Global Austerity Alert: Looming Budget Cuts in 2021-25 and Alternatives

Aid, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Global, Headlines, Health, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Map of countries with projected austerity cuts in 2021-2022, in terms of GDP, based on IMF fiscal projections. Credit: I. Ortiz and M. Cummins, 2021

NEW YORK and NAIROBI, Apr 15 2021 (IPS) – Last week Ministers of Finance met virtually at the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to discuss policies to tackle the pandemic and socio-economic recovery.


But a global study just published by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, international trade unions and civil society organizations, sounds an alert of an emerging austerity shock: Most governments are imposing budget cuts, precisely at a time when their citizens and economies are in greater need of public support.

Analysis of IMF fiscal projections shows that budget cuts are expected in 154 countries this year, and as many as 159 countries in 2022. This means that 6.6 billion people or 85% of the global population will be living under austerity conditions by next year, a trend likely to continue at least until 2025.

The high levels of expenditures needed to cope with the pandemic have left governments with growing fiscal deficit and debt. However, rather than exploring financing options to provide direly-needed support for socio-economic recovery, governments—advised by the IMF, the G20 and others—are opting for austerity.

The post-pandemic fiscal shock appears to be far more intense than the one that followed the global financial and economic crisis a decade ago. The average expenditure contraction in 2021 is estimated at 3.3% of GDP, which is nearly double the size of the previous crisis. More than 40 governments are forecasted to spend less than the (already low) pre-pandemic levels, with budgets 12% smaller on average in 2021-22 than those in 2018-19 before COVID-19, including countries with high developmental needs like Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liberia, Libya, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The dangers of early and overly aggressive austerity are clear from the past decade of adjustment. From 2010 to 2019, billions of people were affected by reduced pensions and social security benefits; by lower subsidies, including for food, agricultural inputs and fuel; by wage bill cuts and caps, which hampered the delivery of public services like education, health, social work, water and public transport; by the rationalization and narrow-targeting of social protection programs so that only the poorest populations received smaller and smaller benefits, while most people were excluded; and by less employment security for workers, as labor regulations were dismantled. Many governments also introduced regressive taxes, like consumption taxes, which further lowered disposable household income. In many countries, public services were downsized or privatized, including health. Austerity proved to be a deadly policy. The weak state of public health systems—overburdened, underfunded and understaffed from a decade of austerity—aggravated health inequalities and made populations more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Today, it is imperative to watch out for austerity measures with negative social outcomes. After COVID-19’s devastating impacts, austerity will only cause more unnecessary suffering and hardship.

Austerity is bad policy. There are, in fact, alternatives even in the poorest countries. Instead of slashing spending, governments can and must explore financing options to increase public budgets.

First, governments can increase tax revenues on wealth, property, and corporate income, including on the financial sector that remains generally untaxed. For example, Bolivia, Mongolia and Zambia are financing universal pensions, child benefits and other schemes from mining and gas taxes; Brazil introduced a tax on financial transactions to expand social protection coverage.

Second, more than sixty governments have successfully restructured/reduced their debt obligations to free up resources for development. Third, addressing illicit financial flows such as tax evasion and money laundering is a huge opportunity to generate revenue. Fourth, governments can simply decide to reprioritize their spending, away from low social impact investments areas like defense and bank/corporate bailouts; for example, Costa Rica and Thailand redirected military expenditures to public health.

Fifth, another financing option is to use accumulated fiscal and foreign reserves in Central Banks. Sixth, attract greater transfers/development assistance or concessional loans. A seventh option is to adopt more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks. And eighth, governments can formalize workers in the informal economy with good contracts and wages, which increases the contribution pool and expands social protection coverage.

Expenditure and financing decisions that affect the lives of millions of people cannot be taken behind closed doors at the Ministry of Finance. All options should be carefully examined in an inclusive national social dialogue with representatives from trade unions, employers, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders.

#EndAusterity is a global campaign to stop austerity measures that have negative social impacts. Since 2020, more than 500 organizations and academics from 87 countries have called on the IMF and Ministries of Finance to immediately stop austerity, and instead prioritize policies that advance gender justice, reduce inequality, and put people and planet first.

