Gender inequality, which exists in some degree in almost every society, is the dam holding back social progress and the eradication of poverty. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) states that:
Gender equality is a human right. Women are entitled to live with dignity and with freedom from want and from fear. Gender equality is also a precondition for advancing development and reducing poverty: Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole families and communities, and they improve prospects for the next generation. Still, despite solid evidence demonstrating the centrality of women’s empowerment to reducing poverty, promoting development and addressing the world’s most urgent challenges, gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise.
It is the knot of this unfulfilled promise that we must unpick as we seek to advocate the rights of women and girls. The benefits of equality are not segregated by gender – women, men, children and generations to come will reap the rewards of the pursuit of equality.
Why better female health benefits communities
Societies where women can assert their reproductive rights – the power to determine when and how many children a woman has – gives her the freedom to plan the rest of her life and to be an active participant in her community. Societies where it normal for women to delay pregnancy and marry later are more likely to support those women in the workplace and allow them a more visible and vital role in the community.
One of the biggest killers among young women in the developing world is complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Access to contraception and the right to choose prevents instances of women dying in childbirth and contributes to lowering child mortality. If you combine these rights with a higher standard of healthcare, the risks to both mother and baby are lowered further – “if all women who wished to avoid pregnancy were able to use modern contraceptives, and if all pregnant women and newborns received appropriate care, maternal deaths would drop by an estimated 67%, according to the most recent data. Unintended pregnancies would fall by about 70 per cent, and newborn deaths would drop by about 77 per cent” (UNFPA).
Gender equality means an end to FGM
Child marriage is still commonplace in much of the world. According to UNICEF, 27% of all young women (aged 20-24) were married before the age of 18, and 8% were married before their 15th birthday. Child marriage is a fundamental abuse of human rights and often goes hand-in-hand with the removal of reproductive choice. Child marriage commodifies girls and women and perpetuates the idea that women should adopt a submissive role in society.
Female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) is still practised and “more than 130 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C is concentrated. If current trends continue, as many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut before their 15th birthday. However, the data also show that the majority of girls and women in most practising countries think FGM/C should end” (UNICEF). FGM/C has lasting physical and psychological effects on women, and the practice, much like child marriage, reinforces negative attitudes towards women in society. UNICEF and UNFPA have been working to encourage communities to abandon the FGM/C and, so far, over 12,000 communities across Africa and the Middle East have made this commitment. FGM/C flourishes in an atmosphere of inequality and therefore promotion of gender equality is the most likely way we'll end FGM/C.
Educated girls means healthier communities
It is imperative that all children receive a good education without the boundaries of gender, war and circumstance. We need to ensure that girls around the world are able to stay in education beyond primary age. Girls being removed from education too early occurs across the globe, in some areas of India, two-thirds of girls drop out of primary school and half are forced to marry before the age of 18. This is happening in the seventh largest country in the world and an emerging superpower. It would be incredibly damaging for India’s rapid ascendance in the world to be predicated on the unpaid and enforced labour of women and girls who have been denied an education.
Literate, well-educated girls are less likely to end up in a forced marriage. By teaching them about their human rights they are less vulnerable and have the freedom to dream of a life beyond the social and cultural practices which have held previous generations back. Literacy opens the gateway of information and literate women are more likely to make informed reproductive choices and are less susceptible to HIV/AIDS.
UNICEF found the two-thirds of men in Bangladesh believed that when there are limits on access to a university education, males should be favoured. They collected data for a range of countries which revealed that one-third of men in Mexico and Iran held the same view and 1 in 13 men in the United States. We cannot neglect the education of boys, but this education cannot happen in preference over that of girls. The nature of education needs to change and evolve at the same time as the numbers of girls in education increases.
We shouldn’t underestimate the avalanche created by empowering women through education. This sense of empowerment and knowledge doesn’t exist in isolation, it filters through societies and the benefits are felt beyond the individual. Educated, fulfilled women are more likely to raise healthy, educated sons and daughters and so the cycle continues.
Focus area 3: Work
Educated women are more likely to seek paid work outside of the home and are more likely to demand equal pay and conditions. All too often women are coerced into unpaid, informal work. Often this occurs in the home, but globally a staggering number of women take on work outside of the home for which they are not paid. Turkey is an interesting case study in this regard, the OECD places the gender employment gap in Turkey at 40%, according to a recent report by Al-Jazeera, this can be accounted for in the 2 million women who are unpaid employees within family businesses and a further 1 million women who are ‘secretly’ employed.
We need to end the normalisation of an unpaid, informal, female workforce. Where women are expected to work without earning, families are more vulnerable to economic hardship, poverty and increased inequality in other areas of life. Massive inequality is found even when women are in paid work; they often paid less than men and work longer hours. Outside of ‘formal’ work, they also undertake the vast majority of household tasks, childcare and caring for elderly relatives – in India, women who also work outside of the home will then typically spend 35 hours per week working in the home compared to 4 hours for men (UNICEF).
Training women for work increases community wealth
Shifting perceptions of women allow for greater social equality and opportunity, this can be evidenced in the change in attitudes towards working mothers. According to The World Family Map, ‘a clear majority of adults in most countries around the globe believe that a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work’. This change in attitude is an important first step in accepting women as an equal part of the workforce and removes traditional social barriers.
There are great success stories to be found, particularly across Africa, of female financial independence. Women are being educated within their community on how to open bank accounts and manage money. For many of these women they will be the first generation of their family to have financial control and the freedoms associated with this. Children will witness this shift in equality and their expectations will change in turn. Although governments can and should legislate for equality, the most meaningful changes will be grassroots.
Change needs to come both from above and below but to make this truly effective we need to address gender imbalance in developed as well as developing nations. Worldwide, only 22% of politicians are female and where women are underrepresented politically, it becomes harder to push for laws and regulations to protect and promote equality. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden where women are given greater political representation are more egalitarian and pursue progressive childcare, health and work-related policies and provide a good model for the rest of the world to follow.
When women are empowered, families and communities benefit and the effects will be felt by future generations. This knowledge of this is almost visceral. Numbers and statistics analyse small parts of the picture, but the real measure of success is found in smiles, hope and a sense of connection.
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