Are Women Finally Equal?

Edit Schlaffer: “The world stands by and watches the feminization of poverty.”

Women rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by National Women Workers Trade Union Center | Photo: Creative Commons

Women rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by National Women Workers Trade Union Center | Photo: Creative Commons

Angela Merkel is Chancellor of Germany, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is President of Liberia, Ursula Plassnik is Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Austria, Shirin Ebadi is a successful lawyer and human rights activist in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Meg Whitman is President of eBay, South African novelist Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize. Are we finally living in the age of equality?

Women rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by National Women Workers Trade Union Center | Photo: Creative Commons

The progress is hard to deny, at least in the West, where women thrive in many professions, and in some countries earn nearly half of the advanced academic and professional degrees. And worldwide, there is, at least, a road paved with good intentions.

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women,  signed in 1967 by 120 member states, established the standard “that the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women as well as men in all fields.”

However despite all this, millions are left behind and forgotten by the mainstream. Oxfam estimates that around 720 million of the world’s poor are women and the situation is worsening.

“The world stands by and watches the feminisation of poverty,” says Dr. Edit Schlaffer, founder of the Austrian NGO, Women without Borders.

The first step is bringing women into the formal structures,” she says. “Training and self-confidence are vital; smart economics is gender inclusive.”

In some parts of the Middle East, women have no voice at all in many aspects of their daily lives and in sub-Saharan Africa, countries continue to discriminate against women by using statutory and customary laws of property ownership.  The devastating effect of the HIV/AIDS pandemic coupled with the abuse of women in some societies has left many women fighting for survival.

Although this type of discrimination varies from one region to the other, the common denominator is that it continues to exist.

With this in mind, conferences have been organized around the world calling for the support of women’s rights. Among the most important was the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995, and more recently the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, setting the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), whose adoption was described by former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan as “a blueprint for building a better world in the 21st century.”

The goals highlight the significance of women in all development efforts, with Goal Three focusing on the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women.

Taking this a step further, Gudrun Biffl at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, comments on the need of a monitoring system such as a Women’s Rights Watch.

She says that “international norms on women’s rights will have to be implemented in every region of the world and their adherence will have to be evaluated on a regular basis by independent authorities.”

Activists recognise that the struggle for women’s rights has been long and frustrating.

From it’s beginnings at the Seneca Falls [NewYork] Conference in 1848, when American activist Elisabeth Cady Stanton read the first feminist “Declaration of Principles,” to London in the 1880s when Emiline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League, the women’s movement has taken many different forms in different times and countries.

Tactics heated up after the turn of the century: In the US the  National Women’s Trade Union League went on the march for higher wages; in Britain,  Pankhurst formed a more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the “suffragettes” – whose persistence led to repeated jail terms for acts of civil disobedience, repeatedly pressuring the government with hunger strikes.

The first National Women’s Day was observed in the United States in 1909, by vote of the Socialist Workers Party, followed by the first International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1910. A year later an International Women’s Day (IWD) was marked in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women, led by German Socialist Clara Zetkin, rallied for the right to work and vote.

Now IWD is celebrated on March 8 and marked by many women’s groups around the world. This date is observed by the United Nations and also designated in 14 countries as a national holiday.

In both political and economic circles, women are increasingly acknowledged as agents of change, leaders of peace movements and promoters of health and education.

Mother Teresa’s devotion to the poor, sick and the disadvantaged around the world has been widely recognized for its importance in promoting international peace and understanding.

First Ladies and prominent women have also played a role, including Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned and Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, perhaps the most dramatic challenge to the accepted wisdom about the role of women has been Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

By providing small loans to the poor – 97 per cent of which are women – Yunus has been enabling social and economic development for the poor.

Pay back rates for Grameen Bank loans reach an unheard of 98%, bringing more than half of Grameen’s borrowers out of poverty – all of which was recognized last year by awarding Dr. Yunus the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Such initiatives prove that providing women with the means of sustaining themselves and their families goes directly to the solving of what has otherwise been intractable social disintegration.
Progress for women is occurring, albeit slowly. To speed things up, will probably require concerted action. In a speech delivered at the UN General Assembly in October 2006, Noleen Heyzer, Executive Director of UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) highlighted the importance of partnerships between women’s group, civil society, international donors, regional organizations and governments –  perhaps the best means to promote women’s rights and strengthen their participation as voters, candidates and decision-makers.

Yet at times this partnership is difficult to achieve. “The influence of NGO’s in Saudi Arabia on women empowerment continues to be limited,” says Wafa Al Munif, a prominent Saudi activist and fundraiser for several NGOs.

In general she says, it is confined to “charitable organizations to help the poor, widowed and orphaned, rather than actually assisting women with employment or vocational training.”

However the challenge of evolving from women rights to gender equality and empowerment remains. “How we can accept that the world leadership in the third millenium is still dominated by men,” Schlaffer says. “How can we be appeased by just a handful of female front runners.” Much still needs to be done to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men and that those women in the top positions are not just the few success stories.

“What we have is a good start,” she obseved, “but we need a critical mass of women who are in place at all levels.  The talents are certainly there.”

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