Despite Years of Pledges and Plans, Gender Gaps Persist on a Global Scale

This year, the status of women on many fronts, from political involvement to personal justice, will be evaluated in international forums. It is widely recognized, for starters, that women in poor countries need more access to information on basic health care for themselves and their families. Here, polio vaccination in Afghanistan. CREATIVE COMMONS

In health care, political participation, economic advancement, personal safety and justice, women across the world may be advancing on some fronts in various places. At the start of a new decade, however, the realities on a global scale are far from meeting promises made in past years.

On March 9, when delegations from United Nations member governments assemble for the 64th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, there will be 11 days of reckoning on the agenda. The focus will be on how much the lives of women have advanced — or not — in the 25 years since the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. That conference called for more concrete action on gender rights.

Over the last year, governments have been tasked with reporting on their progress. The reports are intended to include accounts of where countries stand on the Sustainable Development Goals, five years after their inception. Governments, however, are not the only parties taking stock.

As the commission meeting, billed as Beijing+25, nears, reports have been emerging from independent foundations, nongovernmental organizations and experts from a range of gender programs in and around the UN system. Their calculations illustrate the serious gaps girls and women still encounter.

Here are four snapshots from new research:

For gender-sensitive health care, a sorry state of affairs

The well-being of women is not just a personal measure; it affects families and communities. The British medical journal The Lancet, reviewing the 25 years since the widely celebrated Beijing conference conclusions were reached, commented: “[A]lthough important progress has been made in many areas, no country can be said to have lived up to this vision, and backlash against women’s rights is growing.”

The journal notes in its editorial that “although most of the world’s health workforce is female, just last month three major global health organizations — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative and PATH — announced that their incoming CEOs are men.”

In its harshest judgment, The Lancet argues “perhaps the most striking feature . . . has been the neglect of gender equality by mainstream public health and development programming.”

The World Health Organization, which is often the target of critics who say it does not do enough to disaggregate and act on gender gaps, acknowledges that basic shortcomings are often rooted in stubborn cultural factors that sustain discrimination and powerlessness of women and girls in numerous societies.

“For example, women and girls face increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS,” the WHO says. This is not news to nonprofit groups that track sexual assault in trafficking and in conflict, refugee camps or natural disasters. Girls are also sold or bartered in forced marriages; and women — whether in personal relationships or as sex workers — are often denied the right to demand safe sex.

Among diseases that need a stronger gender focus, The Lancet pointed to cervical cancer, which affects and kills far more women in developing countries than in the richer world. The WHO has a good global strategy, the journal said. “But it completely fails to to apply a gender analysis, with no engagement with the well documented political, economic and social determinants obstructing action.” The journal added that all cancer services for women should be linked to policies that promote gender equality.

It is widely recognized by nongovernmental organizations active in developing countries that women need access to much more information and counseling in health care and family planning to counter such myths as an intrauterine device can travel through the bloodstream and attack the heart, or that contraceptives cause sterility in men.

Antivaccination movements are also often based on rumor or misplaced religious beliefs. Take Pakistan, where visiting health workers have been attacked and occasionally killed. More than 140,000 people have died worldwide in recent years because they were not vaccinated against measles, and cases continue to mount.

Knowledge of infectious diseases and what to do to prevent or cure them may be lacking among poor women, which makes their young children, whose health is their mothers’ responsibility, susceptible to life-threatening illness. In early January, the World Health Organization published an alarming report on the resurgence of polio, which remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan and has been detected for the first time in the Philippines and Malaysia. Children under age 5 are the most vulnerable.

In October 2019, the first exhaustive Global Health Security Index was published jointly by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Among its conclusions, gleaned from 195 countries, was that “[N]o country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics. Collectively, international preparedness is weak. Many countries do not show evidence of the health security capacities and capabilities that are needed to prevent, detect, and respond to significant infectious disease outbreaks.” National government are failing at every level, starting with the family, the report demonstrates.

