Equality and empowerment for women in the West have come a long way since the days of the suffragettes and Susan B. Anthony. In most countries around the world, women have the right to an education, to vote, and to own property. However, it remains a struggle for women to still truly gain equal footing with men, especially in some of the poorest nations of the world. Unfortunately, too many women find that violence, injustice, and poverty are an everyday aspect to their lives.
The third Millennium Development Goal promotes gender equality and empowering women. By targeting to eliminate gender disparity in all levels of education by 2015, it ensures that all persons, regardless of gender are able to obtain the right of education and have for themselves that first crucial building block towards empowerment.
Gender equality is crucial to the wellbeing, both economic and social, of a country. Female education results in benefits for every level of society, for the community and the individual. Especially today, countries with high illiteracy rates and gender gaps don’t compete as well as others on the global market. Equal education contributes directly to the growth of national income by improving the country’s productive output, and thus both the national and household income. The presence of empowered, educated women result in decreased child mortality and improved family health and nutrition. Participation by women in political and social life also provides better-rounded policy and development outcomes.
There has been significant progress in obtaining gender parity in the three levels of education. In the developing regions in 2008, there were 96 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in primary school, and 95 girls for every 100 boys in secondary school. This is a rise from previous ratios in 1999, which were 91:100 and 88:100 for those two same levels of education. In tertiary education, the ratio was 97 girls for every 100 boys in 2008.
Despite these achievements, the target goal for MDG 3 to have reached equal gender enrolment for primary and secondary school, that was supposed to have been met in 2005, looks to be out of reach for many of the developing countries, particularly in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, and Western Asia. Though collectively, the ratio for tertiary education has reached 97:100, in many regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia respectively, there are only 67 and 76 girls per 100 boys. Also, in areas of study, girls are significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, and engineering, while they are overrepresented in the humanities and social sciences. Completion rates are also lower among women than men.
A survey conducted over 42 countries in 2008 showed that poverty drastically affects the chances of girls being able to go to school. It found that girls of primary school age from the poorest 60% of households were three times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest households. This statistic became even higher as they moved up to secondary education—twice as many girls from poor households were likely to be out of school as compared to the girls from the wealthiest households.
Gender bias in the home and culture is also another issue that contributes to gender disparity. In 2004, it was found that around 20% of girls in Tajikistan were not completing their nine years of compulsory education. An investigation by UNICEF into this problem unearthed that 57% of parents thought that educating boys was more important than to educate girls; 40% of girls did not believe that education would impact the quality of their lives, while dropout rates increased correspondingly with grade levels. They found that as more than 80% of families live below the poverty line, parents often find it economically difficult to afford to send their children to school. In such cases, they usually choose to spend money on educating their sons rather than their daughters.
Globally, as a whole, men outnumber women in paid employment, are paid more and have jobs that have better security. The number of women working outside the agricultural sector has increased, globally, reaching 41% in 2008 from the 35% that was recorded in 1990. However, in regions such as Northern Africa, and Southern and Western Asia, the percentage has only reached 20%. In many countries that have a large agricultural economy, women are usually employed there in vulnerable positions, such as in subsistence farming or as unpaid family workers with no or little financial security or social benefits.
Violence against women is a huge step back for the empowerment of women. A World Health Organization study in ten countries found that that there was a prevalence of physical and or sexual violence by a partner, ranging from 15% in Japan to 71% in Ethiopia, with most areas being in the 30% to 60% range. In 102 countries there are no specific legal provisions against domestic violence, and marital rape is not a prosecutable offence in at least 53 nations. Women and girls comprise 80% of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually, the majority being for sexual exploitation. In India in 2007, 22 women were killed everyday in dowry related murders.
The voices of women all over the world are being heard more and more in political and governmental institutions. Along with the introduction of Australia’s first female prime minister, comes the slow but steady increase of women in politics. The figure reached its highest point in 2010 at 19% compared to 1995, which was 11%. Despite the 67% increase, it still falls short of the MDG target of complete gender parity. In 16 countries, there are no women ministers at all, e.g. in Northern Africa, Western Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania. However, substantial gains were found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa, where after 2009 elections, 29 and 44 seats, respectively, went to women.
A lot of good has been done through many different organizations to combat gender disparity and empower women all over the world.
In 2005, the President of Mozambique signed in a new Family Law that redefined the legal status of women and abolished traditional marriage laws. It allowed widows to inherit property, which was not legal under previous laws and gives them the right to work outside of the home without the permission of a husband or male relative. Among other things, it raised the minimum age of marriage for girls to the age of 18, encouraging females to obtain a secondary education. Under the new law, women were also now given legal options against domestic violence or infidelity.
The 2006 parliamentary elections in Kuwait was the first time Kuwaiti women were allowed to vote or participate. With the assistance of the UNDP and civil society organizations, help was given to prepare women running as candidates and to disseminate information about voting so that all women who wanted to vote could do so, including billboards, posters on buses and advertisements on television. A leading expert on Islamic law came from Morocco to hold a series of seminars on Islam and women's political participation. Though the end didn’t see any women candidates winning seats in the new Parliament, 35% of eligible women voted in the election.
Vital Voices documents the inspirational story of Kakenya Ntaiya from Kenya—who managed to escape from the traditional route of female circumcision and teenage marriage, negotiating with her family and village to be able to finish school and finally go to college. Now, armed with her doctorate, she is first youth advisor to the United Nation’s Population Fund and has opened her village’s first primary school for girls.
There have been many great steps towards total gender equality and female empowerment, but the journey is far from over. There are still five years to go till the 2015 cut off date. Equality in education is a vital first step towards addressing a lot of the social problems that we have in the world today.
Azalea Lee, August 2010
- 16/03/2011 13:57 - Latest progress