Isabel Ortiz is Director of the Global Social Justice Program at Joseph Stiglitz’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, former Director at the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF
Matthew Cummins is senior economist who has worked at UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank.

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International Women’s Day, 2021Women’s Leadership in the Global Recovery from COVID-19 Pandemic

Civil Society, Education, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Health, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy, Women in Politics, Women’s Health

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

UN Women China Qinghai programme beneficiaries. Credit: UN Women

BEIJING, Mar 6 2021 (IPS) – Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), and the theme for this year’s celebration is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” We recognize the tremendous contribution and leadership demonstrated by women and girls around the world in shaping our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and a more sustainable future.


A global review of the progress achieved towards commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women 25 years ago in Beijing, conducted by UN Women in 2020, reveals that no country has fully delivered on the Beijing Platform for Action, nor is close to it. Globally, women currently hold just one-quarter of the seats at the tables of power across the board and are absent from some key decision-making spaces, including in peace and climate negotiations.

This reality is despite the advances that we can see globally: there are now more girls in school than ever before, fewer women are dying in childbirth, and over the past decade, 131 countries have passed laws to support women’s equality.

However, progress has been too slow and uneven.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and threatening to halt or reverse the gains from decades of collective effort – with data revealing that the pandemic will push 47 million more women and girls below the poverty line globally.

Siddharth Chatterjee

We also witness new global challenges emerging from the pandemic, such as the increased reports of violence against women trapped in lockdown throughout the world, forming a Shadow Pandemic. Women with disabilities facing further obstacles in accessing essential services. Women have lost their livelihoods faster, being more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors as they make up the majority of informal sector workers. Access to technologies have become a necessity, but the gender digital divide lingers, particularly in the least developed countries.

But in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, women have stood tall at the frontlines, serving as health workers and caregivers, where they make up 70% of the global workforce. Women also lead in their capacities throughout government and civil society to give vital assistance, bringing their irreplaceable perspectives and skills to the table.

Answering these complex global challenges while tearing down the barriers to women’s participation and leadership now requires bolder political commitment backed up by adequate resources and targeted approaches to accelerate progress towards parity through legislation, fiscal measures, programmatic change, and public-private partnerships.

China has made progress in safeguarding women’s rights and promoting gender equality. Notably, China’s poverty alleviation achievements have had a multiplier effect on advancing women’s empowerment beyond alleviating poverty among women. Advances in girl’s education, access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, social protection and assistance are admirable – and important not just for the advancement of women’s rights – but in creating a “moderately prosperous” Chinese society with a “bright shared future” for all. Yet, as in many countries, there are still challenges that persist across the course of women’s lives.

Like elsewhere, systemic issues remain in equal pay for equal work and promotion opportunities for decent work in China. Under-representation of women in senior leadership roles impacts many sectors, with less than 10% of board members of listed companies in China being women.

Smriti Aryal

Disproportionate sharing of unpaid care work leaves women in China carrying 2.5 times the burden of men, all of which impacting the female labour force participation rate. The shadow pandemic of gender-based violence, like anywhere else, continues to be a concern for women and girls in China as widely reported and discussed in media already.

The newly enacted Civil Code offers opportunities to strengthen legislation, including judicial mechanisms, law enforcement and service delivery for addressing sexual harassment, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls. Robust implementation of the provisions for ending sexual harassment and abuse will be a step towards China’s demonstration of “Zero Tolerance” towards ending all forms of violence against women and girls.

The 14th Five-Year National Development Plan, 2021-2025 and the new 10-Year Plan on Development of Women and Children, 2021-2030, also present opportunities for China to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment are at the centre of the development agenda and address the remaining gender gaps and challenges in the country. The world now looks to China for continued leadership on the SDGs and the Beijing Platform for Action.

