A jubilant woman

(WOMENSENEWS)–The number of women in high-level legislative positions around the world has jumped significantly in the past two years, according to this month’s report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM. However, the same study indicates that women continue to lag behind men in access to education and employment and are still more likely to be illiterate then men.

“There’s some good news, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” says Diane Elson, professor of Sociology and Human Rights at Essex University, in northern England, and principal author of Progress of the World’s Women 2002: Vol.2. “After compiling data from all over the world, I can say this isn’t simply a case of poor countries lagging behind rich countries. There isn’t a country anywhere that meets our requirements for full gender parity and female empowerment.”

Progress of the World’s Women 2002 tracks improvements made toward women’s empowerment within the context of a set of eight goals created at the U.N. Millennium Summit in September 2000. By creating a framework for all to follow, the international community hopes to be able to end poverty, hunger, and inequality by 2015. Number three on the list is “Promote gender equality and empower women,” with a target date of 2005 for achieving full parity between the sexes in access to education. This report assesses the world’s progress during the past two years.

Only seven countries met Elson’s criteria for “high levels” of gender equality and they’re all in Northern Europe: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Germany. Although none of these nations has achieved a perfect ratio, they do have nearly even numbers of girls and boys enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary schools. The illiteracy rates among women aged 15 to 24 is comparable to men in that same age group and wages are generally equal between the sexes. And–perhaps most importantly–women hold at least 30 percent of parliamentary seats in each country, which Elson says is crucial for affecting real change.

30 Percent Is Tipping Point

“We’ve found that it’s not enough to get one or two or even ten women into political positions, although those are important first steps. But to really make a difference, women need to reach the ‘tipping point’ of 30 percent in a political body.”

The ‘tipping point’ theory might help explain why the progress made in these 7 northern European countries is not reflected in the rest of the developed world.

Three of the world’s richest countries ranked surprisingly low in political parity when compared to many countries in the developing world. In the United States, France and Japan, women’s share of political positions is below 12 percent. Meanwhile, 13 developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa, which is experiencing the greatest regional poverty in the world, have much higher percentages of female participation in government, as do 38 developing countries in Asia and Latin America.

In terms of overall improvement in access to education, employment and political empowerment for women and girls in the past two years, Elson determined that Argentina, Costa Rica and South Africa far outstripped all other nations, leading her to believe that political will, not national wealth, is the real reason women progress. That is certainly the case in France, which grudgingly agreed to set quotas in 2000 and has since done little to enforce them, allowing political parties to pay a small fine rather than put women on the ballot.

Nations Committed to Change Saw Rapid Improvement

“In countries that committed to change and set quotas,” she says, “we saw real and rapid improvement.” Progress 2002 discovered that countries that willingly implement quotas rapidly achieve the 30 percent mark which, in turn, leads to policy changes that improve women’s lives. However, in countries that do not establish quotas (such as the United States and Japan), or only do so reluctantly (like France), women are occasionally elected–sometimes to very prominent positions–but they largely work in isolation, unable to build momentum among other like-minded politicians.

“It makes life harder for all women,” says Elson, “because they don’t have adequate representation in the government and therefore their issues and needs aren’t being discussed.”

In many developing nations, women are frequently the heads of households, and it’s predominantly women who perform the agricultural labor that keeps economies going. Nudged by the international community, governments in that part of the world are growing in their understanding of the maxim: What’s good for women is very often good for the country as a whole. More are now taking steps to make sure women have a real political presence. As evidenced by the findings in Elson’s report, the majority of developed nations have yet to fully grasp that concept.

Although poorer nations have outperformed the developing world in the political arena, they continue to lag behind in almost every other aspect of gender parity. National poverty is still a major factor in determining what type of life a girl will have, particularly regarding her access to education.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where a scarcity of resources and strong cultural preferences for males are ever-present factors, young girls often have never seen the inside of a primary level classroom. Women and girls in these regions and in many parts of Latin America often take agricultural jobs or work in factories–both of which are low-paying and vastly undercounted in employment statistics.

There are now an estimated 140 million illiterate young people in the world, 60 percent of whom (86 million) are young women.

“If we want to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day,” Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM writes in Progress 2002, “then it’s critical that the feminization of poverty receive systematic attention–especially in this era of globalization.”

In years leading up to the 21st century, world leaders did seem to be paying attention to women’s issues. There were numerous forums on advancing gender equality, such as the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), and the World Summit on Social Development (1995). Yet many say little was achieved in terms of actual change.

“It’s sometimes known as the ‘Decade of Promises’ among activists,” says Caren Grown, director of the Poverty Reduction and Economic Growth project at the International Center for Research on Women. “What we have to do now is move into the ‘Decade of Implementation and Accountability.'” Grown’s group is part of a task force assigned by the United Nations Secretary General to research ways in which the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved.

An Unorthodox Suggestion

Grown and her team have several unorthodox suggestions on how to wipe out cultural practices that discriminate against girls. Grown endorses setting up regional programs that will pay families for allowing their daughters to get an education, providing the economic incentive she believes could change the usual fate of girls: Female children in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia are often sold into slavery for quick profit by desperate parents; also in Africa, with its high number of female-headed households, girls are often kept at home to be “mom” while the mother works outside.

A special approach is needed to help girls living in conflict-ridden areas, where there’s almost no chance they’ll ever get to crack the books. Not only is there usually a disintegration of social services–such as public education–but parents often are reluctant to permit girls leave their homes for fear they will be attacked or kidnapped.

“Without a doubt, violence against women is the largest obstacle to full parity and empowerment,” says Grown. “A recent study by the World Health Organization found that 1 in 3 women suffers from some kind of physical assault in her lifetime–that’s a public health issue, like an epidemic.”

Elson’s research turned up such startling information that Grown and other activists are preparing to lobby U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to spearhead a worldwide campaign to end violence against women

UNIFEM is also looking at ways to improve women’s lives right now. Progress 2002 will be used to educate wealthy donor nations about the importance of honoring long-standing commitments to gender equality and empowerment.

“Lip-service is no longer going to cut it,” says Elson, “when we have hard data like this. It’s time for world leaders to start making real policy changes if they truly want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.”

Ginger Adams Otis is a correspondent for Pacifica Radio and regular contributor to The Village Voice.

For more information:

U.N. Millennium Development Goals:

United Nations Development Fund for Women–
Progress of the World’s Women:

Women’s Environment and Development Organization–
The 50/50 Campaign: