Hillary Clinton at UN: ‘Women’s progress is human progress’
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered those words at the UN Friday as she marked the 15th anniversary of her speech at the World Conference on Women in Beijing.
She cited the case of a 10-year-old girl in Yemen who recently went to court to demand – and eventually receive – a divorce from a forced marriage. But she also cited a recent Economist cover story that explains how years of gendercide, primarily across a swath of Asia from China to India, means that the world has 100 million fewer girls than it should.
Dr. Lubna al-Kazi, a renown advocate for women’s right to vote and run for office in Kuwait, describes changes in political environment in Kuwait in the past five years and obstacles that women experience trying to implement their rights. Dr. al-Karzi stressed that despite some improvements, women in Kuwait still face a “marble ceiling” when it comes to taking leading positions. She served as an advisor for the Kuwait report in Freedom House’s survey on women’s rights.
Millions of US workers – including parents of infants – are harmed by weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities. Workers face grave health, financial, and career repercussions as a result.The pursuit of equal rights for women through international law has been a slow process. The principle that everyone is entitled to rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” was given voice in Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.However, the Declaration was non-binding and it took campaigners over 30 years to cajole the international community intoconcrete legal action against gender injustice. The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.
CEDAW has been described as a bill of rights for women; it spells out the areas in which women experience discrimination and commits countries to amend their laws, construct national gender policies and create institutions to deliver them.
Although CEDAW has been ratified by almost all countries, overall global progress remains disappointing. Over twenty states have exercised reservations in the ratification process, a formal device which permits exemption from contentious sections. Ineffective enforcement of national legislation has further restrained the pace of reform, as has the failure of the US to ratify the treaty.
A positive development in 2010 was the approval by the UN General Assembly of a new entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, to be known as UN Women. This new body is designed to achieve greater impact by merging the four UN agencies previously engaged in gender issues, with access to a minimum annual budget of $500 million, more than double the previous combined resource.
The movement for women’s rights has grown as the counterweight to strong historical beliefs that women should occupy a domestic environment and that men should enjoy exclusive rights to property.
The process of ending discrimination against women is relatively advanced in modern industrialized economies. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are amending colonial-era laws which prevent women from owning land and property. The HIV and AIDS crisis has accentuated the injustice, given that over 30% of households in the region are now headed by women.
This transition to more equal rights ismost problematic in Islamic countries where elements of Sharia law governing the behaviour of women remain in place. In extreme examples, these ancient laws declaim that adultery is a crime when carried out by women, and make it virtually impossible for a man to be convicted of rape.
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate, believes that discrimination against women in Islamic countries does not accurately reflect the teachings of the Koran. She advocates a reinterpretation of Sharia law to recognise women’s rights.
A culture of discrimination denies equality for women by restricting access to the basic ingredients of economic status – education and decent work.
Education is ultimately more effective than laws in empowering women to overcome the barriers to equality. Educated girls are more likely to resist pressures to marry too young, to have too many children and to resign themselves to unpaid work. They have greater competence as mothers and as active agents in their communities.
However, a 2010 UN progress report states that access to primary and secondary education for girls is “still out of reach for many developing regions” and that 36.5 million girls of primary age are out of school.Just over half of all women in developing countries perform unpaid labour, typically a demanding combination of subsistence farming and caring for an extended family.
Beyond the domestic environment, women’s livelihoods are predominantly in low paid, temporary and informal sectors. In Asia, there is a concentration of women’s labour at the bottom of the production chain in factories, many offering poor conditions of work.
Lacking security or safety nets, these “flexible pools of labour” are vulnerable to recession or unstable prices of food and fuel, precisely the economic circumstances of recent years.
The opportunity cost of denying women entry to business environments is illustrated by the success of microcredit schemes, especially in South Asia. The pioneering Grameen bank of Bangladesh reports that over 90% of its borrowers are women, an inversion of mainstream banking profiles.
In launching his 2008 campaign, UNite to End Violence Against Women, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed that “at least one out of every three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.”
Such high level concern about gender-based violence has emerged only in relatively recent years. Whilst rich countries are by no means free of violence against women, the problems – which range from low level domestic violence to some of the most horrific abuses within the human family – are perceived to be more serious in developing countries.
