Signs of progress for women amid entrenched inequality

The world is plagued by continuing violations of the rights of women and girls and crises which disproportionately affect them – threats to peace and security, climate shocks, slow economic recovery, global health pandemics, growing migration and a refugee crisis.

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There must therefore be no backsliding on equality, rights and empowerment of women and girls, who are the backbone to ending poverty and ensuring a healthier inclusive world.

That was the warning delivered at the end of June by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, the United Nations’ Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, whose role is to defend the rights of more than half the world’s population.

But she also highlighted the “historic” and “momentous achievements” in the past year represented by the place of women in what she described as a “unique position of responsibility and importance” in the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the successor to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals agreed by the member states of the United Nations.

In 2015, 32 new laws were adopted to promote women’s political participation. Some countries that have done well in this area include Mexico, where women parliamentarians are now 42% of government, and Rwanda, which has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide with women holding 63.8% of seats in the lower house.

But globally, as of August 2015, only 22% of all national parliamentarians were female, although this represents an 11.3% increase over the past two decades. In 37 states women accounted for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, and in six there were no female representatives at all.

As of August 2015, 11 women were serving as head of state and 10 as head of government. Although this is a tiny percentage of the 196 countries of the world, Mlambo-Ngcuka is encouraged by the fact that “right now women around the world are contesting some of the highest political offices” – and we could within six months be in a position where women lead three of the world’s five biggest economies and possibly the UN.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is the most powerful incumbent among more than 20 female presidents or prime ministers. They include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, who is also the world’s first black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state; and Michelle Bachelet, Mlambo-Ngcuka’s predecessor as executive director of UN Women, who is currently in her second term as president of Chile.

They could be joined later this year by Hillary Clinton, currently the first female United States presidential candidate. Women are also challenging for highest office in Ghana, Haiti, Somalia and Zambia; and last week two women emerged as front runners in the race to lead the UK’s ruling Conservative Party and with it become prime minister.

Mlambo-Ngcuka, herself a former deputy president of South Africa, says it is crucial that the UN leads by example.

Lead by example

There are five women in the running for the post of UN secretary general – an office that has yet to be held by a woman.

In addition, the UN deputy secretary-general announced in May that the UN will increase the share of women at all levels and areas in its work to 40% by 2020, and achieve a 50% “fully balanced” UN workforce by 2030, a process UN Women has actively supported.

There has been progress in economic empowerment too. According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, 29 countries have adopted a gender-responsive policy framework for women’s economic empowerment.

UN Women is also providing direct assistance.

“In the Pacific, market vendors' associations that we support now have more than 60 % of women in leadership positions. In this capacity they positively influence decisions on market budgets and infrastructure improvements that benefit women vendors,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

“In Brazil, Egypt and South Africa, UN Women’s partnership with Coca-Cola has provided 46,000 women with the necessary skills, equipment and access to credit to initiate and successfully manage their businesses. In South Africa alone, the programme contributed to some 24,000 micro enterprises.”

According to a recent UN Women report, Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, two decades on from the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the international consensus on the need to achieve gender equality seems stronger than ever before. Empowering women and girls is among the goals aspired to by all, from grassroots organisations, trade unions and corporations to member states and intergovernmental bodies.

“Governments in every region have made legally binding commitments to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights; more girls are enrolling in school; and more women are working, getting elected and assuming leadership positions,” the report said.

“Women have gained greater legal rights to access employment, own and inherit property and get married and divorced on the same terms as men. These areas of progress show that gender inequalities can be reduced through public action,” the report said.

But Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed that despite these gains there is a long road ahead to achieving equality of outcomes.

Globally, three-quarters of working age men are in the labour force compared to half of working age women. Of those women in a job, nearly two-thirds are working in a family business without any direct pay, the report said. Globally, women earn 24% less than men and are less likely than men to receive a pension, which contributes to large income inequalities lasting throughout their lives, the report added.

Yet in all regions women work more than men: they do almost two and a half times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, and if paid and unpaid work are combined, women in almost all countries work longer hours than men each day.

Historic step

To try to address these challenges, in 2010 the UN took a historic step in accelerating its goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women by creating UN Women, as part of the UN reform agenda, bringing together resources and mandates for greater impact.

Its role is to support and monitor intergovernmental efforts to form and implement policies and global standards that will support progress for women.

Gender equality, the UN says, is not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth. Yet gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society.

According to a report by Boston University, 70% of the 1.3 billion people who live on less than US$1 a day are women and girls.

“Women lack access to decent work and face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps. They are too often denied access to basic education and health care. Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination. They are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes,” according to UN Women.

Yet studies show that development strategies geared to achieving gender equality lead to stronger economic growth than gender-neutral ones.

Ending violence against women and girls remains a very difficult area to address, but it is increasingly finding its way on to the public policy agenda.

Violence against women in conflicts, including forced sexual slavery, is a widespread and under-reported problem, although it has been highlighted by the reporting of mass rape of women in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and by the abduction of 219 girls by militants in Nigeria in April 2014, all but one of whom have yet to be released.

Collective action

The UN believes that women’s collective action is key to the achievement of equality and is most effective when women’s rights advocates in grassroots and civil society organisations, think-tanks and university departments can build strategic alliances with actors in political parties, state bureaucracies and regional and global institutions.

Universities have their own part to play, not just by ensuring equality of access, but equality in staff jobs, particularly leadership positions; and equality of participation in disciplines, particularly traditionally male dominated ones such as engineering.

According to Professor Louise Morley at the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, University of Sussex, UK, a significant challenge is to change the power relations that create structures and barriers, and undermine women’s confidence in their abilities.

UN Women, in its progress report advocates support for the creation of “feminist knowledge” on key policy issues, such as monetary policy, pension system design or health reform, that are fundamentally important to women’s lives but often require a specialised technical understanding of the field.

A key thread throughout its reports and advocacy, though, is the need for equal representation in leadership, whether it is in parliaments, trade unions or other social movements.

UN Women itself was created to ensure there was a recognised champion to direct UN activities on these issues.

“Women and girls are not passive and helpless beneficiaries. They are first and foremost solution makers, an army of peacemakers and game changers the world is yet to fully engage,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

“Our work must make sure that the widespread violation of women’s rights is turned around, and that we leave no one behind.”