The importance of gender equality for a sustainable future

In assessing the importance of gender equality for a sustainable future, I believe that the following questions are integral to ask, if we are to get any closer to answering this crucial question: 

1. How do Cultural Norms play a role in gender inequality? 

As a woman who was born in Eastern Europe, where women are seen as an inconvenience, there to be used for domestic and sexual pleasures of men, and disposable if they are not bearing children or cooking in the kitchen, it has been a personal journey to shake these cultural norms off my life, and challenge the perceptions and expectations of my very traditional parents, as I have not borne any children, nor am I in a position to do so in the near future, and – I cook mostly for myself. 

Of course, these cultural norms also manifest in more serious ways, such as violence against women, including sexual violence and wife rape – which is not yet illegal in countries such as Romania – in discrimination in the work place and in educational institutions and in leadership opportunities extended to women. 

When I lived in Romania, it was quite common for a police officer who had just heard the testimony of a battered woman to send her home with a scolding of: ‘you probably deserved it’ and: ‘treat your husband better next time’. In the most extreme cases, a woman might be brutally bashed by the police officer to whom she made a complaint, in a bid to ‘teach her a lesson’ not to speak badly of her husband. 

2. How gender inequality affects us all: 

This systemic disrespect for women- with their worth and value compromised, their denial to access justice, and a lack of understanding of the societal costs of domestic violence, sexual violence and general violence against women leads to deeply rooted cultural practices of gender inequality that the community and society as a whole, including the government  – pay a very high price for. 

This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about advocating for gender equality, and the vulnerable women who fall victim to it – I have seen first hand the cost to a community that does not value women as equal before the law, or even in the family home. 

The United Nations sees Gender inequality as a remaining major barrier to human development.

This should be a wake-up call for all of us working in the humanitarian/human rights/international development space. 

Laws that establish women and men’s equal rights are obviously not enough, although they provide an important basis for achieving and demanding a gender equality practice.

Power inequalities, structural constraints and discriminatory social norms and practices often need to be addresses in tandem with comprehensive legislation introduced. 

Equality is understood in not only opportunities, but also in outcomes. 

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

3. What does international law have to say about gender equality?  

International human rights standards provides an understanding of gender equality which goes beyond formal equality to women’s enjoyment of their rights in practice.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles; it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention defines discrimination against women as:

“…any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

According to the UN, providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large.

According to the latest UN Women Report on Gender Equality, progress towards substantive equality for women requires public action on three interrelated fronts: 

  1. redressing socio-economic disadvantage;
  2. addressing stereotyping, stigma and violence; and
  3. strengthening agency, voice and participation.  

The international human rights systems clarifies the obligations of States to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, requiring States to take a proactive role as arbiters of social and ecenomic rights.

This is not always the standard practiced. 

4. What does modern-day gender inequality look like? 

Some examples of extreme gender inequality in our world today include female infanticide, sexual subjugation, a denial of access to citizenship rights, a lack of custody rights, women are often victims of violence and sexual violence, women are denied the right to travel, the right to education, women do not have access to the right to divorce and are restricted in their freedom of moment in even obtaining a drivers’ licence: 

1. In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to drive, or even ride bikes, and men aren’t allowed to drive women they’re not closely related to. 

2. In Lebanon, battered women cannot file for divorce on the basis of abuse without the testimony of an eyewitness, thewives’ access to divorce is often extremely limited, and they frequently confront near insurmountable legal and financial obstacles.

3. Husbands in Egypt and Bahrain can file an official complaint at the airport to forbid their wives from leaving the country for any reason.

In Syria, a husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country.

In Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Yemen, married women must have their husband’s written permission to travel abroad, and they may be prevented from doing so for any reason.

In Saudi Arabia, women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation between different parts of the kingdom.

4.  In Bahrain, where family law is not codified, judges have complete power to deny women custody of their children for the most arbitrary reasons. Bahraini women who have been courageous enough to expose and challenge these violations in 2003 were sued for slander by eleven family court judges.

5. In many areas of Afghanistan, girls are often taken out of school when they hit puberty. Cultural factors related to the ‘correctness’ of sending girls to school, reluctance to send girls and boys to the same school after third grade, as well as the perceived and real security threats related to girls walking to school and attending classes all contribute to slowing down the enrollment of girls in schools.

Literacy rates among young Afghan women are disturbingly low: only 18 per cent of women between 15 and 24 can read. While the total number of children enrolled in primary schools is increasing tremendously, the percentage of female students is not.  

Women’s unequal legal rights increase their vulnerability to violence.

6. In many countries in the region, no specific laws or provisions exist to penalize domestic violence, even though domestic violence is a widespread problem. Domestic violence is generally considered to be a private matter outside the state’s jurisdiction.

Battered women are told to go home if they attempt to file a complaint with the police. Few shelters exist to protect women who fear for their lives. Spousal rape has not been criminalized; husbands have an absolute right to their wives’ bodies at all times. Penal codes in several countries in the region also contain provisions that authorize the police and judges to drop charges against a rapist if he agrees to marry his victim.

5. How do unhealthy ideologies contribute to gender-based violence? 

As an international human rights advocate for women, I believe that it is imperative that the social, political, economic, behavioural and ideological reasons for such vile abuses of women’s rights  are looked at and considered. 

The above examples paint a picture of the rights of men and women being in stark contrast. 

The women – in more ways than one – are oppressed and suppressed. 

What is the reason for this concentrated approach to violating women’s rights? 

