Two decades after the world’s largest gathering of women adopted an ambitious plan to improve if not legalize gender equality, women are marginally better off in many walks of life, depending on the country and urban versus rural regions. Progress has been documented across a range of categories, but setbacks have spoiled overall advances.
That is the assessment being messaged by United Nations agencies and departments as International Women’s Day was marked on March 8, and the annual meeting of UN’s Commission on the Status of Women runs from March 9-20 in New York. The theme is looking at the state of affairs of women since the 1995 Declaration and Platform for Action was endorsed in Beijing by 189 nations.
More than 1,100 nongovernment organizations and 8,600 people are expected at the UN meeting, with about 200 side events presented by the UN and governments, covering such topics as militarization’s effects on women’s lives to the perennial on how to get men more involved in supporting women’s rights. Civil-society programs, often more candid and intimate than those at the UN, will also be held at the Church Center of the United Nations, across the street from UN headquarters, and as far north as Columbia University in Upper Manhattan.
The rhetoric — from the UN and others in the spectrum — began last week and will cloud the air long after the meeting ends, when the tedious work of striving for parity is renewed or forgotten.
Take Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks at the women’s march held on March 8 in New York: “When you hold back half of our population, [we cannot realise] 100 per cent of our potential. We have to fully respect and use the potential of all of our women.
That’s what the United Nations is taking this as the number one priority.”
Yet last week, the UN committed what could be construed as discriminatory practices against women, with apparent plans to replace a top-ranking female disarmament official with a man. Since January, the UN has named about 13 high-level personnel appointments, but only two have gone to women.
Outside the UN, one area of improvement appears to be the workforce.
“Are working women better off today than they were 20 years ago?” said Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labor Organization, based in Geneva. “The answer is a qualified yes. Has this progress met our expectations? The answer is decidedly no.”
Ryder, in a statement, said the focus on ensuring rights of women at work needs to intensify,” and that progress in realizing the formal adoption of women’s rights in 1995 “has been mixed.” Mothers, for example, are still penalized “often over and above the wage gap” that exists for women worldwide, the agency said in a new report.
In most parts of the world, women are often working in undervalued and low-paid jobs; lack access to education, training and recruitment; have limited bargaining and decision-making power; and still shoulder responsibility for most unpaid care work.
Women in rich countries are hardly immune to underpaid work or discrimination in the workplace, even as they are advised to “lean in,” by generously paid executives. Compared with women in poor countries or rural regions of well-off countries, however, conditions can be extreme for women who don’t have the luxury to protest their job situations.
Nor do they know how to organize themselves or understand their rights, let alone how to demand that they be heard. These are the women, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, who need the most attention but may get the least help — in countries like Yemen, where risky environments cancel chances for advocating for women.
More girls are enrolled in school globally, and more girls are earning degrees than ever before; maternal deaths have slid to an all-time low; women land increasingly in leadership positions; and women brave the odds by still standing up, speaking up and demanding action, Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African, said at a press briefing.
More countries have removed discriminatory laws and adopted legislation to stop violence against women and girls, but without enforcing either practices. Wars perpetuated by extremists, economic failures, negative climatory shifts and outright legal rollbacks on women’s rights all conspire to keep women parked in the shadows.
In fact, the quality of education for girls can be humdrum or worse, especially in developing countries; and even if girls are earning more secondary-level degrees, they enter the working world chronically anxious in having to compete in a male-dominated setting; many women end up with lower-paying jobs than their male peers and must also contend with gradations of sexism and harassment from the corporate environment to the nonprofit arena and right down on the farm.
Maternal deaths may be dropping historically, but in some countries, the numbers are not going down or they have remained static, since 2005. Surprisingly, a disparate group of middle-income countries and high-income ones have experienced small rises in the rate of maternal deaths, including in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Estonia, Kuwait and Serbia. Nations that have stayed the same since 2005 include Albania, Cuba, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Italy, Libya and Philippines.
As for women defending their rights and that of others, such action can meet a deadly fate, as their stories remain untold by mainstream media while they are living and after they have been killed. Shaimaa Sabry Ahmed El Sabbagh, a 34-year-old human-rights defender, for example, was shot in Cairo while participating in a peaceful protest to commemorate the martyrs of the country’s January 25 revolution.
This past weekend, in China, women’s rights defenders were locked up in jail, in time for International Women’s Day.
Mlambo-Ngucka of UN Women is neither blind nor speaks in platitudes. At the briefing, she used the same tone of voice in announcing acts of progress with major disappointments, noting the “slow and patchy progress towards equality,” adding that “it seems that we were madly ambitious to expect to wipe out in 20 years a regime of gender inequality and outright oppression that had lasted in some cases for thousands of years.”
Then again, she asked, “Was it really so much to ask?”
Women have been making headway in running countries: in 1990, 12 women were heads of state or government; in 2015, that number rose to 19 — many of them located in the Caribbean and Latin America. But the rest of the world is in the hands of male leaders, and eight of every 10 parliamentarians worldwide are men.
Mlambo-Ngucka’s prescription for ending discrimination quickly tumbles into policy jargon, but its essence boils down to “transforming norms and stereotypes,” including changing the nature of economies to provide decent jobs for women. Placing them at peace talks, regardless of the machismo atmosphere at, say, the Libyan negotiations, can be starting points for transformations.
The president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, said last week at a speech-heavy event on women at the UN, “We should ask ourselves what we, as politicians, as diplomats, as representatives of civil societies, as men and women, can do to finish the unfinished business.”
Grabar-Kitarovic, a possible contender for the next UN secretary-general, answered her own question, saying, “Through education and media, we can combat intolerance and prejudice, including sexism, and promote equality, diversity, understanding and acceptance.”
Perhaps people were actually listening.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.