The unprecedented global attention necessary to combat the relentless coronavirus pandemic has for now pushed aside the ambitious plans by women’s rights advocates to focus on “a truly transformative agenda on gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights” in 2020, a “milestone year,” to accelerate action for its realization.
One hundred years after the first International Women’s Day was held, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark declaration that “women’s rights are human rights,” at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, which raised the clarion call for gender equality. The representatives of 189 countries attending the conference committed to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — a visionary blueprint calling for the empowerment of women and presenting a comprehensive plan for action.
A major international development to further the realization of women’s rights was the adoption in October 2015 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included among its goals the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Targets to measure the goal’s progress include discrimination, violence against women and girls, harmful practices, unpaid care work, lack of participation in decision-making, and inadequate sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.
Notwithstanding the repeated reaffirmation of the Beijing commitments by governments unilaterally as well as at the United Nations and regional forums, a reality check demonstrates that the Beijing Agenda remains unfulfilled. The progress is uneven, ad hoc, slow, and, on certain issues, superficial. Fundamental protections are often lacking and not even a single country in the world has realized the goal of gender equality.
What is the current status? Despite the great strides in the fight for gender equality, including gains in girls’ education, legal reforms to address domestic violence, removing discriminatory laws, and impressive gains for individual women in many countries, gaps remain. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reported last year, based on data from more than 100 countries, that 18% of women and girls had experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence in the previous 12 months. Reporting on progress toward gender equality, he said: “Gender equality continues to hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities. Empowering women requires addressing structural issues such as unfair social norms and attitudes, and progressive legal frameworks that put men and women at the same level.”
Data from 90 countries shows that women spend roughly three times more hours per day doing unpaid care and domestic work than men. Millions of girls and women have been subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation, and 32 million girls are still not in school. The role of women in peace and security negotiations is almost non-existent. To illustrate, women’s participation is not clear in the proposed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In addition to discrimination in law and practice, gender-based violence, and harmful gender norms and inequality, institutional barriers remain to equal participation in society. Laws, regulations, and workplace policies force women out when they become pregnant or keep them from returning to work after childbirth, resulting in persistent disparities in women’s income and economic security. Deep-rooted power imbalances due to social, political, and cultural barriers remain a grim reality. Poor sexual and reproductive health information and services lead to high rates of disease and death worldwide for women and girls. A recent U.N. report found 91% of men and 86% of women show some gender bias against women. And a World Bank report says that women have only three-quarters of the employment rights enjoyed by men, while men still control three-quarters of parliamentary seats worldwide.
In the U.S., as of March 2020, women still make 81 cents overall for every dollar earned by men, according to PayScale, a company that collects data on wages.
The World Economic Forum, which annually surveyed the global gender gap for 14 year, reports that it will be a century before women the world over enjoy equal rights with men.
Measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, such as school closures, quarantine measures, stay-at home, and lockdowns, are further likely to disproportionately impact women, as they generally assume responsibility for care. Domestic violence rates may increase. Migrant domestic helpers are being adversely affected, with little opportunity for assistance. And another wild card likely to impact women disproportionately is climate change, as families will be displaced.
Last month the U.N. Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned of a risk of setbacks to women’s rights as they are being threatened and attacked. Similar concern was recently expressed by the secretary-general.
Common sense and also evidence-based actions to advance girls’ and women’s rights and close the equality gap include the following: countries should adopt policies and enact laws to proactively advance gender equality and equal representation and participation of women in all spheres; countries should repeal discriminatory family laws — marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody, and guardianship; governments should outlaw and eliminate domestic violence and harmful practices such as child marriage; countries should directly invest in women and girls and in support of organizations that are working to change legal, social, and political systems to expedite progress; and governments should protect women’s human rights defenders.
The current situation should not be allowed to derail the focus on achieving gender equality.
Ved Nanda is Distinguished University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. His column appears the last Sunday of each month and he welcomes comments at email@example.com.