4 Lessons on Working for Women's Equality on a Global Scale

Lady Gaga's performance at the Oscars elevated the experiences of victims of sexual assault and moved millions to tears -- including me. I immediately posted a link to the performance on Facebook, with the caption "Sexual abuse and violence is an epidemic -- mostly silent and always sinister."

But as I wrote those words, I became aware that sexual abuse only seems "silent" to me because I have spent the majority of my life in the United States -- in other parts of the world the sexual victimization of women and girls is spoken of as easily as the weather, and often taken no more seriously.

While many of the issues women face are the same, the ways those issues manifest can be completely different. Being part of a global sisterhood of more than 25 million through my work in YWCA has had a profound impact on my approach to both women's issues and international issues. With over 20 years of work in the movement for gender and racial equality, here are four lessons I've learned about working for equality on a global scale:

  1. Step back and listen up. Women in the United States are conditioned to believe that we have achieved gender equality, or, at a minimum, that we have made the most progress and have the most knowledge. This really isn't true. Women around the world are making huge strides every day, including in areas where we are falling behind. Other countries have left the U.S. behind on important issues like female heads of state and women business leaders, and policy issues like paid maternity leave and access to abortion. Working with women from across the globe, listening closely about their social and political lives, highlights not only what can be done to support their efforts, but galvanizes me to stay focused on women's rights here in the United States.

  • Take historical context into account. Just as we cannot address racial inequality in the U.S. without addressing our history of slavery and genocide, we have little to offer in the global movement for women's rights if we do not acknowledge colonialism, armed conflict, and other forms of Western oppression. It takes discipline, both domestically and internationally, as a white American to address the contemporary in the context of history, and to eschew the status quo ethos of American exceptionalism. Unless I acknowledge the real harm that the U.S. has caused throughout history, I can't begin to understand the cultural and historical context that informs women's experiences around the world.
  • Look for similarities and respect differences. While each woman and each nation have individual challenges and privileges, the truth is that misogyny pervades almost every culture and community across the globe. Even so, I must recognize and accept difference. For example, the U.S. leads the world on gun violence against women. Women who live here are 11 times more likely than women in any other developed nation to be shot and killed by a domestic partner. That doesn't make domestic violence a uniquely American issue; it just means that the solution to reducing domestic violence homicides needs to be focused on legislation pertaining to guns. In other places, the weapons are different. Even when issues appear similar, like justice systems that fail to hold rapists accountable, the solutions may be different across cultures. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving issues of gender inequality. When I recognize that, the more effective I am to contribute to creative solutions to global women's issues.
  • Autonomy is essential. As I've said above, white American women too often believe that we are the authority on what women's liberation means. Not only is this misguided, and frankly arrogant, but it can be incredibly damaging and have real consequences for other women. For example, seeing the veil traditionally worn by Muslim women as a symbol of oppression contributes to continued suspicion and surveillance of Muslim communities, which has a direct impact on the life and civil rights of the women in those communities (whether they choose to wear a veil or not). Dictating to other women what equality means is not feminism, and, more importantly, it can have the exact opposite outcome we aim to achieve.
  • While having a meaningful, positive impact on global women's issues is always a challenge, I would not continue to engage in this work if I did not think progress was possible -- especially if I take time to listen and respect all women's histories, differences, and autonomy.