Thanks to generations of feminist activism, women in many parts of the world today have more rights than ever before.
The equality gap between women and men appears to be narrowing. There are more women in the workforce than there were in 1980 – more women than men, in fact. More girls in the world are getting educated and the gap between male and female school enrolment has narrowed. There are more women in politics than there were – a quota system in Rwanda’s recent elections ensured that, at 48 per cent, that country now has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world. The newly formed African Union has adopted a Protocol on the Rights of African Women, including the right to abortion – articulated for the first time in international law – and it has condemned Female Genital Mutilation.
But, in spite of these positive signs, in no country in the world today is women’s quality of life equal to men’s.
Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty in the world today more than two-thirds are women. Women’s share of decision-making positions reached 30 per cent in only 28 countries. Even in a ‘liberated’ country like Britain average female income is only 63 per cent of the average male’s. Globally, women’s health gets low priority. Each year more than 525,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Almost all these deaths are avoidable.
Recent years have seen a backlash against women’s emancipation in many countries. In the former Soviet Union, free-market economics has spelt an end to such benefits as maternity pay and free healthcare.
Elsewhere the backlash has been cultural and religious. In 25 countries there are now greater legal and social restrictions on women. These countries include Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and the US.
Violence against women is epidemic. In India an estimated 98 women a week are murdered by their husband or his family, often over dowry payments. In Bangladesh, 50 per cent of murdered women are killed by their husbands.
Domestic violence by men against women is astoundingly high in Pakistan, Peru, Russia and Uzbekistan, with governments doing little to intervene. In Britain, there is a call for help from victims of domestic violence every minute.
Rape is committed with relative impunity. In the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan it has been used as weapon of war. But it is also prevalent in peacetime. In South Africa, 147 women are raped every day. In Britain 27 per cent more women reported rape in 2002 compared with 2001, but convictions dropped to a record-breaking low. Women are more likely to get infected by hiv/aids than men, especially if they are raped.
As a direct result of inequalities in their countries of origin, women from Ukraine, Moldova, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Burma and Thailand are bought, sold and trafficked into forced prostitution, while governments do little to prevent this.
The belief that the struggle for sexual equality is all but won and that feminism is now somewhat redundant, is not borne out by global realities today.
Women still have much work to do.
Sources: UN Development Programme Reports 2000 and 2003; Amnesty International 2003; Human Rights Watch 2003; Nikki van der Gaag, No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights, New Internationalist/Verso 2004.