The year is 2100 and I am attending the annual meeting of the Global Council of Peoples in the newly regenerated Amazon basin. Inspired by Costa Rica, the first nation in the world to dismantle its military and redirect public investments toward human development and conserving natural resources, the indigenous peoples of Latin America were early implementers of sweeping social changes that included laws ensuring the full and equal participation of women and freedom and equality for gay and transgender people.
We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Gender Justice and Equality, a global pact that guaranteed women’s liberation and fundamentally altered human relationships and their underlying structures and systems. Delegations of youth and elders, women, men, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals are present to celebrate the first quarter century in the world’s history in which all human beings have experienced peace and freedom and have taken joint responsibility for leading, governing, and caring for future generations. This annual gathering is more than a celebration—it is a reminder to the global community of what it took to achieve these outcomes and how we cannot afford to be complacent.
Dancers, musicians, and acrobats dramatically retell the story of how the planet and her human beings faced dire threats and then engineered the remarkable breakthroughs that made it possible to avert the ultimate catastrophe. Homage is paid to women in this story—the peace and prosperity evident in our world today are thanks to defenders of women’s rights, working in concert with social justice and ecological movements.
The audience gasps in response to the litany of problems present in 2010:
- Wars and conflict were entrenched. Well over a million lives were lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “lesser” wars plagued Congo and Somalia—women and children were the majority of civilian casualties and refugees.
- Climate change disproportionately affected women, the primary gatherers of water and firewood, and they were forced to become global migrants in search of economic survival.
- Women and girls in both rich and poor nations did two-thirds of the world’s labor but owned less than one percent of the world’s assets.
- More than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate were girls and close to 500,000 women died each year in childbirth or of related causes, while millions had limited or no access to contraception.
- Worldwide, one in three women experienced sexual assault, abuse, or violence in her lifetime.
These facts horrify us and are a reminder of how much human civilization has finally progressed. In this twenty-second-century world, women and men are free to make choices that allow them to participate equally in all aspects of our societies. It has been over 25 years since there has been any major incidence of violence against women or gay/transgender people.
At the societal level, all children are equally welcomed into societies across the globe. The practices of both female and male circumcision have disappeared, and indicators of health and vitality have improved. Girls and boys enjoy equal access to education, both at the primary and advanced levels. All genders enjoy equal access to the arts, music, and other recreational activities including sports. Same-sex or different-gender partners share roles and responsibilities in the household, and local wisdom councils provide additional support for the raising of children, who are seen as the prime resource in our societies. Council elders interact with and provide grandparent care for all children in the community—with the belief that it “takes a village” to raise a healthy, happy, and peace-loving child. Advancements in biology make it clear that male and female characteristics exist in all beings. Sexual health and well-being are prized in all communities, starting with children, who are taught to value their bodies. The exploitation of human sexuality for profit is no longer tolerated, although society has matured to allow open exploration of sensuality, pleasure, and consensual sexual exchanges between adults. A woman’s reproductive capacity is deeply respected but also recognized as only one aspect of her whole body. The widespread, voluntary use of sophisticated forms of contraception has made abortions exceedingly rare. Women’s bodies and minds are valued for their ability to create and sustain life but also for the many other ways in which they contribute to the well-being of the planet.
The decision-making power women now wield over their own bodies ripples in transformative waves into other aspects of society. Women’s leadership in village councils and civil-society organizations has led to the gradual irrelevance of nation states, while power has simultaneously devolved away from central governments toward local wisdom circles. Representatives to the Council of Peoples are elected from these wisdom circles, which are local associations that are inclusive and representative of their own communities. The Council of Peoples has replaced the United Nations. The term “secretary-general” became obsolete when military titles were discontinued. Traditional political borders common in the early part of the twenty-first century have long since ceased to be used to separate people from one another. Few resources are expended on military defense. Instead, the Council of Peoples invests in a collective and limited use of force that is mainly focused on countering unexpected environmental disasters, planetary shifts, or atmospheric changes. The council also oversees a quick-reaction, nonviolent communication peace force that can be swiftly deployed to address conflict between and among peoples. There has been no war in over 15 years.
