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Women's Rights in 2016: The Power Dynamics That Drive Inequality Haven't Gone Away

30/03/2016 15:50

While positive strides have been made in women's rights and gender equality in recent years, women and girls around the world are still married as children, denied access to education and political power, and trapped in conflicts where rape is used as a weapon of war. If we want to change this, we need to support the activists and women's rights organisations calling for change.

Since Womankind Worldwide was founded in 1989, we have worked in over 70 countries and have seen how progress in women's rights has varied dramatically across the globe. Women have always experienced discrimination in different ways based on factors such as race, class, caste, age, marital status, sexuality and disability and, while there are some examples of this improving in some countries, this inequality is growing both within and between countries.

Despite at least 119 countries introducing laws against domestic violence, over a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, usually at the hands of their partner. In Ethiopia alone, 59% of women have experienced sexual violence from a partner and 74% have undergone FGM. Outside the home, violence and harassment hamper women's participation in public life and the economy, reinforcing the gender power dynamic. The advance of extremist movements in countries such as Syria has led to appalling violence against women, representing a fundamental challenge to progress in women's rights.

Recent economic crises and associated austerity measures have impacted most severely on women, particularly the poorest. Around the world, women are paid less than men, in most countries earning on average just 60%-75% of men's wages. Bringing women's wages into line with men's would add $28trillion to global GDP and yet, worldwide, women's employment options are often limited to low-paid jobs by discrimination and gender stereotypes. Women continue to undertake the vast majority of unpaid care work, spending as much as 10 times more time a day on this than men, and policy and practice by governments, companies and society continue to reinforce the view that childcare and domestic work remain the responsibility of women, not men.

As well as slow progress on economic independence, many women are still deprived of the power to participate fully in democracy and influence decision making. For example, women only account for 22% of people in parliaments globally. While this has increased from a shockingly low 14% in 2000, there is still a long way to go and we need to go beyond just getting more women into national parliaments; they need access to positions of power as ministers, cabinet members and leaders. As it is, female government ministers are more often to be found in 'feminine' areas such as health and education rather than finance, defence or foreign affairs. The objectification and harassment of women who engage in the public sphere, the expectation that women are primarily responsible for unpaid care duties and other gender stereotypes are key obstacles to women's political power - and therefore to women's rights in general.

That is not to say there hasn't been progress, but the great strides in women's rights in recent decades have largely been restricted to the legal and policy levels with, for example, considerable progress in introducing laws against discrimination or domestic violence. In Zimbabwe, the constitution changes in 2013 were a step in the right direction for women's rights, and Womankind's partners have been instrumental to establishing new quotas for women's representation in parliament and the senate and the outlawing of child and forced marriage. However, in Zimbabwe and the vast majority of countries, a substantial gap remains between law and implementation. This gap is partly due to limited progress in addressing structural issues, power dynamics and social norms that restrict women's opportunities and are at the root of inequality.

The good news is that there is a strong, global will to turn the tables for women's rights. Gender equality is now a central part of the global development framework as the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pay much greater attention to gender equality and women's rights than previous goals, opening new doors for those advocating and campaigning on these issues.

However, progress on women's rights is largely driven by feminist activists and women's rights organisations: studies have proven that they have been the driving force behind the improvements in domestic violence laws. Yet, despite the increased prominence afforded to gender equality and women's rights overall, many women's rights organisations, particularly those creating change at a local level, are struggling to survive or to promote overtly feminist agendas because of political space closing down and lack of funding. Conflict, extremism and financial crises pose a significant ongoing threat to women's rights and, without women's rights organisations at the frontline, including Womankind's partners, women will continue to face violence, discrimination and poverty well into the 21st Century.

Womankind Worldwide is an international non-governmental organisation committed to strengthening women's rights globally, working towards a world without discrimination where all women have equal choices, opportunities and rights. For more information about Womankind Worldwide, please visit the Womankind website

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