We welcome the Government of China’s recent commitment to prioritizing women’s empowerment in its future development cooperation and global engagement. This comes at a time, when we need stronger global action and multilateralism to alleviate the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 and accelerate actions towards the achievement of the SDGs. As we look at women’s rights issues that many countries are grappling with – poverty, maternal health, livelihood and food security, access to continued education, to name a few – are also the areas where China has seen the most progress domestically. South-South cooperation enables China to share its lessons and continue learning from others, to achieve genuine empowerment for women and girls around the world.

We recognize that gender equality and women’s empowerment are drivers for transformative change and a prerequisite for the achievement of all SDGs. The UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, 2021-2025, signed between the United Nations System in China and the Government of China, is underpinned by this principle and prioritizes the advancement of women’s rights as a key programming area of its own. As the UN Country Team (UNCT), we stand ready to support and continue to work with the Government of China and all national actors for our concerted efforts towards advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

2021 is only the beginning of our journey on the Decade of Action for the SDGs. We have an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently for current and future generations of women and girls. On International Women’s Day, we call upon our partners and supporters to celebrate the leadership and contribution of China’s women, and become advocates, champions, and influencers that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment today, and every day.

Siddharth Chatterjee, UN Resident Coordinator in China & Smriti Aryal, Head of Office, UN Women in China
On behalf of the UN Country Team in China for International Women’s Day 2021

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International Women’s Day, 2021#MarchWithUs: 5 Activists on Dismantling “Gender Lies”

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

Protest for women’s rights in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: Sanjog Manandhar

PARIS, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) – Today, despite centuries of activism and mobilisations, women and non-binary people continue to remain disadvantaged in almost every sphere – from “public life” to the “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.


In light of COVID-19, some struggles have been considered in theory, but most continue to be ignored in practice. How can we dismantle the “gender lies” perpetuating in the 21st century? How do we start taking into account the diverse experiences of women, without excluding black and indigenous voices on the basis of power and privilege?

Afghanistan, Nepal, Bolivia, Mexico and Uganda: five activists tell us how they transform the ways their communities think and act around gender.

Afghanistan: rap music to save child brides

Sonita Alizadeh, is a survivor of two attempts at forced marriage, and now a rapper and activist fighting for the liberation of women against forced marriage. Born in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, she grew up in Iran, as a refugee with her family. At 10 years old, she narrowly escaped a forced marriage. Her family again tried to sell her when she was sixteen, she escaped. Afghanistan has the 20th highest number of women married before the age of 18 in the world, with 28% of Afghan girls married off as minors, according to Girls Not Brides.

My mother was a child bride, and she did not meet her husband until their wedding day. By marrying me off at a young age, she was simply repeating the cycle. This tradition makes me want to raise awareness of this harmful issue with the help of millions of others around the world through my music,” says Sonita in an interview with Forus.

Witnessing her friends swiftly disappearing as they were forced to marry, Sonita wrote the song “Daughters for Sale”, which kick-started her work as a human rights activists and rapper.

Music touches people in a way words cannot – it is deeper and more emotional. People listen to music and young people pay attention to the lyrics. Music can be a powerful way to hear important messages. That is why I always rap about things that need to change in the world, or ideas that young people need to hear, to dream big.”

Today, Sonita uses her tracks and success to give young girls self-confidence. She sings to tell: “Hold this hope in your heads and your hearts. Hold this hope for the future. Never give up.”

Nepal: Fighting “period poverty”.

As 2020 drew to a close, protesters across South Asia took to the streets and to social media, calling on their governments to end the perpetuating cycle of widespread sexual violence against women and children.

In Nepal, hundreds of activists returned to the streets after a 17-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death. Some protesters wore black over their eyes to symbolize public authorities closing their eyes to sexual violence. Activists say that although the country’s constitution guarantees equal rights to women, there is a clear disjunction between theory and practice.

“How do we make sure that there is no gap between law and social progress?” asks Jesselina Rana, a human rights lawyer, co-founder with engineer Shubhangi Rana of Pad2Go, a social enterprise focusing on menstrual health and the taboos surrounding it.

It is estimated that around 83 percent of menstruating individuals face some form of restriction or exclusion during their menstrual cycle in Nepal.

