Women are fired up, outraged. Fueled by an avalanche of sexual misconduct, the shift to the right in the Supreme Court, the possibility that gains in women’s rights, marriage equality and healthcare gains could be rolled back, women seemed to be organized with a force not seen before. The #METOO movement ushered in the awakening of a sleeping giant that created an overwhelming demand for change.
But the unity that created the giant is fraying. There is a sharp drop in support for this year’s march. Accusations of anti-Semitism by some movement leaders has prompted several states and municipalities to withdraw plans to participate in the upcoming January 2019 Women’s March, according to NBC News.
We must fix this. One of the basic tenets of championing equal rights is a deep and abiding understanding that “them is us.” Prejudices boomerang: next time it could be your group. The first responsibility of leadership, as Max Dupree put it, is to create a new reality. To create a worldview that inspires and guides its followers toward the way things can be. Great leaders throughout the ages have understood the vital importance of unity to a social movement.
The second responsibility of leadership is to promote understanding and tolerance, and do all you can to minimize conflict, not create it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “We may have come on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now.” Diversity can be our greatest strength; and could be the ultimate test of our success.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders need to paint the new reality in policy terms and shape a policy agenda to usher in a brave new era for women and girls. Channeling the energies of millions of women across the country who are ready to create that new world, and giving it practical definition, are the imperatives. As we start 2019, let’s keep this agenda in mind and remember what Margaret Mead said: “A handful of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
An Agenda for Women and Girls is needed; letting policy makers on both sides of the aisle know what matters most, and keeping it on their radar screen. No matter who is in the White House, girls and women should keep a sharp focus on encouraging policies and legislation to remedy these ongoing challenges:
Gender Equality: Equal Rights Amendments are needed. Several states are proposing ERA’s in 2019. An ERA is long overdue. Gender inequality is too much of a recurring theme, whether it’s unequal access to schooling for girls in developing countries, or unequal pay for women in the workplace. In a world where most companies, cities and countries are still led by men, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.
In NYC, the progressive capital of the world, we should be leading the way. NYC have passed the Gender-Neutral Birth Certificate law allowing individuals to choose their gender marker. New York state passed the first law requiring mental health in the schools, and the most comprehensive paid family leave policy in the nation. And 50 years ago, women in NY at Seneca Falls were the first to pass a resolution giving women the right to vote. There is much more work to be done.
Gender based harassment and violenceis epidemic. In the United States 1 in 4 women experience abuse during their lifetimes. Laws to combat sexual harassment in the workplace are essential. NY has recently bolstered already existing legislation---requiring notification and training of employees, and subjecting any non-disclosure agreements to the employee’s preference. Globally, the United Nations reports that up to 70% of women experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. Whether it’s domestic abuse, rape, or sexual trafficking, gender-based violence denies far too many girls and women the opportunity to live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
#GirlsToo, Girls Inc’s social media campaign gives an important voice to girls, and keeps the issue in the forefront of the public agenda. Our campaign encourages K-12 victims of harassment or assault and their allies to share their experience and empowers communities to make change. It spotlights the widespread sexual harassment that students experience before entering college or the workforce, and underscores the urgency of addressing this problem in early education.
Because of the magnitude of the problem, girls are at risk of having their education derailed, or suffering severe trauma or suicide. According to one landmark study, nearly half of all middle and high school students report being sexually harassed. More than 10 percent of high school girls report having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse.
LGBTQIA students are at risk as well. Everyone should be able to get behind the idea that violence and discrimination against anyone---every girl, every woman---including on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI), are unacceptable. We should highlight unacceptable forms of violence and abuse that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and intersex people face, including attacks, rape, and arbitrary arrests. These abuses are unacceptable, but we must do much more to end such violence and discrimination through legislation and stigma.
Chipping away at reproductive rights is an ongoing threat. Helping girls learn at an early age to take charge of their bodies and exercise reproductive choice, reduces unsafe abortions and maternal deaths, conserves precious resources, and empowers girls and women to lead productive lives.
Employment Opportunitiesreflect major inequalities. ERA Amendments should include equal pay provisions. Women still earn an average of only $0.78 for every $1.00 earned by men. For women of color it’s even less: $0.63 for Black women and $0.54 for Latinas. Globally, the gender gap is wider: women earn only one tenth of the world’s income despite working two thirds of the total work hours. Empowering women to earn their fair share could benefit their families and entire communities in a big way: women are likely to invest their money back into their families and communities than men typically do.
Poverty is a persistent and ongoing problem. In New York City, 20% of women are living in poverty. Investing in girl’s education is crucial to economic progress. We know that women and girls are a powerful force for change. And when we put women and girls at the center of development, we can break the cycle of poverty. We can help them delay their marriages, choose the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, complete their education, and gain the knowledge and skills they need to participate in their community’s economies. Yet, all too often gender inequality in terms of education, equal employment opportunities, gets pushed aside because of competing priorities. The truth is, holding girls and women back is everyone’s issue. We cannot end extreme poverty without focusing on women and girls, and the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Access to higher education is vital, yet still escapes many. The high school graduation rate in New York State barely budged last year, inching up just half a percentage point, according to data recently released by the New York State Education Department. According to the department, 80.2 percent of public school students graduated on time. Within the numbers, however, stubborn imbalances and inequities persisted: White students graduated at much higher rates than black or Hispanic students, and in some districts, fewer than half the students finished high school on time. In communities served by Girls Inc. of NYC, vast inequalities persisted. Statewide, 68.5 % of Hispanic students and 69.3 percent of black students graduated in four years. Those gaps narrowed slightly from the prior year, but they remained stubbornly wide. Asian kids again set the pace with a 87.5 percent grad rate. They also posted the highest gain from last year with a 1.8-point hike. White students came in second, with an 83.2 percent graduation rate, up 0.9 points from 2016.
If you want to help Girls Inc. of New York City advance the rights of girls and women, join us and support our advocacy efforts in 2019. We have our work cut out for us, but together we can make 2019 a memorable year of progress, and the Year of Advancement for Girls and Women.