solutions that would aid sustainable development.
“I am afraid that the British choose to advertise our unfortunate decisions not with the object of removing them, but only because such a course serves well as an excuse for retarding the political progress of India.” – Dr B. R. Ambedkar, Presidential Address to the All- India Depressed Classes Congress
Relating back to imperialist times, it’s clear to see there has been disagreement between the developing and developed regions regarding the most effective way to promote gender equality. Women in colonised nations were viewed as damsels, needing to be saved from their barbaric male counterparts. Thus, the idea of the ‘white saviour’ is greatly involved, in which the white Western powers arrive and impart their rule in a bid to ‘save’ women from subordination, whilst conveniently forgetting their own issues of gender inequality. In this, ‘colonialism undermined the feminist cause’ (Khalid, 2011) by using it as a weapon to advance colonialism, rather than enable female empowerment. This was particularly prevalent in India, where ambiguous reasoning led to the destruction of matrilineal systems, and an imposition of constraints by removing sexual and economic rights. British policies were politically motivated and, whilst they served to liberalise the laws for some groups, the groups positively affected were those of higher castes, with greater power and influence to control rural areas. This, again, contributed to the further advancement of the overall imperialist agenda (Liddle and Joshi, 1989).
This becomes important to recognise, as we can observe parallels in today’s society. Though, perhaps not as overtly or intentionally imperialist, there are microaggressions which point towards similar situations. Oftentimes, critics of Western feminism will support their view with statements carrying the same sentiments of phrases like “there are real problems in India, what you’re doing isn’t real feminism”: similar to the frequently referenced phrase “there are starving kids in Africa”. In this, shifting the focus here is effective in building a narrative that paints developing regions as backwards, barbaric and incapable regions, in comparison to the portrayal of the Western world as an idyllic utopia, in which problems have to be fabricated in order to create some semblance of struggle.
This serves to paint an image which ignores the work done in these countries, and elevates the Western world to a position in which they are the only vessel for which peace can be achieved. Furthermore, not only does this trivialise matters that Western feminists consider important, it also turns a blind eye to matters experienced within Western borders. For example, though the media tends to focus on Africa, the Middle East and Asia when it comes to topics of female genital mutilation, it has been estimated that “over 100,000 women and girls in the United Kingdom are affected by female genital mutilation” (rightsofwomen, 2018). Wilful ignorance surrounding the concept that developed and developing regions can have similar experiences is contradictory to the advancement of female empowerment and only serves to widen the chasm between the two regions. Efforts need to be made to recognise that, though societies scattered around the world may have different values and cultures, they can also often be united in experience. Rather than spreading divisive media, which portrays certain communities in a negative light and feeds into cultural bias, it is important to be transparent with all information received. Only then can there be improvements in gender equality and female empowerment.
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” – Audre Lorde
“Do not wait for someone else to come and speak for you. It’s you who can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai
The time has come- and is long overdue- for women and men alike in developing regions to be the drivers of their own destiny. That is not to say that those from developed regions should completely exit the vehicle. Rather, they should take a backseat in these matters. For so long the developed world has been the navigator of their developing counterparts, telling them what to do, how to do it and where to go. But this needs to stop. For the developing world, this means no more looking externally for internal governance. For the developed world, this means only providing support when specifically needed.
If, as a worldwide community, we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 5 by 2030, we need to be able to work cohesively, in a manner that doesn’t subjugate certain regions, but elevates them instead. Through my own observations, this should be done through guidance, not dominance, and in ways that allow communities to flourish instead of being unjustly stereotyped. As mentioned before, female empowerment is unique to each person but is achieved collectively. If the collective is flawed, can women around the world truly achieve their own sense of empowerment?