On International Women’s day, Malayah Harper, General Secretary of the World YWCA would like to say a few words:

I often reflect on the tremendous organising energy that came from the 1994 clarion call “women’s rights are human rights”. Yet despite more than 20 years of progressive international commitments for gender equality, in the last five years, the space for civil society engaged in gender equality and women’s empowerment has been shrinking. This diminishing space has been most profound for those civil society organisations (CSOs) working to secure the most basic right of all – control of our own bodies and destinies.

Every woman, adolescent, and girl has the right to decide whether, with whom, and at what moment to have children. We have the right to choose whether and whom to marry.  This is the central pre-condition to reduce unintended pregnancies, end child marriage, keep girls in school and expand opportunities for young women, not just to survive but to thrive.  This is the corner stone for gender equality, women’s empowerment and Planet 50:50.

Around the world, the YWCA movement stands proud of the work we do to support gender justice and extend sexual and reproductive health in communities and help women and girls realize their rights.

It is often said that change takes a long time, but change can also be sudden, severe, and profound: just two days after ½ million women and men marched on Washington in support of women’s rights, US President Donald Trump reinstated and expanded the Mexico City policy, also referred to as a global gag rule (GGR). This policy stops funding for international organisations that provide education, reproductive choices, and abortion counselling or services.

The US government is the biggest funder of reproductive health across the globe, and cuts to its funding of USD$575 million annually is predicted to lead to an alarming increase of 4.8 million unintended pregnancies, 1.7 million unsafe abortions, and 20,000 maternal deaths annually.  The funding shortfall will almost exclusively impact civil society organisations, with the greatest consequences falling upon the most marginalised women in poor countries.

January was a bad month for women’s empowerment and gender equality. The following week, the Russian parliament – which is 85% male – voted 380:3 in favour of weakening the laws on spousal abuse in the name of tradition and family protection.

“Nationalism, tradition, family, culture”… These are words I hear continually in UN intergovernmental processes, parliaments and communities either to justify exclusion of women or decisions in our name. From the board room to the bedroom, the biggest casualty is limiting the rights of women and space for women’s civil society.

But profound crisis is often the best time for transformative change.

With a sense of urgency, the Government of the Netherlands kick started the #SheDecides. Last week on 2 March in Brussels, along with Hendrica Okondo from the world office representing the ecumenical alliance, we joined more than 100 civil society organisations and 50 governments from around the world for the campaign’s official launch. In a single day, the campaign raised USD$180 million, as well as triggering global collective action and the beginning of a much needed progressive alliance for women’s rights that we have not seen in decades.

Plugging a funding gap and #hashtag activism is vitally important, but as the General Secretary of the World YWCA, one of the oldest and largest women’s rights movements in the world, and as a movement we are committed to deeper and sustained change. This requires: 1) providing opportunities for women from communities themselves and supporting them as leaders of change; 2) committing to building the social movement of millions of women around the world who demand change and; 3) working on the axis of where power lies, and progressively changing the politics, institutions and social institutions within which power is exercised.

On a most basic level, billions of women, young women and girls are cut off from their ability to contribute, organise and mobilise. Yet we have a unique opportunity to reshape the way we work to network across community and national boundaries, and to develop a sense of shared purpose, and a shared set of demands.  We must develop the platforms that help us do this.  As the World YWCA, we are calling on member associations and other partners to work with us to develop the platforms for the future that can unite us and unite women – in particular young women – to lead change.

In this way, we can break the cycle of stop/start efforts that characterize support for  sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we can stop polarised reactions. We have the important task to foster inclusion and participation, as well as having an unprecedented opportunity to form a truly global progressive alliance for women’s rights.

January might have been a bad month, but March is looking up. It shows us what we can truly do when we unite for bold and transformative change.