“From a very young age, menstruating individuals are made to believe that their menstrual cycle makes them impure, and it can only be talked about behind closed doors,” Jesselina explains.

With Pad2Go, Jesselina distributed over 80 sanitary napkin vending machines across Nepal. She collaborates with pad manufacturers, to provide pads at less than market rate in order to ensure affordability. She also organises discussions with both men and women to normalise conversations around menstruations.

“Nepal being a patriarchal society, men engagement is crucial to overcome social issues faced by women. Socially we need to get men into those spaces of conversation, at a young age, to make sure that everyone is part of the discussion to end the toxic cycle of gender discrimination.”

Protest in Mexico. Credit: Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo

Bolivia, Mexico: “Ni Una Menos”

Cradled in the “machismo culture”, Bolivia has one of the highest domestic violence rates against women in South America. The annual average of 110 femicides in the past 7 years persists, despite a 2013 law establishing measures to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the economic consequences of the pandemic disproportionately affected Bolivian women. Government restrictions reduced access to food, aid programs did not adequately address the needs of communities, increasing their vulnerability and insecurity.

During the lockdown the slogan “Stay at Home” was widely promoted across Bolivia, yet for many women and girls victims of violence, that actually meant a very dangerous “Cállate en casa” (shut up at home), explains Iris Baptista from Red Unitas, a platform funded in 1976 that reunites 22 NGOs in Bolivia.

“Red Unitas created the campaign “SIN VIOLENCIA ES MEJOR” (Better Without Violence), to raise awareness of the fact that women are doing most of the work during the pandemic, to fulfil their role as mothers, wives and workers, yet they continue to face violence at home,” Iris explains.

But, violence against women and femicides are not just common in Bolivia—they are prevalent throughout the region. Global data is difficult to gather due to differences in reporting standards, however, the 2016 report, “A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths” founds that fourteen of the twenty-five countries with the highest femicide rates are Latin American.

Defined as “a pandemic within the pandemic”, gender-based violence has spiked since COVID-19 broke out. Writer Lynn Marie Stephen believes that laws and initiatives to protect women, “fail to indict the broader systems that perpetuate these problems, like social, racial, and economic inequalities, family relationships and social mores”.

“It’s not that there was less violence against women in the past, it’s just that it wasn’t made as visible as it is today,” says Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo, a photojournalist covering women issues in Puebla, Mexico.

Every day, 10 women are killed in Mexico. The number of femicides has increased by 137% in the past five years and reached its highest monthly rates in 2020. Despite this number, only 5% of all crimes committed in Mexico are punished. This dichotomy between numbers is often the result of a “single crime” vision, rather than a sociological phenomenon, linked to the idea of patriarchy and sexism.

“Most perpetuators are never caught; this has triggered ‘social anger’ around the issue of feminicides in Mexico. There is no respect for victims, they are blamed for being killed. New movements are rising led by different collectives and civil society organisations. People are taking to the streets and shouting “Ni Una Menos” no woman should be killed,” says Mela.

Uganda – creating an enabling environment for civil society

I was arrested and shamed for leaked nudes”, model and activist Judith Heard explains. When nude pictures of her were published without her consent in 2018, she was widely criticized and was arrested under the Anti-Pornography Act. Her situation is far from unique, a survey conducted in 2016 found that 50% of Ugandan women aged between 15 and 49 has experienced violence by an intimate partner. As a result, in February 2019, Heard launched Day One Global, an advocacy organisation that seeks to curb sexual harassment and rape.

From Marion Kirabo who led a women’s protest against rising tuition fees, to Rosebell Kagumire, editor of the African Feminism digital platform opening “discussion and dialogue on feminist issues throughout the continent”, activists and “gender advocates” in Uganda, are creating innovative forms of “transnational feminism” both online and offline.

Yet, a recent report by Forus International, shows that only 1% of gender equality funding is going to women’s organizations worldwide, and that promoters of gender equality need increased protection. Even more worryingly, attacks on women organisations and civil society more generally, have been reinforced by the current COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, organizations that engage in monitoring the state’s conduct and advocate for human rights, anti-corruption, accountability, and democratic governance are experiencing growing obstacles. One of the most recent examples is the Uganda Communications Commission Guidelines for everyone posting content online, including bloggers and online news platforms, which aims to control people’s freedom of speech.

