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Read Me: Equality for women has made progress - but not enough

Concern Worldwide workers write on International Women’s Day of the discrimination, violence, coerced sex and early marriage that doom many of the world’s little girls to a cruel future.

Danny Harvey with women of the shura council in Shar Shuri village, Kalafghan, Afghanistan
Danny Harvey with women of the shura council in Shar Shuri village, Kalafghan, Afghanistan
Image: Saleha Farkhari via Concern Worldwide

Danny Harvey is Equality Officer and Angela O’Neill de Giulio is Regional Director with Concern Worldwide. They have written this column exclusively for TheJournal.ie to celebrate International Women’s Day – and to highlight the work still to be done to right gender injustices in the world.

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY was established 100 ago to press for the demands of women to vote, be trained, hold public office and to end discrimination. One hundred years later clearly a lot has changed for many women in many countries.

However, there is still a very long way to go before all women realise the commitment made in the Universal Declaration Human Rights, adopted in 1948, that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

There has been progress. Women are emerging as national leaders and heads of state. In Ireland and Liberia respectively, Mary Robinson and Ellen Johnson Sifleaf became the first female Presidents of their respective countries and, in Johnson Sirleaf’s case, in Africa as a whole.

While globally, women only make up 19 per cent of parliamentary representatives, some countries have made great strides by establishing quotas and taking affirmative action; Rwanda stands out as having women occupy 56 per cent of the lower house of parliament. There has long been a difference between men and women in terms of who is educated and to what levels but, by 2008, there were 96 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in primary school, and 95 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in secondary school.

Women take home less money and have less secure employment than men.

The area where the most change has happened is the participation of women in the economic sphere, both within nations and households. While women have always engaged in productive work, this work has often gone unpaid and unnoticed but now, globally, the share of women in paid employment outside the agricultural sector has continued to increase slowly and reached 41 per cent by 2008.

Despite a change in the workplace which sees more women coming into paid employment, women take home less money and have less secure employment than men. While women are working more, there has been little change in the responsibilities of women in the home and in raising a
family. This means women are juggling paid work with the unpaid work of child care, housework, cooking, shopping and in many places walking long distances to collect fuel wood or water.

So, taking advantage of economic opportunities outside the home means working harder and longer hours and other things have to give; women in Chifambe, Zimbabwe note that:

Leadership can only be for men as they are the only ones who have the time.

Women in the Korogocho slum of Nairobi know that earning their own income increases their influence within the household and that can mean more money spent on healthy food and education for children. However, juggling child care and work, they are now dissatisfied with how their children are being looked after but have very few alternatives.

Fathers have to overcome not only their own attitudes to household work and child care but also those of their peers in order to share more fairly the workload within the home. In many places, this transformation has still to happen.

Concern asked women in its different countries of operation, “What still needs to change to improve the lives of women?”

The resounding answer was education. Miatta Sah, Liberia said:

We need to educate our girls and tell them the important things about life.

However, across the world, 69 million children do not go to primary school and 54 per cent of these are girls. Girls are more likely than boys to stop attending before they complete primary education and have significantly less chance of progressing to secondary school in many parts of the world.

The first obstacle for girls lies in attitudes, beliefs and discrimination. Baganze Myirabakirihehe, North Kivu, DRC, told us:

It’s not possible to spend money on a daughter because when she finishes school she will marry and go to another family.

The second obstacle is the abuse of girls through early marriage and coerced sex leading to unwanted pregnancy, HIV infection, stigma and, of course, dropping out from school. In Malawi, 22 per cent of girls drop out of primary school due to marriage, pregnancy and family responsibilities.

In a recent joint study supported by Concern on violence in schools in Sierra Leone, over two-thirds of the girls had experienced some form of sexual violence and some of the most severe abuses were committed by teachers.

Violence happens at home, on the way to and in school, in conflict and in peacetime.

Increasingly at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights is the fight to stop violence against women. Inequalities between men and women are manifested as an extreme abuse of power through sexual, physical and other forms of violence. Violence happens in the community, the home, on the way to and, in, school – in conflict and in peacetime.

The International Centre for Research on Women found that more than 60 per cent of women in Bangladesh have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner and only 10 per cent of these used a health service at least once after being abused. A post-war survey in Liberia by the World Health Organisation reported that 90 per cent of interviewees, irrespective of age or marital status, said they were ‘subjected to one or multiple acts of sexual abuse during the war or subsequently’ and 75% of the 90% were ‘raped or otherwise badly abused, many by gangs of men’.*

So, 100 years of International Women’s Day is a cause for celebration, yes, and women have much to be proud of in the progress that has been made. However, there are still huge differences in the life choices of women and men and this anniversary should really be a call to action for
governments, civil society and men and women everywhere to change this situation.

The sweeping changes needed to reduce such gross inequalities don’t come from just good intentions. Deliberate steps from affirmative action in education and public life, to investments targeted at the health, wellbeing and empowerment of women are needed. It is important also is to give voice to the aspirations of women everywhere through engaging with women’s movements and organisations to support their initiatives and ensuring the worlds’ women, no matter where they live, can influence the decisions that affect their lives.

Men and women both have a role to play in this change from the household up to the global level. Research by Concern and the International Food Policy Research Institute has shown that equalising women’s status would reduce the number of malnourished children by 13.4 million in South Asia and by 1.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa, showing that investments in greater equality have multiple benefits.

We leave the last word to Flora Timanywa, a widowed mother of six children in Biharamulo, Tanzania.

The greatest achievement will be when women and men are judged and treated on what they achieved within the community and not based on gender.

  • The Women of Concern Photography exhibition opens today in The Hunt Museum, Limerick and runs throughout March to celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day. The exhibition sees three of Ireland’s top leading female photographers – Brenda Fitzsimons (The Irish Times), Kim Haughton (www.kimhaughton.com) and Marie McCallan (Press 22) exhibit images from three countries where Concern supports women’s development projects. Entry is free.
  • 100 is the magic number on Tuesday, 8 March: Concern is trying to get 100 sign-ups at the Stephen’s Green Centre, Dublin, for the mini marathon to mark 100 Years of International Women’s Day. Entrants on the day can win spot prizes, receive special shop discounts and share €1,000 in Stephens’s Green Centre gift cards.

[caption id="attachment_98655" align="alignnone" width="540" caption="Pavement dwellers Lasina, 4, Fatema, 5, and Mariann, 5, at a centre supported by Concern. Pic: Marie McCallan, Press 22"][/caption]

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About the author:

Angela O'Neill de Giullio and Danny Harvey

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