The gender backlash: How to protect women’s rights in conflict

In conflict zones around the world, a growing backlash against gender equality has raised concerns about the future of women’s rights and empowerment. From the corridors of power to the streets, reactions against efforts to level the playing field between genders are becoming increasingly visible.

While the struggle for gender equality has achieved significant milestones, a concurrent rise in anti-gender, anti-feminist and anti-democratic movements is growing across various nations. Even countries known for their progressive stance on women’s rights face challenges, indicating a broader pattern. As gender equality gains momentum, these movements aim to reverse the progress, using traditional patriarchal norms and values and ethno-nationalist ideologies to justify their stance.

The rise of these movements can be linked to a complex interplay of factors, including the role of religion, social media and political institutions. Sometimes, these movements even utilise state power to suppress gender equality initiatives.

Research by International Alert gathered insights from three regions affected by conflict to show how the backlash against gender equality has manifested and how to navigate a path forward.

South Caucasus

The South Caucasus region grapples with rigid gender norms and rising nationalism, further impeding progress. These factors contribute to the prevalence of patriarchal norms despite legal provisions supporting women’s and gender minorities’ rights.

For instance, Pride Week events in Georgia were cancelled due to protests and this month the ruling party has prepared a draft law aimed at countering LGBTIQ+ rights advocacy, labelled as “pseudo-liberal ideology propaganda”. The involvement and support of western embassies in events such as those during Pride Week have fueled perceptions that these ‘foreign’ imported ideas are destroying local cultural values.

To navigate sensitive topics like gender equality effectively, there is a need to use accessible and acceptable language and to use locally led approaches that work with communities.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

DRC faces deep-seated gender discrimination aggravated by armed conflicts, leading to a regression in women’s rights.

The concept of gender equality is often perceived as a threat to traditional norms and manhood. When women gain economic independence, a common tactic used to undermine women’s empowerment is linking female entrepreneurship to prostitution. Furthermore, education for girls is seen as a threat to established gender norms, as educated women are mostly labelled as ‘promiscuous’, ‘bossy’ or ‘difficult to manage’.

The trivialisation of gender-based violence is concerning and there is insufficient funding for gender-focused programmes.

Understanding the causes of the global backlash is the first step in finding practical solutions. But to counter it, a multifaceted, long-term approach is necessary, and several key strategies can be identified.

Cooperation against harmful ideologies

Gender equality is a global issue that requires global cooperation. By countering harmful ideologies, hate speech and the dissemination of false information, we can create a united front against the backlash. International collaboration is crucial to fostering a shared commitment to dismantling barriers and promoting equality worldwide.

Empowering and funding women’s networks

Strengthening local women’s groups is paramount to driving gender equality at the grassroots level. Investing in local partnerships can enhance their capacity to effect change within their communities and ensure that progress is sustainable, contextually relevant and culturally sensitive. Funding this work is crucial. Flexible and long-term financial support will enable these organisations to implement effective strategies and navigate challenges, contributing to the overall advancement of gender equality.

Promoting inclusive educational programmes

Comprehensive education is crucial for challenging stereotypes and promoting inclusivity. Focusing on refining gender-related terminology and language choices will help mitigate contentious debates. By educating people from a young age, we can reshape societal norms and foster a culture of equality and respect.

Including men in solutions

To foster a more comprehensive understanding of gender dynamics, it is essential to extend the focus of women’s equality projects to include men. By engaging men in discussions and initiatives, we can break down stereotypes and create a more inclusive dialogue that benefits everyone. This approach recognises that gender equality is a shared responsibility and encourages collaboration between genders.

Protecting human rights defenders

Online harassment and cyberbullying disproportionately affect human rights defenders advocating for gender equality. Collaboration with religious leaders and media platforms can reshape perceptions around gender equality and create a safer space for advocacy.

Investing in research and citizen participation

Academic and practice-based research helps develop evidence-based solutions. Encouraging active citizen participation, including the integration of digital peacebuilding into development programmes, will help tailor initiatives to specific contexts.

The path to gender equality is fraught with challenges, but by adopting these approaches we can overcome the current backlash and pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future. Through collaboration, education and sustained support, we can create a world where gender equality is not just an aspiration but a reality.