“While the Ugandan government welcomes the social services many civil society organizations provide, at the same time it feels threatened by the possibility of political mobilization and empowerment of the population that come with self-organized practices; needless to say, such threats to the government’s grip on power yield conflicts between the state and civil society actors,” according to the Uganda National NGO Forum, an umbrella organization with more than 650 member NGOs across the country.

#MarchWithUs

Despite the considerable progress, more than half of the world’s girls and women—as many as 2.1 billion people—live in countries that are not on track to reach key gender equality-related targets by 2030.

However, a new survey from Focus 2030 and Women Deliver, covering 17 countries on six continents—reveals that citizens are eager for sustained and strengthened political and financial investments to accelerate progress towards gender equality. In particular, the global public supports the need for women to play a role in all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic response, with 82% of survey respondents on average saying they believe women should be involved in the response at all levels.

To build a recovery plan and a roadmap for the future, a gender lens must be applied. With the digital campaign #MarchWithUs, Forus is taking a full month to reflect on the voices of women and non-binary activists who are on the frontline of social change. It is time to act to turn “gender lies” into gender promises.

The authors are members of Forus Communication team.

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International Women’s Day, 2021The World Not Only Needs Women Leaders – It Needs Feminist Leaders

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy, Women in Politics

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO

PARIS and REYKJAVIK, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) – International Women’s Day pays tribute to the achievements of women worldwide and reminds us what still needs to be done for full gender equality. In 2021, we are taking stock of the many ways in which COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women and girls around the world.


The pandemic has created a new landscape. Although women have played a key role in responding to the crisis, gender inequalities have widened across the board. In education, 767 million women and girls were impacted by school closures. Eleven million may never return to class, joining the 132 million already out of school before the crisis struck. From the economic perspective, the recession is pushing 47 million more women and girls into poverty, destroying their economic independence and making them more vulnerable to gender-based discrimination and violence.

As we look at this landscape, we have to ask ourselves: if gender equality is our goal, what kind of leadership will the world need moving forward?

It is not enough to just count the number of women in the highest positions of power. No single person at the top of the pyramid can repair the damage being done to the progress that has been made in gender equality since the world adopted the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights 25 years ago.

What we need are leaders for gender equality – and we need them everywhere in our societal structures. Leaders of all ages, all gender identities and from all backgrounds. These leaders are not just agents of change, but designers of change. They lead through their example and engagement. They expose injustices and unequal opportunities. They know that gender inequalities stem from discrimination and exclusion and that it is only by lifting these barriers that real change can happen. This is feminist leadership.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland

Feminist leaders tackle power structures. They name and deconstruct all forms of exclusion and marginalization. They empathize with the vulnerable and voiceless, and champion their causes. They open new doors and take risks, courageously blowing the whistle on hidden injustice, and unmasking structural barriers perpetuating inequalities. They are all around us. Be it the activist defending an indigenous community, the schoolgirl mobilizing her generation to save the climate, or the poet raising her voice to promote social justice.

Feminist leaders have the courage to create, report, educate, experiment. Think about Azata Soro, actress, film director and producer who broke her silence on sexual harassment and violence in the African film industry. Think about Maria Ressa, risking jail for her brave investigative journalism. Think about Yande Banda, a tireless advocate for girls’ education in Zambia and beyond. Think about Katalin Karikó, who overcame the many challenges faced by women in science and was instrumental in developing the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. As stories like these become known, they challenge people’s intimate convictions of what is achievable and by whom. These women are, in all their diversity, feminist leaders.

However, feminist leadership is not the prerogative of women alone. Gender equality isn’t just a women’s fight, it’s a fight for social justice. Men also need to be involved in the construction of a fairer society. Many of them are showing the way. The Congolese gynecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy to stop rape from being used as a ‘strategy of war’. And there are many others like him, all over the world.

