Achieving women’s equality: The road ahead

Adrienne Germain

Guest Column by Adrienne Germain

As this week’s morning lecture topic, “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth,” implies, women’s equality is vital to achieving the dreams we each have for our children and grandchildren — and for the future of the world. We cannot hope for a world of peace and human security, a world without violence in our homes and in the streets, a world free of discrimination, poverty and injustice, unless we enable all women and girls to achieve their potential on an equal footing with men and boys.

This may sound like a truism to today’s Chautauquans, but for most women today, especially those in poor countries and those living in poverty in rich countries, life is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short,” rife with contradictions and constrained by a gaping chasm between law and reality.

What are some of these contradictions? In too many places, women are still considered the “weaker” sex, subject to “protection” — tantamount to ownership — first by their fathers, and then by their husbands. In sub-Saharan Africa, these “weaklings” grow 80 percent of the food but own only 10 percent of the land. They almost never have access to credit or an agricultural extension worker.

As for “protection,” they suffer a host of harmful practices, from early, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, to “protect” their virginity, to some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world.

They are not alone. In South Asia, girls as young as age 12 are forced into marriage by their fathers to protect the families’ honor against having their daughters lose their virginity before marriage or to resolve a quarrel or cement a business deal. These “protected” girls are highly vulnerable to early and dangerous pregnancies, marital rape and other forms of violence as well as withdrawal from schooling and all its consequences.

What about the chasm between law and reality? In the past century, but mostly in the last 60 years or so, 139 countries and territories have decided to guarantee equality for women in their constitutions. In 1911, only two countries allowed women to vote; now, all but a few do.

But inequalities in laws and unjust practices keep women poorer, less educated and with less formal power than men in every country of the world, according to the just-released “Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice,” the first report of UN Women, the agency launched this year to champion women across the United Nations.

Everywhere, including in the United States, women are severely under-represented in government, the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as law enforcement, even where remedial affirmative action quotas have been established. Is it any wonder that gaps exist between constitutional protections and women’s reality?

For more than 40 years, I have worked with women and men in civil society, with the United Nations and with governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I have learned from all of them, but especially the women, what the barriers to progress are and how best to advance. The lessons are simple, but their application is hugely challenging because of the weight of prevailing practices and prejudice in the countries and among the outside actors who aim to assist those countries. These are our challenges:

First, achieving women’s equality requires simultaneous actions in several arenas to address all aspects of girls’ and women’s lives. There is no single silver bullet — not education, not microcredit, not political participation. Rather, in every sector, the staff of mainstream institutions and civil society must have both the awareness and the skills needed for the advancement of women.

Second, women’s ability to reach their full potential and enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms requires that society make special investments in their unique sexual and reproductive health needs, as well as protect and respect their right to control all matters related to their sexuality. These actions represent a sea change in many societies and are often politically sensitive.

Third, achieving women’s equality is a long haul. Quantifiable progress is only measureable over years — decades — not within a year or two. Politicians and funders generally have much shorter time frames, but they must be persuaded to make sustained commitments.

In the last 40 years, women’s health, human rights and development organizations have developed in nearly every country and, with growing sophistication, have begun to influence their communities and governments. They also have advocated in the U.N. and established commitments that address these challenges. Acknowledgement of women’s rights and equality has never been stronger, despite noisy conservative protests, but concrete actions to improve women’s lives are far too few. Each of us can help move the agenda forward, and I look forward to talking with you about how.