Millennium Global Challenge No. 11. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?

Reference: The Millennium Project

Empowerment of women has been one of the strongest drivers of social evolution over the past century, and many argue that it is the most efficient strategy for addressing the global challenges in this chapter. Only two countries allowed women to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century; today there is virtually universal suffrage, the average ratio of women legislators worldwide has reached 19.2%, and over 20 countries have women heads of state or government. Patriarchal structures are increasingly challenged, and the movement toward gender equality is irreversible.

With an estimated control of over 70% of global consumer spending, women are strongly influencing market preferences. Analysis shows a direct interdependence between countries’ Gender Gap Index and their Competitiveness Index scores and that Fortune 500 companies with more gender-balanced boards could outperform the others by as much as 50%. Yet the Gender Equity Index 2010 shows that significant differences still remain in economic participation and political empowerment.

Gender stereotyping continues to have negative impacts on women around the world, and although progress is being made on closing the gender gap in terms of establishing global and national policies, real improvement will only be achieved when conflicts between written laws and customary and religious laws and practices are eliminated. Environmental disasters, food and financial crises, armed conflicts, and forced displacement further increase vulnerabilities and generate new forms of disadvantages for women and children.

Women account for over 40% of the world’s workforce, earn less than 25% of the wages, and represent about 70% of people living in poverty. An OECD survey found that women spend more time on unpaid work than men do worldwide, with the gap ranging from 1 hour per day in Denmark to 5 hours per day in India. FAO estimates that giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17%, or 100–150 million people. Child malnutrition levels are estimated to be 60% above average where women lack the right to land ownership and 85% above average where they have no access to credit. Microcredit institutions reported that by 2010, nearly 82% (about 105 million) of their poorest clients were women. However, many of their businesses are too small to transform their economic status, points out FEMNET.

Empowerment of women is highly accelerated by the closing gender gap in education. Most countries are reaching gender parity in primary education, and 50% of university students worldwide are women. Yet regional disparities are high, and UNESCO estimates that women represent about 66% of the 796 million adults who lack basic literacy skills.

Although the health gender gap is closing, family planning and maternal health remain critical. Determining the size of the family should be recognized as a basic human right, and more attention should be given to women’s health and social support for affordable child care worldwide, including industrial countries, which are facing demographic crises due to low fertility rates. Of the more than 500,000 maternal deaths per year, 99% happen in developing countries, with the highest prevalence in Africa and Asia due to high fertility rates and weak health care systems. Unless providing effective family planning to the 215 million women who lack it is seen as a key component of development, the UN goal to reduce maternal mortality to 120 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015 will not be achieved.

Regulations should be enacted and enforced to stop female genital mutilation, which traumatizes about 3 million girls in Africa each year, in addition to the 100–142 million women worldwide affected by it today. While the prevalence of this in Egypt, Guinea, and some parts of Uganda is at over 90%, communities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even in the EU are also affected.

Violence against women is the largest war today, as measured by death and casualties per year. While the proportion of women exposed to physical violence in their lifetime ranges from 12% to 59%, a function of region and culture, sexual assaults remain one of the most underreported crimes worldwide, continuing to be perpetrated with impunity.

According to UNODC, 66% of the victims of the $32 billion global industry of human trafficking are women and children. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, has 142 parties and 117 signatories thus far, but it has yet to be adopted and enforced by some key countries.

Female vulnerability increases during conflict, when sexual violence is often used as a weapon. Recovery from conflict and disaster should be used as opportunities to rectify inequalities. Nevertheless, women make up only 8% of peace negotiators, and only 25 countries have developed National Action Plans supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s protection in conflict and participation in peace processes.

Traditional media have had limited success influencing gender stereotyping, and women represent only one-third of full-time workers in journalism, reveals an IWMF survey. However, 78% of women (versus 66% of men) are active users of social media, a new powerful medium for change.

Mothers should use their educational role in the family to more assertively nurture gender equality. School systems should consider teaching self-defense in physical education classes for girls. Infringements on women’s rights should be subject to prosecution and international sanctions. (See Appendix N in the CD for an annotated list of resources addressing gender equity and the study conducted by Millennia 2015 on potential policies to improve the status of women.)

Challenge 11 will be addressed seriously when gender-discriminatory laws are gone, when discrimination and violence against women are prosecuted, and when the goal of 30%+ women’s representation in national legislatures is achieved in all countries.

Regional Considerations

Africa: Despite significant progress with enrollment in primary education, dropout rates are 40% and one in three children is engaged in child labor. Half of the world’s maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and women have little say in their own health care. African countries experiencing conflict or natural disasters have a very high incidence of sexual violence. Women represent 19.1% of legislatures in sub-Saharan African, with Rwanda being the world’s only women-majority parliament. However, conflicts between constitutional and customary law are an issue across the region, and only 29 of the 53 African Union countries ratified the Protocol on Women’s Rights.

Asia and Oceania: The average lifetime risk of maternal death in rural South and East Asia and the Pacific is over 4%. The preference for male children, largely due to inheritance laws and dowry liabilities, is causing a gender imbalance in many countries in the region, most notably in China and India where, in some communities, the birth ratio is as low as 60–70 females to every 100 males. According to UNICEF, child marriage is a severe issue in Nepal and some parts of India, where about 40% of girls become child brides. Women’s representation in Arab States’ legislature reached 10.7% (from 3.6% in 2000), the average of economically active adult female rose to 28%, and the social uprisings of 2011 are expected to further unsettle the patriarchal society dominating most Muslim-majority countries. In places such as Afghanistan, where 85% of women are illiterate and only 37% of students in schools are girls, women’s rights should be central to peace and development agreements. Half of the world’s top 20 richest selfmade women are Chinese.

Europe: Women hold 41.6% of parliamentary seats in Nordic countries, 20.8% in OSCE countries (excluding Nordic ones), and 35.2% of EU Parliament seats. The proportion of women on the boards of the top European companies was 12% in 2010; at current rates, this would reach parity in 16 years. Women make up 7% of the directors in Russia’s 48 biggest companies, and a new draft law proposes at least 30% of parliamentary seats are to be occupied by women, as well as providing advantages for men to play a greater role in family life. The UN estimates that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 illegal sex workers in the EU, the majority from Central and Eastern Europe. France’s rule banning full-face veils in public is aiming to enforce women’s rights and might be emulated by other EU countries.

Latin America: Women’s participation in Latin American parliaments improved due to the introduction of quotas in many countries, while Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica have female presidents. More women than men attain tertiary education across the region, but wage discrepancies persist. Although all countries in the region have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, as a result of restrictive legislation, one in three maternal deaths is due to abortion and the lifetime risk of maternal death is 0.4%. Mexico’s programs and actions for the rights of women are among the best practices in Latin America, and many countries in the region are interested in emulating them.

North America: Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, with an unemployment rate 1% lower than men’s; more women than men are gaining advanced college and bachelor’s degrees, redefining the roles in the family. Nevertheless, although they hold 51.5% of management, professional, and related positions, women account for only 3% of the Fortune 500 chief executives. The U.S. government estimates that approximately 75% of the 14,500–17,500 people annually trafficked into the country are female. Women’s representation in U.S. legislature is 16.9%, while Canada’s is 25%. Both U.S. and Canadian governments made critical cuts in domestic and international family planning programs for women.

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