BRICS Gender Forum: putting women at the centre of development

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2018 is a key year for the BRICS. Not only is it a decade since the first BRICS meeting, it is also the first time the bloc will directly address gender disparities through the proposed creation of the BRICS Gender and Women’s Forum, championed by South Africa in its capacity as chair.

Women face discrimination all over the world. They are generally paid less and work longer hours than men, have limited access to education and healthcare and face increased physical danger both at home and outside. The BRICS countries are no exception. According to Human Rights Watch, Brazilian women earn an estimated 23% less than men even in instances when women are either more highly educated than men or on the same educational level. South Africa also sees similar wage inequalities, with women earning 27% less than men.

Countries within the bloc have made uneven progress on addressing issues of equality, empowerment and women’s rights. According to the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap report, South Africa is leading its BRICS counterparts on progress towards gender parity, ranking number 19 in the world. The rest of the BRICS members lag far behind, with Russia at 71, Brazil at 90, China at 100, and India at 108. South Africa’s ranking is boosted by its regulations towards equal gender representation in Parliament, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into equality in the daily lives of South African women, especially poor women.

The anticipated BRICS Gender and Women’s Forum will allow the bloc to focus some of its development energies on issues that affect women directly as well as to apply gender neutrality across all its themes. These include access to affordable and accessible reproductive health, greater action against domestic violence, and making sure that women’s access to education, employment and political representation are improved.

However, it is also crucial for the forum to focus wider and avoid the tendency to put women’s issues into a separate silo as if they only affect women. Ignoring how gender impacts on wider social issues risks weakening any attempt to solve those issues. In short, development, economic growth, technological advancement and the full participation of the global south in the world’s geopolitical order are all women’s issues, and we ignore the role of gender in them to our peril.

For this reason, we urge the BRICS countries to integrate gender in their deliberations on key issues on the 2018 summit’s agenda: the Fourth Industrial Revolution, peace and security and healthcare.

Fourth Industrial Revolution

The future growth or decline of the BRICS member countries will be shaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This term is shorthand for the impact technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and other technologies will have on the world of work. These developments are expected to make many jobs obsolete, and to change the nature of work itself.

The BRICS bloc is paying attention to the coming change, with South Africa naming the Fourth Industrial Revolution as one of its core concerns for the 2018 summit. However, little attention is being paid to how it will affect women in BRICS member states. This is a serious gap because the disruption will disproportionately affect women. China is an example of both the positive and negative aspects of this challenge. Coming automation will possibly eliminate millions of assembly jobs from the factories that supported China’s economic rise, and women occupy a large proportion of these doomed jobs. They and their families are particularly vulnerable to the changes posed by automation. Yet, Chinese women have also profited from the opportunities offered by technological revolution. Of the 88 female self-made billionaires in the world, 56 are Chinese, and women have launched 55% of new internet companies in China. Training women to make use of the technological changes can have widespread economic benefits for all, and the BRICS group should make this a priority.

Peace and security

A second example is peace and security, another BRICS priority for 2018. While theories of peace and security traditionally ignored gender, the UN’s Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 started emphasising the key role of women in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. The 2018 summit will mark the establishment of a working group on peacekeeping. This has a key connection with the work of the UN, because BRICS members contribute significant numbers of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, and China and Russia are UN Security Council members. The establishment of the peacekeeping working group therefore presents an opportunity to shape a BRICS vision of peacekeeping, and to align it to the UN-mandated focus on female participation. The UN has found that a peace initiative is 20% more likely to last two years, and 35% more likely to last fifteen years, when women are involved in its negotiation and implementation. However, gender-focused peacekeeping initiatives aimed at drawing in the energies of women are still underfunded and female mediators and negotiators are still rare. The new BRICS peacekeeping working group should pro-actively include women to maximise the impact of BRICS peacekeeping initiatives.

Healthcare

Finally, the 2018 summit seeks to establish a research centre for developing and disseminating vaccines. Improving vaccination will allow people to live healthier lives across the developing world, but it is crucial that this work includes a focus on gender. Across the world, women are the primary caregivers to children and make healthcare decisions for them. They also disproportionately fill nursing and primary care occupations. Drawing on their influence in communities could help strengthen the global implementation of vaccine regimes. The World Health Organisation has found that maternal education levels directly correlate to vaccination rates, and any mass vaccination campaign resulting from the BRICS initiative must take this into account. The wider economic and social welfare of women plays a key role in the success of vaccination campaigns (especially early childhood ones), which has a central impact on development in regions like Africa.

Gender inclusivity

Although the Fourth Industrial Revolution, peacekeeping and vaccinations may typically not be regarded as ‘women’s issues’, women are central to how the BRICS responds to these challenges – particularly for member countries where women constitute a majority of the population.

While the Gender and Women’s Forum is a welcome step, the BRICS should follow it up by focusing on consistently improving gender parity in their countries and including gender equality as part of the bloc’s norms and principles. A gender-inclusive approach to all challenges confronting the bloc will ground its initiatives in a more complete, realistic view of the world by taking into account a fuller range of human experience.