On this International Women’s Day, we stand committed to building future generations of feminist leaders through education. We support women who dare to create and do what is necessary to prevent them from censorship and attacks. We call on the international community to ensure the safety of women journalists who address gender inequalities through their reporting. We also stand side by side with men who dare to care and reject toxic masculinities and behaviours and open up spaces for women to influence decision-making or participate in scientific discovery and innovation.

Let us support these feminist leaders, from all walks of life. Let us take action so that women can affirm their leadership and be powerful role models for generations to come. Because gender equality not only serves to advance the cause of women – a fairer society benefits us all.

Audrey Azoulay is Director-General of UNESCO and Katrín Jakobsdóttir is Prime Minister of Iceland.

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International Women’s Day, 2021To Lead is to Serve — A Pacific Woman’s Perspective

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Health, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Climate Change, Women & Economy, Women in Politics, Women’s Health

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day March 8.

SUVA, Fiji, Mar 1 2021 (IPS) – An often quoted indigenous reference in the Samoan language is, O le ala i le pule o le tautua, literally translated, “the pathway to leadership is through service” because to be able to lead is to be willing to serve.


Since world leaders endorsed the blueprint for gender equality in Beijing 1995, women in leadership has dominated in numerous conversations and forums in terms of the need to increase women in leadership as a critical factor to achieve gender equality. Many of the perspectives shared, are about facilitating opportunities for women, advancing women in fields dominated by men, particularly in the sciences, and achieving equality in decision-making. Women in leadership has become a popular discourse from development, to academia, to politics, to science and innovation; and organisations across all sectors are recognizing the importance of inclusivity and equity for achieving sustainable development.

The 2020 Pacific review of the Beijing Platform for Action, 25 years after Beijing, highlighted that Pacific states still have a long way to go in achieving balanced representation of women in national parliaments. With the exception of the French Territories where equitable representation of women in their legislative assemblies is ensured by the French ‘parity law’, women’s representation in national parliaments across the region is shockingly low and temporary special measures (TSMs) are only used in a few states. At all levels, and across all nations, gender power dynamics disadvantage women as decision makers; and socio-cultural norms in the Pacific see men as the ‘natural’ spokespeople for families, communities and governments. That said, the report also noted an increase in women’s participation in all levels of decision-making at community levels, in public service and in civil society organisations. This raises a number of challenging questions.

Leituala Kuiniselani Toelupe Tago-Elisara

Where does this lead us in a pandemic environment? COVID-19 has exacerbated existing and ongoing inequalities in the Pacific, hindering what is already very slow progress for achieving gender equality. The evidence is quite clear as to where these inequalities are found and policy dialogues and talanoa sessions held within the region over the last two and a half decades, have generated a multitude of recommendations on what can be done by governments and as a region. What then is the problem, we ask ourselves? It’s the resourcing, the response, the lack of political will and commitment, and the list goes on, that women leaders and women engaging in the gender space, know all too well.

So, what can we do and what does this mean for Women in Leadership? The answer lies in our ongoing concerted efforts to have women at the table with an equal voice to speak for the 50% of our population. We will keep pushing to have women leaders at the table who understand women’s lived experiences and needs, and that these are translated into decision-making on resource allocation and prioritisation. We need women who lead, knowing that they have families and communities to attend to after work, and appreciate the value of unpaid care work. More importantly, we need the same women leaders at the table to share those perspectives with their men counterparts, to affect change that will transform societies and enable positive and inclusive change for gender equality at all levels in society and across all locations – urban, rural and remote.

Our unprecedented experience with COVID-19 has changed the way we live, the way we work and certainly the way we exercise leadership and deliver service. It has reminded us that with border closures and travel restrictions, we need to be searching within our own borders and within our own societies for solutions. One of these solutions is for us to utilize and capitalize on the often-untapped skills, knowledge and expertise of women, to generate solutions for our development challenges. The role of women, as we are seeing in recovery efforts across the Pacific, is a testament to the service they continue to provide for our families and our communities. It is evidenced in women’s resilience and their significant capabilities in managing our communities and societies through multiple disasters and climatic events over the years, and through the multitude of cultural and customary obligations that we have all lived through, and will continue to live through. It is a reflection of women’s knowledge of our Pacific ways of knowing and ways of being, gathered and passed down from generation to generation.

