“No society treats its women as well as its men.” That’s the conclusion from the United Nations Development Program, as written in its 1997 Human Development Report [source: UNDP]. Almost 50 years earlier, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specified that everyone, regardless of sex, was entitled to the same rights and freedoms. The 1997 Human Development Report, as well as every Human Development Report that followed, has highlighted that each country falls short of achieving that goal. The severity of the shortfall varies by country; Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, for example, are routinely hailed as having the smallest gender gaps. In the developing world, however, women face unfairness that can be hard to fathom. In this article, we’ll take a trip around the world to examine 10 examples of gender inequality.
Image Credit: Associated Press/Brennan Linsley
10: Professional Obstacles
Women fought for decades to take their place in the workplace alongside men, but that fight isn’t over yet. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census, women earn just 77 percent of what men earn for the same amount of work [source: National Committee on Pay Equity]. In addition to this gender wage gap, women often face a glass ceiling when it comes to promotions, which is evident when you survey the lack of women in leadership positions at major companies. Women who have children often find themselves penalized for taking time off; if they’re not dismissed, they may face discrimination and outdated ideas of what a woman can accomplish if she’s pregnant or a mother. And jobs that are considered traditional women’s work, such as nursing and teaching, are often some of the lowest-paying fields.
Still, women in the workplace have one right that women in other countries lack — the right to leave their own homes.
9: Limited Mobility
Saudi Arabia provides the most extreme example of limited mobility for women: In that country, women are not allowed to drive a car or ride a bicycle on public roads. The strict Islamic law in the country prohibits women from leaving the home without a man’s permission, and if they do leave the home, they can’t drive a car. Doing so would require removal of their veils, which is forbidden, and it could potentially bring them in contact with strange men, another forbidden practice. While Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving a car, other countries restrict women’s overseas travels by limiting their access to passports, and even women in developed countries may complain of limited mobility. While these women may have the legal right to drive cars and ride planes, they may elect not to go out by themselves at night due to the threat of rape or attack. We’ll discuss such violence against women on the next page of this article.
Women in Saudi Arabia inspect a new car. The women are allowed to own cars, but they are not allowed to drive them. Image Credit: Associated Press/Donna Abu-Nasr
In 2008, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that one in every three women is likely “to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime” [source: OneWorld]. In both the developed and the developing world, violence against women in the form of rape, spousal abuse, child abuse or spousal killing is such routine behavior that it rarely even makes the news anymore. In conflict zones, rape of women and children is increasingly used as a weapon of war. In other countries, marital rape is condoned, and some countries have laws that require a certain number of male witnesses to testify before a court will acknowledge that a rape has occurred. Even in developed countries, women are often blamed and questioned about actions if they become the victims of rape or physical abuse, while their attackers may not face such questioning. Because of the stigma of reporting any form of abuse, we may never know the true extent of this problem.
7: Feticide and Infanticide
You’ll often hear expectant parents say that they don’t care if they have a boy or a girl, as long as the baby is healthy. In some countries, such as China and India, a male child is more valuable than a female child, and this gender bias causes parents to care very much if they have a boy or a girl. Thanks to advances in genetic testing, parents can find out if they’re having a boy or a girl, and they may elect to end a pregnancy that would yield a female child. And if the parents don’t receive advance notice, they may kill the child after its birth. As a result, the gender ratio in some countries is skewed; in India, for example, there were 927 girls per 1,000 boys in 2001 [source: Girish]. The female fetuses and infants who are killed are sometimes referred to as the world’s “missing women.”
China’s one child policy may have led to many sex-selective abortions. Image Credit: Associated Press/Ng Han Guan
6. Restricted Land Ownership
In some countries, such as Chile and Lesotho, women lack the right to own land. All deeds must include the name of a man, be it the woman’s husband or father. If one of those men were to die, the woman has no legal claim to land that she may have lived on or worked all her life. Often, widows are left homeless because the deceased man’s family will throw them out of their homes. And some women remain in abusive marriages so that they won’t lose a place to live. Such restricted rights can be particularly frustrating in rural areas where agriculture is dominant. Women may spend their entire lives cultivating and harvesting foodstuffs for no pay, only to lack a safety net when the father or husband leaves or dies.
The inability to hold land is a factor in the next item on our list.
