Feminist movements are key to public health equity

We need greater investment in feminist movements, one of the most effective ways to advance health outcomes for women and girls and to achieve public health equity, say Emma Fulu and colleagues

Imagine the energy and power of more than 30 000 activists from all corners of the world gathering in one space together with a common purpose. That was what happened at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. It was the extraordinary mobilisation of women’s movements, built on decades of groundwork and feminist struggles, that ultimately led to the Beijing Platform for Action—a visionary roadmap to achieve gender equality.1

Over the subsequent 26 years, feminist movements have continued to play an instrumental role in advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as contributing to fairer gender outcomes in public health more broadly. For example, Ireland overturned a 35 year ban on abortion in May of 2018, and Argentina recently decriminalised and legalised access to abortion up to 14 weeks, both the result of decades of feminist and cross-movement mobilisation combined with pressure from international bodies.2 In fact, the most important and consistent factor driving policy change on one of the key problems impacting women’s health—violence against women—is feminist activism.3

Twenty six years after the Beijing Platform for Action, many more public health interventions are gender responsive and grounded in human rights. The demands to humanise pregnancy and childbirth, and for a state response to obstetric violence as a form of gender based violence, are a case in point.4 Feminist research, analysis, and advocacy have also been critical in strengthening responses to major health emergencies, such as the Zika outbreak in 2016, which required a deep understanding of the gendered impact of the virus.5

While there has been significant progress, we have a long way to go. In 2016-2017, only 1% of all gender focused aid went to women’s organisations.6 Furthermore, women’s and feminist movements are grappling with the shutdown of civic spaces and aggressive backlash against progress made in the areas of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights. The election of deeply patriarchal, ultra conservative, right wing populist leaders in several countries in recent years has led to the erosion of rights and progressive policy. For example, in 2020 led by the United States, an alliance of ultra conservative governments, including Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Egypt, and Uganda among others, came together to issue the Geneva Consensus as a joint front against abortion and diverse forms of families. This alliance is reflective of the anti-rights forces that have prevented further advances in commitments on sexual rights, LGBTQI+ rights, and comprehensive sexuality education under the banner of a war on “gender ideology.”7 

Now, the intersecting crises of the covid-19 pandemic and climate emergency have exacerbated existing gender and social inequalities. Feminists have been calling attention to these issues for decades and, even during these challenging times, have been at the forefront of driving change. Now more than ever, we need to expand direct investment in feminist movements as one of the most effective ways to protect and advance the human rights of women and girls in all their diversity worldwide. Funding should be flexible, long term, and geared towards supporting activism and movement building that challenges deep rooted inequalities and norms. 

As we look forward to the next 25 years, there are three key opportunities we need to build upon. First, while new technology has often exacerbated digital surveillance, harassment, and violence against women, online social networks also offer unparalleled opportunities to expand and strengthen women’s movements. We need investment in technology that intentionally disrupts gender and health inequities, be that through telehealth or by following the principles of the feminist internet.8

Second, there is great potential in bringing together social justice movements—such as anti-racism, decolonisation, disability rights, LGBTQI+ rights, and climate justice—to work alongside movements for gender equity. Partnerships and coalitions can learn from one another and share resources and platforms to advance their respective agendas. Black Lives Matter is a powerful example of this cross-movement organising.

Third, young people are central to our progress. Building on the gains of previous generations, younger feminists from various movements are ever present in public health spaces and should be supported in their efforts to drive the next generation of change. Movements around trans rights, bodily autonomy, choice, and pleasure are pertinent examples.

Since Beijing and other landmark conferences of the 1990s, feminist activists from various generations and movements have claimed power, defended rights, and demanded protection. Now we have an opportunity to articulate a collective strategy that recognises the vital role these movements have in delivering health equity for all. We are witnessing a wave of mobilisation across movements and countries. If supported, this powerful force will be instrumental in tackling the intersecting crisis experienced by people and the planet.

Emma Fulu is the founder and executive director of The Equality Institute (EQI), a global, feminist organisation working to advance gender equality and prevent violence against women and girls. The EQI is based in Melbourne, Australia and specialises in research, creative communications, and advocacy to achieve its goals. @theEQI

Loksee Leung is the research and evaluation manager at The Equality Institute. 

Marisa Viana is the executive coordinator of RESURJ (Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice), a transnational alliance of younger global South feminists organizing for the realization of sexual and reproductive justice for women and girls in all our diversity. @RESURJ

Competing interests: none declared


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  6. OECD. Aid in Support of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Donor charts. 2019 March. Available from: https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-topics/Aid-to-gender-equality-donor-charts-2019.pdf
  7. Godoy DB. War on ‘gender ideology’ hits Brazilian foreign policy, posing a threat to the human rights of women and the LGBTIQ community. [Internet] Brazil: Resurj. 2019 September  [cited 2021 May 13]. Available from: https://resurj.org/reflection/war-on-gender-ideology-hits-brazilian-foreign-policy-posing-a-threat-to-the-human-rights-of-women-and-the-lgbtiq-community/
  8. feministinternet.com [Internet] London: Feminist Internet; c2018 [cited 2021 May 13]. Available from: https://www.feministinternet.com/