The impacts of COVID-19 are huge and as a region and as a people, it will take some time to navigate our way through these impacts towards full recovery. However, if there is one learning that I take away from this crisis, it is our ability to remain resilient and to continue to serve each other and our people, with our women holding the fort in all our societies and communities across the Pacific Ocean, through their ongoing service. It is a manifestation and a living example of leadership through service, because to be able to lead is to be willing to serve, and being able to serve is being able to lead, and such is the spirit of Pacific women in leadership.

Leituala Kuiniselani Toelupe Tago-Elisara is Acting Regional Director, Polynesia Regional Office Pacific Community (SPC)

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Not in Our Name, Never in Our Name: A Conversation with Muslim Faith Leaders Echoing the Wisdom of a Pontiff

Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Azza Karam serves as the Secretary-General of Religions for Peace (#Religions4Peace – www.rfp.org) and is a Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres meets religious leaders April 2020 at Gurdwara Kartapur Sahib in Punjab province in Pakistan. Religious leaders of all faiths are being urged by the Secretary-General to join forces and work for peace around the world and focus on the common battle to defeat COVID-19. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

NEW YORK, Oct 26 2020 (IPS) As the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb said on October 20: “As a Muslim and being the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, I declare before Almighty God that I disassociate myself, the rulings of the religion of Islam, and the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), from such heinous terrorist act and from whoever would embrace such deviant, false thought.


At the same time, I reiterate that insulting religions and abusing sacred religious symbols under the slogan of the freedom of expression, are forms of intellectual terrorism and a blatant call for hatred. Such a terrorist and his likes do not represent the true religion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Likewise, the terrorist of New Zealand, who killed the Muslims while praying in the mosque, does not represent the religion of Jesus, peace be upon him. Indeed, all religions prohibit the killing of innocent lives”

The above words of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif — Sunni Islam’s intellectual headquarters, long standing knowledge base and one of its political epicenters — were shared at an ongoing conference hosted by the St Egidio Community, entitled “No One is Saved Alone Peace and Fraternity”.

In turn, these words were read out at this meeting, by Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam, the first Muslim to ever present a Papal Encyclical (in October 2020), and the first Muslim ever to be decorated as Commander with a star medal (Commenda con Placca dell’ordine Piano), by the Pope, for his great role and efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue and the relationships between Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church (in March 2019).

Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam is the Secretary General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, and represents the Grand Imam on the World Council (governing board) of Religions for Peace, a 50 year-old multi-religious organization representing all the world’s religious institutions and faith communities – in effect, a “UN of religions”.

And yet these words seem to have to be repeated again and again. Many Muslims live in fear that each and every day’s news potentially bears yet another heinous act of violence whose mad perpetrator(s) claim(s) is done for or inspired by “Islam”.

Many Muslims still hear two comments again and again from within the western hemisphere: “where is the condemnation?”, and even more insidiously, an assertion that “there must be something in the religion that makes these repeated acts of violence …possible”.

Some western government-sanctioned narratives go so far as to describe “Islamic extremism”, further compounding a sense of victimisation by many Muslims, and adding to the ‘spin’ that the religion itself is capable of extremism.

No religion is itself intrinsically capable of anything. People live religion. In his latest Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”( in Chapter 8 “religion and fraternity”), the Pontiff focuses on “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” and emphasizes that terrorism is not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts, as well as “policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression” (paragraphs 282-283).

The Encyclical maintains that a journey of peace among religions is possible and that it is therefore necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (paragraph 279).

Muslims – leaders, laypeople, communities, and multiple institutions – have condemned, continue to condemn and will always condemn violence in the name of their faith.

Imam Sayyed Razawi, the Secretary General of the Scottish Ahl al-Bayt Society, and a Trustee of Religions for Peace, notes that “since Islam does not teach harming others, a question that arises is what was the motivation of an individual who had a claim to being Muslim, to violate the parameters of the laws of his faith and country in committing such an act?