Valuing gender equality has shifted our economic systems as well—now that all human and intellectual resources can be tapped, innovation has allowed new forms of growth. People are no longer prevented from moving across borders, except as restricted by energy consumption levels. People have reorganized themselves, both within and across those old borders, according to environment, culture, and resources in ways that maximize free trade, the exchange of ideas, and the movement of people and investments, and this fuels robust and sustainable economic systems. There is plenty of room in our societies for women to explore rich and fulfilling careers in a variety of fields, including those seen as being traditionally masculine, while men who are drawn to nurturing, care-taking roles are valued and held in high esteem.
The storytellers at this Global Council of Peoples delve deeper into our history and remind us that we did not get here without paying a high price. Women paid the highest price of all—literally with their bodies. Yet they refused to resort to violence or despair. Instead, they patiently built and strengthened social change movements around the globe. Their collective actions sparked a series of tipping points, beginning in 2011, that helped alleviate and shift paradigms at the personal, political, ecological, and societal levels:
- The UN Gender Agency was established, led by Michelle Bachelet, the single mother, doctor, and former president of Chile. During her 10 years at the agency, violations of women’s rights were systematically addressed and publicized, and nations failing to protect women’s rights were penalized in terms of access to trade and diplomatic relations with other countries and the United Nations. Bachelet worked closely with former Irish president Mary Robinson and the Council of Leaders on Reproductive Health to influence key leaders, especially in the world’s poorest nations, convincing them that advancing access to contraception and strengthening women’s leadership at all levels could ensure economic growth and stabilize world population.
- In 2012, as the United States prepared for elections, women political leaders around the world—including Sonia Gandhi, Cristina Fernández, Dilma Rousseff, Angela Merkel, and Tarja Halonen—established a Council of Wise Women as a space for women leaders to share what they would do differently if they could publicly embrace the feminine and stop acting “macho.” Among the council’s first acts was a pact to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2020 and to advance a climate change action plan. Over the years, the council expanded to include feminists of all genders, including Carlos Zapatero and Rafael Correa.
- In 2012, President Obama survived a serious right-wing challenge to win the U.S. election. More than 90 percent of eligible women voted, determining the outcome. In his second term, Obama used his mandate to pass sweeping legislation ending all practices that discriminate on the basis of gender. Major challenges to the U.S. economy and pressures created by growing social activism in other parts of the world, particularly in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), also moved the U.S. government to make major cuts in its defense expenditures, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and closing nearly one thousand U.S. military bases around the globe. Finally, U.S. taxes were used to invest in education, health, and developing some of the most innovative carbon-neutral energy sources on the planet.
- In 2014, a massive grassroots mobilization of women—aided by communication via cell phone—resulted in a global Freedom from Violence March led by African women. More than 100,000 women converged on the borders of the Congo. They formed a human chain around mining operations, government buildings, and UN peacekeeper camps and refused to leave. International activists from Greenpeace, Amnesty, Oxfam, and the Global Fund for Women joined their cause and succeeded in pressuring the Congolese government, the United Nations, the Rwandan government, major mining companies, cell phone corporations, and rebel groups to hammer out an agreement to end violence. Social movements across the globe realized that people power, not national governments or corporate actors, has to move social change on a global scale. Women then led the move to reconstitute the United Nations into the Global Council of Peoples, using Virginia Woolf’s famous lines as their motto, “As a woman my country is the whole world.”
- The following year, in 2015, Nobel Prize–winner Shirin Ebadi and Iraqi freedom fighter Yanar Mohammed held an unprecedented summit of Iraqi and Iranian women on the border of the two countries, calling for an end to the repressive laws limiting the freedom of women in the name of Islam. State forces on both sides attacked the women, and hundreds were killed, many more injured. The leaders of the effort were publicly flogged and jailed for life. The incident, however, sparked a massive movement for change among women in Muslim communities worldwide, from Afghanistan to Senegal. Using civil disobedience campaigns, women disrupted the status quo in Saudi Arabia and brought about new governments in both Egypt and Yemen, made up of 50 percent women. Al Qaeda retreated after Osama bin Laden was found hiding in Somalia by local women who demanded that he publicly recant his harsh indictments of women’s rights. He was sentenced to a lifetime of community service as a gardener in the newly replanted orchards of Somaliland.
Watching this reenactment, and knowing how far we have come, I am smiling. The drums are growing louder, and hundreds of children run onto the open playing field to sing praise to Pachamama, our mother earth, our living planet. We have survived because we remembered that women and girls are among our earth’s most precious resources. We let them speak, their energy and power fueled a new way of seeing, a new way of being—and their liberation liberated us all.