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06 August 2020

Feminist Movements for a Sustainable Future

Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller and Nokuthula Olorunju

August marks the beginning of South Africa’s National Women’s month. This year’s theme of ‘Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights for an Equal Future’ speaks to a wider international movement. Goal 5 (Gender Equality) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the rise of various international feminist movements come together to find sustainable solutions to gender inequality. Drawing from their chapter in Gender equality: encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the HSRC’s Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller and Nokuthula Olorunju provide a brief overview of an oceanic movement.

“The cost to the global economy of gender-based discrimination in social institutions is $6 trillion (7.5% of the global GDP)”, according to the OECD’s 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) Global Report. The reality of gender discrimination is that it is not only women who are affected: families, communities, economies and nations stand to suffer as a result of such inequality.

Gender inequality, intersectional feminism and the transition towards the SDGs

Gender inequality is a global challenge that the UN recognizes in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, even before the formality of the targets set out by SDG5, gender equality has been a concept advocated for by feminists for decades, if not centuries. It has resulted in multinational movements striving to see sustainable change in the perceptions and treatment of women.

The feminist movement is predominantly described in ‘waves’ tracing back to the 19th Century. The first wave is said to have begun with the suffragette movement, which primarily sought the women’s right to vote and called for the protection of women’s basic rights. The second wave brought about a critical equality discourse in terms of economics, health and sexuality together with the struggle for civil rights in the 1970s. Currently, society is said to be experiencing the fourth wave of feminism, focused on the revitalised younger generation of feminists who are developing innovative technological and social activism strategies for change.

The idea of feminism does not fit easily into any conceptual box; variations of feminism are often influenced by factors such as race, class, culture and value systems. In the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal feminists effectively challenged patriarchal norms. Feminism continues to challenge societal norms by interrogating issues of gender and economics; gender and religion; gender and society; gender and culture; gender and health; gender and academia/professions; gender and politics; gender and technology; gender and the environment/climate, to name but a few.

Gender researcher Prof Fatuma Nyaguthii Chege of Kenyatta University, Kenya, discusses feminism from the African context, highlighting how feminism first had to be critiqued as a western concept interlinked with patriarchal, colonial ideologies. This may also have influenced how African women were perceived in traditional roles within African communities, thereby inhibiting females from acquiring leadership roles.

The feminist movement has stood in solidarity and in confrontation with various other movements. It advocates for the dismantling of social constructs and for inclusivity. Feminism now crosses cultures, religions and borders, with women’s groups connecting through the formation of Transnational Feminist Networks (TFN) and breaching the ‘divide’ between the global North and South.

In 2008, feminists mobilised to create a single women’s entity in the UN under the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign for gender equality, reform and empowerment, whose mission was centered on feminist mobilisation. The campaign, an example of successful ‘civil society activism’, involved over 300 women and civil society organisations that made positive strides by including women’s concerns in the UN agenda. UNWomen engaged extensively with feminist advocates prior to the development of SDG5 in Agenda 2030, resulting in a more integrated and interpretative tone as compared to the MDG.

The SDGs are human rights-based, multidimensional and applicable universally. SDG 5, as a standalone goal and in its interconnectedness with the other SDGs, was a result of consistent feminist advocacy in often precarious and traditionalist spaces. While global indicators and the science behind measuring the targets of the SDGs are important tools, one must not allow those ‘technicalities’ to detract from the very human issues and stories that underlie gender equality. Telling these stories requires qualitative in-depth policy engagements and not only a quantitative approach to data collection and analysis.

According to the 2019 SDG Report, although women have taken up more leadership roles and contribute to the advancement of gender equality, much more is needed in terms of addressing violence against women, underrepresentation in politics, discriminatory laws, harmful social norms, gender parity, women’s agency and autonomy, international regression on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and contending with religious fundamentalism and conservatism.

Despite the existence of legal frameworks in most member states, gaps still exist in addressing, both directly and indirectly, discrimination and violence against women. In addition, national resource/budget allocations rarely consider gender-based policies and programs and their implementation a priority.

Challenges and triumphs faced by feminist movement

Challenges in the feminist agenda exist. The World Economic Form writer Kate Whiting, as recently as March 2019, lists perturbing areas of persistent inequality – issues highlighted annually by UNWomen.

These include the fact that over 12 million girls are forced to be child brides globally – one every two seconds; according to the WEF, it will take around 108 years to close the gender gap; only 6 countries offer women the same equal work rights as men; professionally, only 22% of Artificial Intelligence experts are women – an unfortunate consideration in light of digital equality and gendered technologies. In rural parts of Africa, women spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting water. Women in rural sectors contribute significantly to agriculture and food production, yet they have severely limited access to infrastructure, employment opportunities and basic services – they stand to be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, language barriers and lifestyle.

Despite these challenges, the the feminist movement has developed and made significant contributions to SDG5. To focus on the accessibility of technology and social media, feminist movements are utilizing a ‘new’ global platform for popularised advocacy. There have been various hashtag movements addressing gender issues, especially the highly publicised #MeToo and #TimesUp movements on gender-based violence, harassment and assault.

This sparked a global ripple effect– although ancillary movements have adopted varied names over time. Similar movements happened in China; Kenya; Morocco; Egypt; Sweden; Bolivia; South Korea; Macedonia; France; Senegal; Pakistan; and India to name a few.

Other movements include the #TimeisNow movement which centers around women and men around the world speaking out about gender-based injustices; #IWD2018 celebrating international women’s day and used online almost two million times; and the #FeministFuture and #WhatWomenWant campaigns to include the voices of young feminists part of the feminist fourth wave, often overlooked, in policy formulations.

Countries have also increasingly criminalised domestic violence, abolished legal exceptions to underage marriages (girls under 18); and processes have been introduced to increase gender parity in public offices in eight countries.


The objectives of feminist movements and the SDG targets cannot be fully realised without global participation and accountability. The feminist movement still faces challenges often linked to weakened multilateral engagements as a result of political and socioeconomic dynamics. Feminist agendas continue to contend with broader interests like trade, climate change, politics and changing economies which tend to monopolize the discourse. There is still resistance by national and international policy makers in involving women in policy and decision-making; and in tackling issues of peace-keeping, safety and security.

The relevance of feminism is that it remains steadfast and constant in the face of challenges, adapts and evolves when necessary, and still manages to inspire increasing advocacy globally. South Africa plays an important role in women’s advocacy, with the opportunity to influence the global movement in a sustainable manner. The objectives of the movement continue to evolve over time as new challenges emerge, but this should not detract from the successes achieved this far – both big and small.

Feminist movements and activists have become more inclusive in terms of intersectionality and feminists have become more creative as the revolution for gender equality continues.

Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller and Nokuthula Olorunju

HSRC’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division

Further reading: Feminist movements for a sustainable future, in Gender Equality, a volume of the Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  

Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller and Nokuthula Olorunju

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