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The Unfinished Business of Gender Equality

What does equality look like?

Equality is women and girls pursuing and realizing their fullest potential. It’s girls feeling safe in their communities—and their homes. Equality is women and girls having choice over their bodies and their own lives. And it’s more women in positions of power—and redefining what power is.

Are we there yet? Unfortunately, no. But women and girls are persisting and making their voices heard. It’s been incredible to see them band together, demand justice, and drive change at every level to have a transformative impact across the globe.

Millions of women, from Mexico to Indonesia, continue to take to the streets in marches and rallies across the globe to call attention to pressing issues, from equal pay to femicide. More and more women are reclaiming political power, securing positions in governments in Rwanda, South Africa, and Ethiopia, where women hold half of the parliament and ministerial seats.

We’ve seen landmark wins for reproductive rights internationally—in Kenya, Mexico, and Chile—and significant progress in America in states like Illinois, New York, and Vermont, which protected abortion rights by writing them into law.

The #MeToo movement has spread far and wide, leading to the downfall of powerful men in places like Peru and India and a shift in how people think about gender, power, and sexual harassment worldwide. The International Labour Organization, the UN agency that sets global labor standards, voted to adopt Convention No. 190, the first legally binding treaty to address gender-based discrimination and violence at work in both the formal and informal sectors.


Thanks to the tireless efforts of women and girls, activists and organizations, all 54 countries in Africa have committed to ending female genital mutilation, and countries across the Middle East such as Lebanon and Jordan are amending their laws to prevent and end impunity for gender-based violence. In Tanzania, the top court ruled that marriage under the age of 18 is unconstitutional, while in India the supreme court overturned an archaic law that allowed sex with minors, with or without consent, to protect young brides.

Powerful feminist and women-led movements are emerging around the world to tackle our biggest challenges, from climate justice to economic inequality to the rise of populism. And we are seeing the power and leadership of young women—from Greta Thunberg to Brazil’s Artemisa Xakriabá to “Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny—who are carrying on the work of their foremothers, like Wangari Maathai and Berta Cáceres, and changing the face of activism for generations to come.

These efforts are a testament to the commitment of millions of women and girls who refuse to be seen as second-class citizens and are rising up to fight for a more just world.

But, at the same time, we, as women, know our work is far from done. While women have made tremendous strides, the reality is we are still a hundred years away from closing the gender gap. Globally, women earn 24 percent less than men, and more than 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. While a historic number of women are running for political office in the US and women like Ethiopia's Sahle-Work Zewde, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, and Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf broke glass ceilings as their countries' first female leaders, a mere 22 of 197 heads of state are women. The Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be ratified in the US, gender-based violence remains a global pandemic that affects one in three women, and, last year, 20 member states of the UN—representing 1.3 billion people—declared that women have no international right to abortion.

These are enormous challenges, and they only scratch the surface of what we, as a society, need to address and what we, at the Ford Foundation, are working hard to tackle with our partners. Gender equality requires dismantling the underlying structures and patriarchal systems that reinforce the discrimination, oppression, and violence that girls and women have encountered throughout history—and still face today. Only by addressing the root causes of inequality can we, as a global society, build a future that benefits not just women and girls but everyone.

But change is achievable. This year marks two seminal moments for gender equality—the 25th anniversary of the UN World Conference for Women in Beijing and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in America (although some women of color, particularly black and Hispanic women in the South, Native Americans, and Asians were effectively unable to exercise that right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965). We, as a society and as a foundation, have an opportunity to build on these remarkable gains, lean into the momentum fueled by women and girls around the world, and forge a future where gender equality is no longer an aspiration but a lived reality.

So, how do we move forward? How do we close the gap and unleash the full potential of women and girls worldwide? How do we catalyze the efforts of the disruptors, the trailblazers, and the game changers who are carving the path to parity?

At Ford, we have been committed to advancing gender equality for nearly 60 years, supporting hundreds of intrepid activists, organizations, and initiatives with more than $3 billion in grants. From the very beginning, Ford followed the lead of women pioneering the feminist movement in the United States and learned by listening to the women on the ground in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America as we expanded our support worldwide. Our approach has always been about investing in the ideas, individuals, and institutions on the frontlines, so they can carry their work forward and scale their impact.