On the most deeply personal level, women — and teenage girls facing a well-documented high risk of death from dangerous unwanted pregnancies — are still being denied family planning assistance and, in extreme cases, safe medical abortions. While many local, cultural or religious factors may be at play, the dearth of support for reproductive health and rights has increased as the United States, historically the world leader in reproductive health assistance, has become ideologically opposed to gender concerns under the Trump administration. Politicos rank high in the Trump Cabinet, where anti-women policies are considered a vote-getter.

When the 2020 US national budget was approved in Congress and signed by the president in December 2019, PAI, a research and advocacy organization on reproductive health and rights policies, called the legislation “shocking.”

The attempt by supporters of women’s rights in Congress to repeal the “global gag rule,” which is meant to prevent US funds from being used in any way involving abortion, was defeated by Republican legislators.

“The hardball tactics of the Senate Republican leadership,” PAI said, “should put an end to any pretense that there is much — if any —  bipartisan support left in Congress for U.S. investments in providing life-saving contraceptive services to women and couples in developing countries.”

The high-tech economy leaves much to be desired

Turning to the lagging participation of women in the formal economy and what they can expect to earn in years to come, the Gender Gap 2020 report from the World Economic Forum came to the astonishing conclusion that “the gender gap will take 257 years to close (compared to 202 years in the 2019 report).” The forum is committed to a partnership with UN development officials to improving performance on relevant Sustainable Development Goals.

The report found “Globally, only 55% of women (aged 15-64) are engaged in the labor market as opposed to 78% of men.” To further hinder women in the economy, 72 countries ban them from opening bank accounts or obtaining credit, according to the report.

In today’s fast-evolving fields of robotic high-technology and artificial intelligence, World Economic Forum research found that not only are women often the first to lose jobs to automation in many industries and professions, but are also not in line to upgrade their skills for the years ahead.

“Looking to the future,” the report said, “the greatest challenge preventing the economic gender gap from closing is women’s under-representation in emerging roles. In cloud computing, just 12 percent of professionals are women. Similarly, in engineering and data and AI, the numbers are 15 percent and 26 percent respectively.”

Women in politics: it’s not just numbers

When the Inter-Parliamentary Union compiled its 2019 rankings of nations by the percentage of women in legislatures, there were enough anomalies to raise questions about the meaning of raw data. For instance, Timor-Leste was virtually tied with Iceland and Ecuador with 38 percent women in their legislatures. Guyana, Nepal and Britain tied at about 32 percent.

Such comparisons, however, do not always explain the political contexts or the roles women play in parliaments, whether they are being appointed to important jobs and whether they can be responsive to women’s issues and act on them.

As national leadership is calculated, by the end of 2019 there were 21 countries whose leaders were democratically elected women, a plurality of them in Europe. Some of them are familiar names, such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany; others are newcomers, and their numbers are growing slowly.

In Washington, the Women’s Foreign Policy Group published a 2019 “Guide to Women Leaders,” which includes heads of state and government as well prominent women in diplomacy and international policymaking. “It is critical that we recognize the women who have lead the way and understand how far we still have to go,” the group says.

A bright spot: female mayors

Hundreds of strong women are being elected as mayors of cities around the world, and they are finding their footing in politics through active involvement in issues as important to their communities as they are to their nation. Climate change and firearms control rank high on the agendas, and they are not afraid to confront national leaders whom they accuse of dodging action.

Two outspoken US mayors have won national attention by publicly criticizing Donald Trump over his slow responses to crises in their cities. In September 2017, after a disastrous hurricane struck Puerto Rico, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, excoriated Trump for showing up too late and with too little aid — tossing rolls of paper towels to people without food, power and often homes. “Damn it, this is not a good news story,” she said.

In Dayton, Ohio, in August 2019, when nine people were killed and 14 injured in a shooting, Mayor Nan Whaley promised to give the president an unfriendly reception because he opposed gun control laws. “He has made this bed, and he’s got to lie in it,” she said.

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Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a board member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," "The Great Hill Stations of Asia" and a Foreign Policy Association study, "India Changes Course," in the Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions 2015."

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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