IDEOLOGY. 

The ideologies that drive such cultural and social norms in the aforementioned Nations includes those that count women lower than dogs, worthy of being beaten, raped and taken as slaves (Qu’ran 8:55, Sura 4:24) . 

It also remains problematic that these Nation States do not recognise the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights as their own, in fact, Nations who follow the ideology of Islam have their own Declaration of Human Rights, referred to as the Cairo Declaration, which does not afford rights to women and children, and is subject to Sharia Law (Articles 24 and 25). 

This is also exemplified in Islam’s disturbing legacy of slavery of men as labor and military slaves, and women, and children as sex slaves not only throughout history, but also through movements such as ISIS, who claim that their mission is to create a Caliphate, and return to the ‘pure’ teachings of Islam under Mohammad. 

The most recent publication from ISIS describes to the committed male fighters just how to rape their sex slaves

This rape handbook describes in 15 new rules just how to deal with the predicament of having sex slaves who are related to one another – sisters, mother, daughter etcetera.  

The devaluing of the life of an infidel and the commodification of women and children in Islam is a real and present threat to gender-based violence, gender inequality and the rights of women and children being violated in the most horrific ways possible. 

A current example of this is the reports from the BBC that more than 100 women and girls have come forward with reports of sexual assault and robbery by gangs of men in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, describing their alleged perpetrators as speaking Arab – foreigners with ideologies that excuse, encourage and endorse such behaviour against infidels. 

Or the reports that more than 1,400 young women in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham had been groomed, raped, prostituted, trafficked, and brutally abused in almost every possible way by a criminal gang of Muslim men for the last 16 years.

When Sweden’s feminist foreign Minister dared to tell the truth about Saudi Arabia’s horrific record on gender inequality, where women suffer under a brutally misogynistic clerical culture, where girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, to denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia, she faced much opposition. 

Women cannot come last in our political, social, economic or policy agendas. 

To do so, is gravely costly – in more ways than one. 

6. Gender-based violence in the Austral-Asia Region: 

The prevalence of gender based violence through domestic violence, and it’s cost to our society and economy is a great example of the undeniable impact of gender inequality: In 2015, the statistics of women who were murdered as a result of domestic violence rose to three victims per week.

According to the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre, just under half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the past 12 months.

Domestic violence costs our nation billions of dollars annually.

According to the Australian Government’s Office of the Status of Women Report, the total annual cost of domestic violence in 2002–03 in Australia is estimated to be $8.1 billion. The largest contributor is pain, suffering and premature mortality, at $3.5 billion.

Papua New Guinea in our Region, is an interesting case study, and according to the latest reports

  • 67% of women in the country suffer domestic abuse
  • more than half of women in PNG have been raped; 
  • in certain Highland provinces the rate of violence against women was 100%; 
  • domestic violence is endemic, and is not taken seriously by the government;
  • Violence against women seems to be on the rise. 

Papua New Guinea (PNG) had put out a statement in 2013 to the FIFTY-SEVENTH SESSION OF THE COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN, stating that: ” The Government of Papua New Guinea acknowledges that violence against women and girls in the country is a serious cross-cutting development issue and human rights concern that must not be tolerated any more. We are therefore committed to combat gender-based violence and also entrench gender equality and empowerment in the country.” and later stating that the PNG Government is in the process of drafting the Family Protection Bill

In 2013, Papua New Guinea introduced the Family Protection Bill criminalising domestic violence, in the hope that it would signal a renewed political system committed to fighting anti-female abuse, but no further action has been introduced and rates of gender-based violence remain unchanged.

The Lowy Institute’s study into the prevalence of violence against women in PNG led them to conclude that men are getting away with murdering women in PNG – and nothing is being done about it. 

They concluded that:

1.Violence against women is not only a humanitarian concern but also a significant obstacle to PNG’s development and prosperity.

2. There are economic, social, and cultural drivers of violence and women face immense hurdles in obtaining justice.

3. The PNG Government should be pressed to take greater responsibility for the problem.

Another Report describes domestic violence in PNG as a ‘pandemic’ equally something in a war zone, with women sleeping behind bars just to escape violence. 

7. What can I do about gender-based violence and gender inequality? 

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

First of all, ask yourself: do I have any ideological or cultural normative thinking or behaviour that leads to gender inequality? 

Secondly, challenge the ideologies or cultural practices around you that may suppress, subjugate, enslave or victimise vulnerable women – or any other person, for that matter. 

Thirdly, be aware of the facts.

Educate yourself.

Then, you are empowered to educate others, and advocate on behalf of the vulnerable.

Education on international human rights standards, the empowering of vulnerable women through educational and employment opportunities, empowering vulnerable women economically and in the how all go a long way towards turning this dangerous tide around. 

Advocating for the vulnerable woman’s needs is also powerful. 

One of the major barriers to the lack of progress towards gender equality I believe, is the lack of male voices in this space. 

Without strong men advocates, we cannot champion a healthier approach to gender equality in education, the work place, the home, and in leadership opportunities for women in their communities and in developing Nations. 

Let us remove the remaining barrier to human development – gender inequality – together, ensuring that ALL women and children are afforded all rights to health, education, equal pay, to access justice, to the freedom of association, the freedom of movement and an equal say in parliament, in government and in leadership opportunities. 

Let’s stand together for more functional, healthy, flourishing and more inclusive families, communities and governance structures that empower women to be all that they can be – for when this occurs – everyone benefits. 

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