5: Feminization of Poverty
As we mentioned on the previous page, women in some countries have no right to own the land on which they live or work. Not only can such a state trap women in abusive marriages, it also contributes to a phenomenon that economists have deemed the “feminization of poverty.” More than 1.5 billion people in the world live on less than one dollar a day, and the majority of those people are women [source: Lopez-Claros, Zahidi]. The United Nations often cites the statistic that women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production [sources: Shah]. Women can be left destitute if they’re denied access to land, as we discussed on the previous page, but inability to claim land also perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Let’s consider the case of a woman who is essentially managing a farm due to an absentee husband. Land is a major factor for securing credit from financial associations or co-ops, which means that a woman can’t apply for loans that would allow her family to expand its business. Without financial support, the woman can’t upgrade her equipment, expand her production or keep up with competing farmers. Many female entrepreneurs have been foiled and left to dwell in poverty because of restricted access to basic legal rights.
Women in India campaign for a program that would help impoverished farmers. Image Credit: Associated Press/Mustafa Quraishi
4: Access to Health Care
In many countries, a pregnant woman in labor can head to any hospital, confident that she will receive assistance in delivery. That seems like a luxury to women in developing countries, however. According to the World Health Organization, one woman dies in childbirth every minute of every day [source: WHO]. That’s more than 500,000 deaths every year, many of which could have been prevented if the woman had been allowed to leave her home to receive treatment, or if she’d had a skilled attendant by her side. Childbirth is but one example of how women receive unequal access to health care services. Another example is the growing number of women infected with HIV/AIDS. For many years, men comprised the bulk of new infections, but in Sub-Saharan Africa, women now form half of the infected persons [source: Wach, Reeves]. One reason for this growth may be laws that force women to stay married, even when their husbands are adulterous and engaging in extramarital sexual activity that could bring the virus into the marriage. There’s more on these divorce laws on the next page.
3: Freedom to Marry and Divorce
In the United States, love (and the lack of it) is a subject for romantic comedies and conversation over cocktails. In other countries, love may not enter the discussion at all when it comes to marriage. In many countries, young girls are forced to marry men two or three times their age. According to UNICEF, more than one-third of women aged 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18, which is considered the minimum legal age of marriage in most countries [source: UNICEF]. Child brides give birth at early ages, which increase the chance of complications in childbirth and the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
When a woman wants out of a loveless marriage, her options are limited in many countries. In some places, courts automatically grant custody of children to the husband, and women often have no chance of receiving any measure of financial support. In other places, such as Egypt, women don’t even have access to a court. While men are allowed a divorce after an oral renunciation registered with the court, women face years of obstacles to get in front of a judge. For this reason, many women around the world are trapped in abusive marriages.
The father of this 3-year-old agreed to engage his daughter to a 7-year-old cousin. Image Credit: Associated Press/Farzana Wahidy
2: Political Participation
Analysts often posit that many of the issues on this list could be solved if women had higher levels of political participation. Despite making up half the global population, women hold only 15.6 percent of elected parliamentary seats in the world [source: Lopez-Claros, Zahidi]. They’re missing from all levels of government — local, regional and national. Why is it important that women take part in politics? A study that examined women in leadership in Bolivia, Cameroon and Malaysia found that when women could take part in shaping spending priorities, they were more likely to invest in family and community resources, health, education and the eradication of poverty than the men, who were more likely to invest in the military [source: Lopez-Claros, Zahidi]. Some countries have experimented with quota systems to increase female participation, though these systems are often criticized for getting women involved simply because they are women, as opposed to their qualifications.
1: Education Attainment
Of the children that aren’t in school right now, the majority of them are girls. Women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults [source: Lopez-Claros, Zahidi]. When it comes to education, girls worldwide get the short end of the stick. Girls may be kept out of school to help with household chores, they may be pulled from school if their father deems it’s time for them to marry, or there may only be enough money to educate one child from the family — and the boy assumes the responsibility. This gap in educational attainment becomes particularly maddening when you consider the numerous studies that have been done which show that educating girls is a key factor in eliminating poverty and aiding development. Girls who complete school are less likely to marry young, more likely to have smaller families and exhibit better health outcomes in relation to maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS. These women also go on to earn higher salaries, which they then invest in their own families, thus ensuring that future generations of girls get to go on to school. Indeed, it’s addressing the inequalities in education that may solve many of the other problems on this list.
Schoolchildren in Chad Image Credit: Associated Press/Sayyid Azim
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