As a borderline Generation Xer with a university education, who wasn’t forced into marriage, chose when to become a mother, is in good health and was encouraged to do any job I wanted, I could be forgiven (and I am sure that I am not alone) in somewhat naively thinking that women’s equality had more or less been achieved, give or take certain non-Western practices in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The suffragettes got us the vote. The feminists of the 60s and 70s challenged perceptions about women and work, domestic violence, and reproductive rights. And, the latter-day movement of the 90s widened the focus to include the LGBT community and women of colour. I would be wrong of course.
It is true that Europe and North America have made much progress in social and legal equality. But, given that the United Nations didn’t officially give women the status of human beings with rights until 24 years ago - 45 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - one could argue that this progress has been rather slow; the mere concept that women should not be seen as human beings, ridiculous.
Tragically, however, this is still the case with many countries merely pay lip service to their commitment to gender equality. Our journey to achieve true equality is not over in the West - women continue to work in lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs with greater insecurity, and are under-represented in leadership roles and fields - but it is our responsibility to help women in other cultures and societies, those women whose voices aren’t as loud as ours, to rise up and to feel empowered. Women and girls everywhere are facing barriers that deny their right to personal liberty and to life.
Access to education
An estimated 31 million girls of primary age were out school in 2013 - 4 million more than boys.
Girls are prevented from going to school for a number of reasons: poor families prioritise their son’s education; household obligations; abusive or violent classroom environments; inadequate water and sanitation facilities to go to the toilet with dignity and privacy - particularly when menstruating; child marriage; and female genital mutilation.
Two-thirds of the world's 774 million illiterate people are female.
Sexual and reproductive health
Worldwide, one woman dies every 90 seconds in pregnancy or childbirth.
All women have the right to accessible, affordable and adequate health care that takes into consideration their cultural needs, including the ability to choose whether and when to get pregnant, and yet 225 million women worldwide women want, but lack access to, contraception. All women have the right to accurate information and services for sexually transmitted infections and reproductive tract illnesses, such as cervical cancer. But, only 3 in every 10 adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years have comprehensive and accurate knowledge about HIV.
Women are not dying of diseases we can't treat... They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.
Violence against women
Violence against women is a global issue and takes many forms, including: rape; domestic abuse; sexual harassment; reproductive coercion; female infanticide; and obstetric violence. Female genital mutilation, honour killings, dowry violence, marriage by abduction, forced marriage and other harmful customary or traditional practices are considered gender-based violence.
The effects of climate change, such as drought, threaten the safety of women and girls, leaving them vulnerable to assault, rape and abduction. In Kenya, for example, 90% of reported rapes occurred while women were collecting natural resources. Whereas trafficking of women increases by 20-30% following natural disasters.
Gender-based violence kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer.
Where does this leave us?
Empowering women around the world to have rights equal to men is a benefit to us all, socially, politically and economically. Improving girls’ access to education positively influences the lives of generations to come. Women’s considerable knowledge on the management and use of natural resources within the community are integral to the battle against climate change. Investing in access to sexual and reproductive information and services for women has a ripple effect on other areas of her life: she knows when she is safe from sexual violence, that she can complete her education and get a job, or stand in a political election.
"As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes - the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realised."