Women have been politically, socially, historically, and religiously seen as inferior for centuries. Yet women constitute 50% of the world’s population and are quite literally the bearers of the future, giving birth to and shaping future generations. Despite all of this, they are constantly believed to be weaker physically and mentally, and in many places too dumb to do anything other than get married have kids and feed their families. Women are not the burden many cultures have decided they are, a women’s worth goes far beyond any dowry, it is immeasurable. For, without women, the human population simply wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, if women are relied upon to bring generations of children, which requires, enormous strength, hard work and intelligence, why do some still believe that women can’t work or drive, be the breadwinners and do finances?
All of the evidence points to the contrary. When you empower a woman and educate girls, the world economy expands and grows faster and children benefit. In the words of Oprah Winfrey at Variety’s Power of Women conference 2015, “When you change a girl’s life you don’t just change a girl’s life, you change a family’s life, because what those girls do is they take it back home they take it to their communities.” Thus, women have a unique role in society. For this reason, women need to be paid for the domestic and informal work they do and be educated to recognize their equality and potential. Furthermore, the legal discrimination and cultural constraints need to be removed and replaced with gender sensitive policies and practices to even the gap.
The cultural, religious and even political framing of women as the weaker and lesser sex has allowed indiscriminate abuse, and violence against women, particularly domestic and sexual violence. The UN has found that 1 in 3 women experience physical and sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner. A UNICEF report has found that 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced sexual intercourse or forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, the stigma that girls are worth less, weaker and are simply sexual objects or objects to be passed from man to man is still prevalent. Often the cultural practices and beliefs are based upon religious beliefs. This internationally enshrined sexism is structural and present in almost every single society. Fighting beliefs, ideologies and practices hundreds if not thousands of years old are difficult to dismiss in a day. International treaties such as Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are useful in recognizing the need to stop violence against women and hold countries accountable to their promise. However, due to the unbinding nature of international treaties, it doesn’t have much impact. If concerted efforts are made by every government and at the local level, even by ordinary citizens, then this issue would not arise in the next few generations. Therefore, a lot of social awareness and education is needed.
Unfortunately, women are not well represented in global politics or in top positions. As a result, the problems that women and children face don’t gain much political prominence as most governments that are run by old men. In fact, the Women in National Parliament’s website shows that only 22.8 % of all national MP’s were women as of June 2016, an excruciatingly slow increase from 11.3% in 1995. Yet, research has demonstrated that women parliamentarian’s make a difference where it counts. R. Chattopadhyay and E Duflo found that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women led local councils was 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. Moreover, a 2008 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that women in politics work across party lines on issues such as gender equality, elimination of violence against women, gender equality law reform, parental leave and childcare and pensions.
Another key issue is both the pay gap wherein women earn between 10-30% less than men for work of equal value. Women are being dumped with most unpaid care responsibilities such as caring for children, the sick and elderly and doing household chores. This means women are propping up the economy. ActionAid calculated that the cost of women having less access to paid jobs and the unequal pay gap in developing the world was $9 trillion – the sum of the GDP’s of France, Germany and the UK. This shows the ugly depth of disparity. The ILO predicts that at the current progression rate, it will take 75 years to make “equal pay for equal work” a reality. That is shocking.
Such shocking levels of women’s economic inequality should concern us all because when women lose, everybody loses. For example, unemployment, job insecurity and low pay all limit women’s ability to feed, educate and nurture their children. On the other hand, women enjoying decent work and equal and living wages is a path to poverty eradication, gender equality, sustainable development and inclusive growth. According to the ILO, valuing and recognising women‘s work, both paid and unpaid, could be crucial to keeping many households out of poverty, thus driving progress and prosperity for all.
Tackling gender inequality, the gender based pay gap and unpaid work, violence against women, child marriages and all other issues require a concerted effort on all fronts. Gender equality and gender sensitivity need to be enshrined in law. Policies need to address the unequal treatment of women and the unequal payment e.t.c of women to reverse the backlog of inequality and discrimination against women. The cultural dogma and practices need to change. This requires education, social awareness and effort from all citizens – men and women. The social barriers women face need to be tackled head on. Children and communities need to be taught that sexual violence and physical violence against women is wrong. They need to be shown that when you hurt a woman, you also hurt her family and the future of her children and the community. Women and girls need to be given empowerment and leadership training. We need to get communities to stop femicide and send girls to school instead of sending them into a child marriage where they are likely to undergo abuse and have unsafe sex.
Violence against women must be tackled via education of children and changing laws to prevent its happening in future generations. In its post- 2015 development agenda, the UN sees ending violence as one of its key goals. It has supported this goal by aiding educational programmes for children through partnering with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) to deliver its “Voices against violence programme.” This programme can be downloaded and delivered by anyone. Secondly, it has supported UN ending violence against women internationally. Boys and men also need to be educated, in order to change the story by changing communities. Recognizing this, a UN joint programme for Asia and the Pacific has a programme to do just that, providing support to prevent gender-based violence in the region. The UN has also supported prevention internationally through changing national laws and supporting their correct implementation – a necessity that is rarely looked at. In Pakistan, UN Women have supported women politicians and political leaders and NGO’s in backing new legislation to prevent the use of acid attacks on women, finally recognizing it as a crime. Also, the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act punishes cultural traditions such as forced marriages. This shows that laws can be changes in places where culture makes it difficult. Nevertheless, the culture must be changed via educational programmes such as those mentioned above and the law must be supported via proper implementation. Women who have experienced violence should also ideally be given counselling and the necessary financial and legal help to help remove her from that situation. Self-help groups amongst victims and empowerment and leadership training have also been proven to be highly effective in developing women and demonstrating that they don’t have to tolerate violence against them. Leadership and empowerment training, if given to girls and women could help inspire women and prevent physical and sexual violence against them, particularly if coupled with educating boys and men. Such a simple initiative would have a powerful impact globally.
Economic empowerment is also enormously important. Global society and political leadership need to know that gender inequality costs the economy, both short term and long term. For instance, a 2007 Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific estimated that gender inequality costs the region $80 billion a year due to gaps in employment and education. Thus, there is a strong economic incentive to empower women and give them the tools to succeed, and there is evidence to prove this. In India, with support from UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, Dalit women who come from the most marginalised caste have been able to participate in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. Between 2009 and 2011, in eight districts participation increased from 2,800 to more than 14, 00 women, resulting in many Dalit women now having their own bank accounts and labour unions to defend them. By empowering these women, their children are also empowered and supported. New generations can break the stigmas that have held women back, get educated and earn more money than was possible for their mothers.
There are many ways in which to empower women and help fight discrimination against them in every way. If we can empower women, we can help them and their children access education and health services and other governmental support they might have been too scared to go near before. Moreover, by empowering women, you can help increase their representation in politics and help change the story for other women in society too. Hence, if women are elevated then the world is elevated, at a local level, and a global level. The change is noticeable, and the change is necessary. If you empower women, you power the world.