Circumstances of extreme poverty or conflict are indeed associated with higher incidence of violence against women. For example, sex trafficking flourishes in regions where hardship weakens the natural bonds of family life, already eroded by traditional attitudes towards women.
In conflict zones such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, rape has been exploited as a weapon of war. The extent of such abuse may never be known, and perpetrators rarely called to account.
Examples of appalling gender-based violence extend beyond the smokescreen of poverty and war. None is more horrifying than the practice of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, associated particularly with China and India.
In these countries the availability of modern ultrasound technology has outpaced the enlightenment of primitive desires for male children. In China, 118 boys were born in 2005 for every 100 girls. In India, the UN Population Fund estimates that 5% of female births are “missing” for the period 2001-2007.
Similar deep-rooted cultural discrimination accounts for the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Despite being outlawed in most of the 28 countries where it survives, FGM endangers perhaps as many as three million girls each year.
African Women right still a long way to go!
The lives of middle class Nigerian women differ greatly from those of most western women. Since pre-colonial days women retained certain economic opportunities within the social system. In fact, before the middle of the twentieth century, Nigerian women traditionally played a more significant role in society than did western women. Traditional or tribal society in Nigeria expected women to be significant wage earners in the family. They labored in farming, fishing, herding, and commerce (for instance, pottery, cloth-making, and craft work) alongside Nigerian men. In fact, women traditionally had the right to profit from their work, although the money usually served as a contribution to the family income. This economic freedom was much different from many western societies, where women had to fight for the right to work. These traditions still survive in modern Nigeria
However, Nigerian men do not value the economic contributions of their wives. They do not view the woman’s job and household work as especially taxing. For the most part, Nigerian men consistently take their wives for granted. Moreover, even with economic opportunities, Nigerian women lack certain rights. As a rule, men do not have any legal responsibility for their offspring, and they often abandon women, expecting them to carry the financial burden of the family.
The Nigerian institution of marriage is unconventional by western standards. The traditional and Islamic systems of polygamy flourish within every social class. Women expect very little from men in terms of companionship, personal care, and fidelity. Their relationships exist without the emotional elements.
Polygamy is a crucial component of many women’s lives. Women depend on the other wives of their husbands. The younger co-wives take on many of the household and financial responsibilities. As women get older they have the comfort of knowing that the burden of their marriage does not fall solely on their shoulders.
A woman’s postion in society changes vastly once they marry since she becomes a possession, with relatively no rights in her husband’s family. In fact, the husband’s mother and sisters have much more of an influence over him than his own wife. The wife resents this lack of control or even respect within their marriage.
The Nigerian system of inheritance reflects the lack of male responsibility to his wife and children. If a husband dies, the woman usually receives nothing, although the law entitles her to a share. If she has no children, the treatment is worse. Since property can only pass between the same sexes, women can never inherit from their fathers.
Within marriage, women have an obligation to have children. Traditionally, society blames the woman for a marriage without children. Society not only condemns women who cannot have children, but unmarried and divorced women as well.
In recent years, the support of the co-wives has diminished. Modern developments of mandatory education, urbanization, and capitalism are changing the Nigerian society. Since 1960, educational opportunities have expanded for women. Slowly men are beginning to see the value of higher education for their wives. Now, more often than not, they send their daughters to school for an education.
Abortion is still illegal in Nigeria. In fact, women make up the strongest opposition to it. Surprisingly, men seem to be much more willing to accept the idea than most middle class women.
Political Roles of Women
Today women play a minimal role in politics, although the 1979 Constitution guaranteed their rights. In pre-colonial Nigeria, women had a much larger position in politics. Unfortunately, the western influences restricted women’s participation. Now, women have relatively little opportunity to become involved. The political parties do not look favorably upon female candidates.
As western values gained influence in colonial Nigeria, women lost some of their traditional rights. For the most part, women in Nigeria have not attempted to rise in their maleidominated society and patriarchy continues to thrive. But as time passes, women are beginning to demand some equality. Perhaps they will be able to reconcile the rights of the past with the freedoms of a modern age.
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