On this page...
- A legal matter: Changes at the policy level
- Progress in practice: Parisian trousers and enrolment overload
- Success in Bangladesh: Family planning sparks big changes
- Looking forward: Missing pieces
- Looking forward: What does the future hold?
Changes at the policy level
Here in the UK, women gained the right to vote in 1928. For many of us, this moment represents a key milestone on the journey to gender equality. However, it was not until 1979 that the world took concerted measures to end discrimination against women. That year, the UN passed a convention known as CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
CEDAW was the first international agreement stating women’s right to be free from discrimination. It also established how this right would be protected in all those countries which signed up. CEDAW was accepted by 180 countries, which were then legally bound to adopt a series of measures ensuring the equality of men and women within society. This included changes to their legal systems based on the principle of gender equality, as well as ensuring freedom of access and opportunity within all aspects of public and political life.
Though CEDAW helped reduce discrimination, it was another decade and a half before women’s entitlement to human rights were unequivocally and internationally recognised. Some had considered the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be ambiguous, arguing that its use of male terms made women’s entitlement to human rights unclear - something that could be exploited by those who benefited from the subjugation of women.
In 1993, the UN World Conference on Human Rights took place in Vienna. In its Programme of Action, the conference urged for the first time “the full and equal enjoyment by women of all human rights”. By agreeing that the pursuit of this objective should be a priority for governments and the UN as a collective, it set out a clear framework for the advancement of women’s status in society.
But legality and reality are two very different worlds. The results have been mixed, and progress slow. With female equality finally enshrined in international law, what progress has been seen by women and girls around the world?
Parisian trousers and enrolment overload
2013 saw a number of groundbreaking episodes in the journey towards gender equality. One of the quirkier changes was the relaxation of French laws prohibiting women in Paris from wearing trousers. Bizarre as it may sound, it contains a double-edged symbolism, much like the UN's 1993 prioritisation of women's human rights. The law highlighted the patriarchal structure underlying many of our legal and cultural systems. Its abolition marked the progress towards equality while at the same time demonstrating - in a world where many societies still penalise women for the clothes they choose to wear - how far we still have to go.
Nevertheless, big improvements have taken place in recent decades. The gender gap in education enrolment is closing all over the world, and in regions such as East Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, secondary enrolment is narrowing as well. In 45 developing countries, girls have overtaken boys in secondary enrolment. Asian countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh have made massive strides forward. In Nepal in 1974, the ratio of boys to girls in primary and secondary education was 100:18. In 2009, girls overtook boys.
Family planning sparks big changes
Bangladesh is a particularly striking example, and education is a telling indicator. In 1973, little more than half as many girls as boys were enrolled in primary and secondary education. Four decades on, the figures for male and female enrolment are roughly equal. Much of that change has taken place since the late 1980s. Bangladesh has done much to address poverty. It has seen a relatively small amount of economic growth compared to other Asian countries such as India and China; however, human development has improved more quickly than in nearby countries with better economic growth.
Much of this is down to a focus on females. Famously, Bangladesh has succeeded in empowering women through family planning. Shortly after independence in 1971, the Bangladeshi government introduced free birth control and set about distributing contraception and advice. In 1975, the proportion of women of childbearing age who used contraception was 8%; in 2010, it was 60%. In the same year, the national fertility rate - the average number of children produced by each woman - was 2.3. In the UK, it was 1.98.
The drop in fertility means that more people are entering adulthood than are being born. Crudely put, this means there are more jobs for those entering the employment market. This has wider economic benefits, but also gives women greater control over their own lives and more freedom to pursue their personal development. With employment higher and families smaller than in many other low-income countries, there are fewer pressures to encourage dropout. Welfare provision is also more robust than in many other developing countries, meaning better safety nets are in place to protect families fallen on hard times. Families are consequently motivated to educate their daughters because the risk of destitution is smaller.
The government has also taken steps to get girls into education and maintain attendance. For example, in 1994, the government introduced an incentive scheme whereby girls were awarded monthly cash handouts for staying in secondary education. Some studies suggests that the expansion of the garment industry has also motivated many girls to stay in school. Around 80% of employees in the sector are female, and the jobs on offer require literacy, numeracy and cognitive skills. Research also suggests that as garment jobs increase, a girl’s likelihood to marry and have a child before the age of 18 drops. When families can see that education has real, long-lasting benefits, they are more likely to send their daughters to school.
Despite these improvements, many gaps still persist. Since 1980, average life expectancy has been longer than women than for men. However, in many low- and middle-income countries, women are more likely than men to die than in higher income countries. 3.9 million women under 60 die or go missing every year and, in sub-Saharan Africa, the number is growing.
Earnings and opportunities are lower for women. Women tend to earn less than men due to the nature of the work they do. Women are more likely to undertake unpaid family labour or to be exploited in the unregulated informal sector. Female farmers generally have smaller plots than their male counterparts; their crops generate a lower profit. When female entrepreneurs start businesses, they tend to run smaller firms and operate in less profitable sectors.
Even in Bangladesh, educated women tend to follow a predictable career path into the garment industry rather than pursue powerful or senior jobs traditionally occupied by men. Workers’ rights are not guaranteed, and employees are often mistreated or even physically abused. The collapse of a factory - mostly staffed by women - in Dhaka in 2013 suggests that the safety of female employees is not always paramount. Women from other factories claim they have been beaten when reporting signs of structural damage to management.
With challenges like these to overcome, the journey towards gender equality is far from over. The case of Bangladesh makes this clear better than any. Here, women have simply been the vehicle for reducing poverty, and the value of their welfare a secondary consideration. Although women have benefited from improved living standards and better education, a large proportion of Bangladesh's female workforce perform menial jobs. Economic growth has not resulted in automatic parity for men and women in society.
Empowerment transcends economic equality in its simplest sense. Getting girls into school does not mean that they are equal to boys in a particular cultural setting if job opportunities remain segregated by gender. Education undeniably has an inherent value, but it is also a stepping stone into the world of work, and for gender equality really to exist, that stone must lead to the same shore for men and women alike. In a separate item, we take a closer look at what women's empowerment really means, and how it can be achieved.
Gender inequality exists in many forms. While there is work still to be done, we should not be too ready to congratulate ourselves. We must also remain vigilant and be sure not to allow statistics to cloud the truth.
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