There is no doubt Muslims, be they in France or across the world, hurt, when their Prophet is seemingly insulted. However, it does not justify breaking the very principles laid down in Islam to prevent such acts”.

Both Judge Abdel Salam and Imam Razawi, are of similar age. The former, living in the Arab world, the latter, living in the West. Both are Muslim leaders, and both are well versed in Islamic Jurisprudence, and learned about Islamic traditions. Both continue to iterate, in multiple speeches, conferences and contexts, that what inspires them, is to serve humanity.

Imam Sayed Razawi continues to note that serving humanity leads us down a pathway which has various labels, though amounting to roughly the same thing: interfaith, inter religious dialogue, and/or multi faith collaboration. The ultimate aim and purpose have always been, and remains, how best to live harmoniously with others.

For both these Muslim leaders, and millions of other Muslims, the inspiration to maintain that such atrocities are not in our name, comes from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). A man who even before prophecy was working with peoples of various faiths and backgrounds. A merchant, whose employer was a woman – later to become his wife when she proposed to him- and who believed passionately in being truthful and trustworthy.

“So much so” Razawi maintains, “that Jews, Christians, and pagans alike would entrust him with that which they held valuable to themselves, with the belief it would be safe. As a Prophet, Muhammad developed a city where Muslims lived side by side with Jews, Christians, Sabians and pagans. These lessons lead to the formation of a civilisation on the very same principles: coexistence and peace.”

Both the Imam and the Judge speak of their hurt when evil acts such as what has been witnessed in Paris take place. Both maintain, again, alongside countless others, that “it is important to repeat and continue to repeat that these are not the teachings of Islam, nor its Prophet or the interpretations of core Islamic principles”.

These atrocities are against what they believe, what they live, and what they preach, which is: peaceful coexistence, reconciliation and obeying the laws of the land one lives in, not to mention the need to uphold virtues such as compassion, love and forgiveness.

Both maintain that acts of violence are not reflective of a religion whose leaders have categorically emphasised the need for “loving thy neighbour”, because, as Imam Razawi states “either a person is your brother in faith, or your equal in your humanity.”

So why would an act be committed which is contrary to the very faith the actor confesses to be?

This is the question secular policy-makers may not ask. Or perhaps they do ask behind closed doors in rooms bursting with indifference to religion and religious sentiments.

Or yet again, maybe this is a question asked by religious ‘technocrats’ (those working on religion in secular spaces) and/or secular bureaucrats keen on instrumentalizing religious sentiments for ‘national security’ concerns.

But this is the question that every faith leader asks – and asks repeatedly. The answers lie, again, in what the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, calls for, which the Catholic Pontiff also concludes his Encyclical with: “we were made for love” (Paragraph 88), and love builds bridges.

But how can we build bridges with love? Religions for Peace has been doing this work through 96 national and regional Inter-Religious Councils, with representatives of all faith traditions, for five decades.

In 2019, 250 religious leaders committed to building these bridges with and through service to the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda.

When Covid-19 hit, Religions for Peace set up a Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund dedicated to supporting faith communities work to serve all, together. The religious leaders understood that there is no point to working to realise the SDGs, without a mechanism to collate and coordinate their efforts, geared towards serving social cohesion (in a world gone awry), within our new normal: humanitarian crisis.

Confronting Covid is an opportunity to work together across religious and institutional differences to build bridges of love. The humanitarian call is being heeded today like never before, by the first responders in crisis situations – i.e. religious institutions and NGOs. But few of these religious NGOs are actually collaborating, meaning jointly investing their resources, to serve together.

We can keep on having meetings to speak to building back better, and the uniqueness of faith (or business or civil society actors), and still face countless acts of violence (attributed to religion) from those whose sense of marginalization is intensifying.

We can choose to continue to serve our own organizational and territorial visibility and interests, while hundreds of thousands continue to die, and millions suffer, from a shared ecosystem of planetary degradation.

Or we can serve the multi-religious call – the multi-religious imperative – and actually pool our financial, human and spiritual resources together – to build bridges with love. The choice is ours.

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