Hardly a day goes by without a news story on some violation of women’s rights. In recent months, appalling incidents of violence against women and girls, from Delhi to Johannesburg to Cleveland, have sparked public outrage and a demand to tackle these horrific abuses. In Bangladesh and Cambodia, the shocking loss of life of garment factory workers, many of them women, sparked a global debate on how to secure safe and decent jobs in our globalised economy.
Even though women have made real gains, we are constantly reminded of how far we have to go to be able to realise equality between men and women. World leaders recognised the pervasiveness of discrimination and violence against women and girls when they signed the visionary Millennium Declaration in 2000. Among the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they included gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment tracked progress of school enrolment, women’s share of paid work, and women’s participation in parliaments. It triggered global attention and action. It sought to hold governments accountable, mobilise much-needed resources, and formulate new laws, policies, programmes and data. But there are glaring omissions. Noticeably absent are fundamental issues, such as women’s right to own property and the unequal division of household and care responsibilities.
By failing to address the structural causes of discrimination and violence against women and girls, progress towards equality has been stalled. Of all the MDGs, the least progress has been made on MDG5, i.e., the reduction of maternal mortality. To make greater progress, we need to give further importance to the goals of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment, all of which are grounded in human rights and tackle unequal power relations. According to me, three areas require urgent action.
First, ending violence against women and girls must be a priority. From sexual violence in the camps of Haiti and Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to intimate partner shootings in the United States and elsewhere, this violence causes untold physical and psychological harm. Second, women and men need equal opportunities, resources and responsibilities to realise equality. Equal access to land and credit, natural resources, decent work and equal pay needs to be addressed with renewed urgency. And third, women’s voices must be heard. It is time for women to participate equally in the decision-making of a household, the private sector and institutions of governance. Despite progress in recent years, women comprise just 20% of parliamentarians and 27% of judges. For democracy to be meaningful and inclusive, women’s voices and leadership must be amplified in all public and private spaces.
There is plenty of evidence to show that countries with a higher status of women also enjoy enhanced levels of social and economic performance. There is also evidence to guide countries on what works, from equitable labour market policies, to the removal of discriminatory laws and policies, to security and justice reforms. The activism of the women’s movement everywhere has been critical in demanding and driving change in all of these areas.
A strong global goal can push our societies to the tipping point of rejecting violence and discrimination against women and girls and unleash the potential of half the population for a more peaceful and a sustainable planet.
Lakshmi Puri is Assistant Secretary General, UN Women
The views expressed by the author are personal