[Youth Delegate Blog] Murals, Representation, and Intergenerational Equity: Conversations about Gender Equality

(Example of a mural my friend and I saw in Harlem)

Written by Adrienne Ahn

In this blog I take a closer look at the connections between visual advertisements, panel parity at the UN HLPF, and intergenerational equity to the advancement or disruption of SDG 5: the overarching goal of Gender Equality.

Plastered on the concrete walls of New York, vibrant posters and murals loom in the faces of sidewalkers. Some posters are alarmingly creative in their portrayal of people, while many of them boast an avant-garde flair. This is an example of a major city that has been promised to receive all-inclusive gender-responsive action and delivery of legislation for gender equity. Among the vivid wall art and flashy billboards hung up on the streets of this cosmopolitan city, I noticed a rare one that could have arguably leaned towards being discriminatory, but the majority maintained a culturally-positive and neutral appearance.

Beyond My Filter Bubble

Weeks prior to arriving in New York, I spent time analyzing the ecology of advertisements mainly released in Western liberal democracies and deconstructing the deceptive and often pernicious social messaging within many of them. As a result, I learned to develop a lens to uncover subliminal messages within advertising campaigns and identify how online algorithms personalize filter bubbles that distort our reality. In fact, Dr. Laura Zimmermann, a developmental psychologist believes that countering gender stereotypes starts with children’s toy advertisements. I agree because I think they play a role in defining and shaping ideas about intersections of identity from a young age. She recognizes that:

They are obviously not working alone; we have wider societal influences at work, but ads are powerful.

After examining endless issues bordering lack of inclusivity or objectification in public posters and advertisements, you can imagine my surprise at being unable to detect telltale signs of gender discriminatory media in a major digital-ad-powered city. Instead, I was captivated by bold and spirited murals sprinkled in the corners of crowded streets that were – in my humble opinion – synonymous with stories of authenticity, individuality, empowerment and culture. Beyond the United Nations system, four friends and I attended the Ground Level Peoples’ Forum (GLPF), which was a movement bringing together civil society organizations, activists and human rights defenders to demand development justice and accountability. During this street movement, I saw the powerful impact of posters and handmade banners as a straightforward form of advertising to advance gender equality and equal rights. My general opinion is that while I commend New York for its seeming absence of gender discriminatory displays, I do acknowledge that I may have missed any gender-exclusive or degrading outdoor advertisements in the limited time I was in New York. 

What about in the System? 

Moving beyond visual advertisements, I noticed a pattern in many of the events I attended at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum. Nearly every talk included an exchanging of words on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality, whether it was in a session on the core of democratic systems or a speech by the WFP Executive Director on empowering women to reduce food insecurity. This recognition is important because the Sustainable Development Goals are interconnected, which means Agenda 2030 can only be achieved if gender inequalities are addressed at all levels (including systematically). However, all countries still need to realize that women and self-identifying women are one of the many marginalized groups today that often feel the worst effects of gender-based violence and discrimination. During events, I was pleased to see that many women holding official leadership positions were speaking in panels and delivering honourable speeches. 

One example was María Fernanda Espinosa, President of the United Nations General Assembly for the 73rd Session who stated at the High-Level Segment of the Economic and Social Council:

Empowering women and girls is the closest thing we have to a magic formula for sustainable development.”

In several other events, however, I became aware of an unequal dynamic in terms of gender representation. A side event under the Japanese Presidency of the G20 had six men and three women panelists present in the room — one of them a youth delegate who spoke for less than one minute. I trust that the organizers did their best to pursue panel parity, but because this was an event discussing the G20 SDG Action Plan including women’s empowerment and participation, I expected direct action in the form of gender balance and better time management for equal speaking times in their panel.

Intergenerational Equity

On July 16th, my partner and I delivered a presentation on the linkage between intergenerational equity and SDG 5: Gender Equality. Our delegation participated in this youth-led side event hosted by BCCIC, CCIC, and the Permanent Mission of Canada to specifically examine intergenerational equity and how it advances SDGs 3, 4, 5, and 13. Intergenerational equity considers the rights of future generations and equitable access to common resources between generations. This is where gender equality comes into play – as more women and young girls are empowered to take leadership positions, think critically about systems of power, and develop supportive relationships, we improve rights and opportunities for all generations of women; thereby advancing intergenerational equity.

We discussed the language of intergenerational equity existing within the goal’s 9 targets and 14 indicators, and chose four targets to focus on in our presentation:

5.1: End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere

5.5: Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life 

5.A: Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws 

5.C: Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels

Conversations about gender-based violence, unequal power dynamics, and the need for accountability measures are more than just necessary; they are inevitable now. If the world wants to achieve Agenda 2030 and leave no one behind in the process, we need to engage critically with the manner in which gender inequalities are presented currently and recognize how to advance gender equality in all different facets of society. There are ways you can track the universal progress towards SDG 5 – check reports on the global indicator framework, and even start watching the advertisements on your own screen to determine whether they are advancing or inhibiting gender equality.

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