With women and girls making up half of the global population, we have always believed it is imperative that we not only heed their call but also stand with them and support solutions they develop to address the challenges they deem most pressing. For example, in the 1960s, when Ford started focusing on women’s rights, birth control was becoming legal and the feminist movement was unfolding across the US, so we went to the women and organizations leading the charge—like Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and the Women’s Law Fund, the first nonprofit to address sexual discrimination—and supported their work to ensure that all women have autonomy over their bodies and the opportunity to shape their own lives.

Today, with Roe v. Wade under attack and 800 bills introduced at the state level to limit sexual and reproductive rights, Ford is doubling down on the feminist movements and women-led organizations at the center of the fight to make sure the important progress that’s been made isn’t reversed. The Center for Reproductive Rights—a longtime grantee and formative player that has strengthened laws and policies to protect women’s rights in more than 50 countries—is transforming how governments, courts, and society as a whole understand reproductive rights under the leadership of Nancy Northup. This month, she and her team will be heading to present arguments to the Supreme Court in June Medical Services v. Gee, a case that came out of Louisiana that could open the door for states to essentially eliminate abortion access. Newer grantees like SisterSong and Women with a Vision are speaking up for women on the margins who haven’t always experienced the same protections as white women despite progress made and demonstrating that race, ethnicity, economic status, and other factors intersect with reproductive rights.

It’s by listening to and learning from these amazing women and organizations that we have gained a better understanding of where to direct our support to make a more meaningful impact. We all have a responsibility, especially as funders, to go where the need is greatest—and that need should be determined by those most proximate to the problems. At Ford, we know that achieving our mission depends on seeing the rights of women and girls protected and their equality realized, so, as the world has evolved, we have continued to adapt our strategies based on what we’ve learned throughout our journey.

For instance, we first started supporting efforts to stop violence against women and girls in 1994. By working with women’s groups in such places as India, South Africa, and the Philippines, we saw its growing threat and inextricable link to gender inequality. At that time, there were no global commitments to end gender-based violence. While today there are more than 118 laws, treaties, and international declarations in place, the majority of global funding is going toward US and European institutions, leaving little for those organizations in the Global South, best situated to develop interventions in their contexts.

To address this, Ford is putting its resources behind the Global South, whether it’s advocating for more funding across the philanthropic community or supporting an agenda set by the region’s key players, such as the African Women’s Development Fund, and emerging voices like the women and girls who make up the FRIDA Young Feminists Fund. We share their hope to shift deep-seated cultural norms and practices that condone violence and further entrench gender inequality—and that’s why we are letting their expertise guide our funding, and focusing on prevention and building a strong, united, women-led, feminist-minded movement that will accelerate change locally and globally.

Of course, Ford is just one foundation and no one entity can tackle the issue of gender equality alone. This work requires a concerted, collaborative effort from activists, organizations, funders, policy makers, and governments. Partnerships are critical to scaling effective solutions driven by women and girls—and there has never been a more urgent and more opportune time to join forces in this fight. When partnerships are thoughtful and strategic, they can make a lasting difference in the lives of women and girls today and for generations to come.

We’ve seen this with our partnerships across the philanthropic community. Over the past few years, we have worked to create the Collective Future Fund, partnering with NoVo Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, Open Society Foundations, and the Gates Foundation, among others, to support those groups of women most vulnerable to violence—and we’ve established the Girls First Fund, a multi-donor collaborative that champions community-led efforts to combat child marriage. These joint efforts have enabled each philanthropic partner to bring their expertise to the table, share knowledge gained from their grantees, and create spaces to innovate and strategize together—all while combining our support to make a bigger, more significant dent in the fight for gender equality.

That’s why, despite all we’re confronting as a gender and as a world in 2020, I am incredibly hopeful for the future. Our courageous, steadfast grantees, past and present, have catalyzed movements, fought for laws to be put into place, and shifted the global conversation around gender. They—along with the countless women and girls across the globe—are proving that change is possible. They have laid the groundwork while teaching us how to be a smarter, more effective foundation.

Now is the time to step up our support of those women and girls at the heart of the action. We, as a society, know that when women have equal power and equal opportunity, everyone benefits. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of my heroes and a former Ford grantee, says, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time." If we want to build a world that is fair, just, and free of inequality, we need to think bigger, act bolder and keep forging ahead.