The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911, and was established to support the cause of gender equality worldwide. With the passing of the 104th International Women’s Day last week, one hopes that the world has progressed to the extent that a person’s gender can no longer make their life more or less difficult.
While huge strides have of course been made, globally there are still significant problems facing women in all societies. Take domestic violence for example. Globally, on average, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner. By some measures, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women – more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. The worst areas are South-East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where figures are around 37%. Even in “high income” countries the figures are over 20% – that means more than one in five women in high income countries will experience domestic violence if they enter a relationship. Another study has put figures as high as one in three in the EU.
In the UK there has been a concern in recent years that levels of domestic violence may be growing. This, coupled with stories from girls like Joanne Wood, who was abused by her partner from the age of 16 and did not realise that being coerced into sex was wrong, have led to calls for a total rethink of sex and relationship education.
Afghanistan is widely perceived to be the worst place in the world to be a woman. “Honour Killings” are a scourge, and there have even been reports of rape victims being jailed for having sex outside of marriage. Earlier this year the Afghan parliament was very close to passing a law that would have prevented victims of domestic violence from testifying.
India has been in the international media a lot lately due to a series of gang rapes that have generated a large women’s movement to oppose sexual violence. In many areas police protection is severely lacking. Recently the tragic story emerged of the gang rape survivor who was kidnapped while supposedly under police supervision and gang raped again.
India is also infamous for “bride-burning” – whereby a wife is killed by her husband or his family as they feel that an “adequate” dowry has not been paid. There is then an attempt to disguise the murder as an accidental fire in the kitchen. The Times of India has reported the disturbing statistic that in 2010 there were 8391 reported cases of this in the country.
It is estimated that, worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
Even in societies where relatively effective law enforcement mechanisms exist to protect women, there are more subtle challenges.
In recent years the gender pay gap in the European Union has not changed, and has remained steady at about 16%. In the United States the figure is 18%, while in the United Kingdom it is closer to 19%. The “glass ceiling” is a factor for women in every country in the world, with top positions in politics and business being occupied overwhelmingly by men. In Portugal less than 3% of corporate board seats are held by women, while the figures from most other EU countries are not significantly better.
When ones considers political positions held, it is troubling to note that by some measures the United States and most European countries have a smaller proportion of women in government than the world average, which stands at around 18%.
Japan must be one of the world’s worst offenders. Despite being one of the world’s most developed economies, the World Economic forum lists Japan 101st in gender equality out of 135 countries, and the wage gap is double the average for OECD countries.
Considering the stagnancy in the Japanese economy, proponents of “Womenomics” like Kathy Matsui at Goldman Sachs say that Japan can help address the problems of an ageing workforce by properly tapping the potential of the female population. Matsui claims that this could lead to an increase in GDP of up to 15%. Shinzō Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, cites Matsui when stating that he will make engaging the female workforce one of the key components of his economic policy.
Certainly there has been progress since that first Women’s Day in 1911. In particular, since the 1970s there have been large improvements in women’s wages. But we are far from being able to say that there is gender equality. In countries with developed economies, a change of attitudes coupled with measures of positive discrimination and childcare accommodation are the way forward, in this writer’s view. In Norway a law requires that certain companies have 40% of their board seats filled by women, a measure which the EU was also contemplating for a time.
In developing economies, where the issues are more grave, a combination of development aid and pressure on governments to target these issues will hopefully yield ever increasing results. But there is a long way to go until Women’s Day can be a celebration of what the world has achieved, instead of a day to consider just how much more there is to do.