2018 was called “The Year of the Woman” for good reason. MeToo, TimesUp, and the celebrated downfall of some powerful abusers heralded the beginning of the end of impunity for sexual abuse, the Nobel Peace Prize illuminated the noble fight of a fearless woman and man against gender-based violence in their respective conflict-riddled nations, and in America, a record number of women were elected to public office, and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act was passed by both houses of Congress. But if 2018 was the Year of the Woman, then 2019 must be the Year of Action, so that these remarkable advances can be further grounded in law and in practice, redounding to the benefit of every woman everywhere.
It’s a powerful moment, full of potential: companies large and small, national and local legislatures, and international and domestic financial institutions are eager to take action to protect women and to be seen doing so. Here are some things that these organizations, and all of us, can do, to build on the momentum of 2018 and respond to the extraordinary truth-telling that has clarified the need for substantial change.
Starting at home, 2019 can be the year in which men and boys become more proactively aware of our need and obligation as human beings to respect women and each other. Women and girls, by speaking their truth in dialogue with these husbands, fathers, brothers, can help move this conversation forward, toward constructive action. This can be the year when more men can feel welcome to join more fully in the fight for equality and human rights – perhaps forming groups of male champions of women, as part of an expanded feminist alliance.
At the organizational level, multinationals and other industry leaders in food, health care, finance, communications, tech, and extractives can join in this alliance. Companies can demand, as some are already doing, that their suppliers, vendors, and franchisees a) pay a living wage; b) do not expose workers to dangerous chemicals or other contaminants that might harm their health or that of an unborn child; and c) protect workers from sexual harassment, with external enforcement built into contracts. Local and national financial institutions can make 2019 a Year of Action by agreeing to lend to worker and housing cooperatives, making it possible for individual producers, caregivers, and other low-wage workers to build a business, earn a living wage, and live safely and decently, in secure and affordable housing.
In this Year of Action, working women can join with those just starting out at their firms, making them aware of their rights and of any workplace hazards, and planning their response in settings known or feared to be dangerous. This response, ranging from jointly protesting such abuses to seeking legal recourse, can then be mobilized and executed in the event of a sexual assault, toxic exposure, firing without cause, or other rights violations. A Year of Action also means resisting silencing memos, also known as non-disclosure agreements, that forbid employees from ever speaking about sexual abuse or other improper or illegal business practices.
At the local and national levels, this Year of Action must see enforceable legislation prohibiting violence against women enacted in the U.S. and around the world, with real consequences for confirmed abusers. In 2019 we need to continue to mobilize to secure universal reproductive freedom, with ready access to affordable women’s health services for all women and girls, regardless of their income, culture, religion, or the place where they happen to live. To build a truly caring economy that upholds human rights, every nation needs to ensure that its people enjoy access to universal health care, elder care, child care, safe shelter, and respectable work at a livable wage. Each of us needs to continue to fight for these values in 2019.
On the international level, major multilateral institutions can help. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other international financial institutions can insist on national legislation protecting fundamental human rights as a sine qua non of grants, loans, or loan forgiveness. The United Nations must meet its own human rights standards in 2019, so it can continue to lead through its powerful example and advocacy. And all international organizations can both set the tone and transform local practice, simply through their commercial engagement with local governments, third-party vendors, and the comportment of their own personnel in their headquarters across the globe.
2019, therefore, can be another momentous year. It can be a year invested in achieving the end of impunity, constructing a caring economy, and listening to those who know best what they need in order to thrive. This Year of Action will be a busy one, commanding the focused engagement of men and women, government and non-governmental institutions, and private companies alike.
And what better time than now? The brave women who came forward to tell their stories in 2018, and the countless fearful girls and women who continue to suffer in shadow, deserve nothing less.