Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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11. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?

Empowerment of women has been one of the strongest drivers of social evolution over the past century and is acknowledged as essential for addressing the global challenges facing humanity. Women are increasingly engaged in decisionmaking, promoting their own views and requests, and demanding accountability. Patriarchal structures are increasingly challenged around the world. The process toward gender political-economic equality seems irreversible.
Suffrage is virtually universal. Women account for 19.8% of the membership of national legislative bodies worldwide, and in 32 countries the figure is over 30%. Women represent 14.3% of the total 273 presiding officers in parliaments. There are 20 women heads of state or government.

Yet the 2012 Gender Equity Index computed by Social Watch shows that none of the 154 countries assessed has narrowed the gender gap to an “acceptable” level. The Global Gender Gap Report 2012 also warns that gender gap divides persist across and within regions, with the majority of countries assessed making only slow progress on closing gender gaps. The Social Institutions and Gender Index computed by OECD—which considered the root causes of gender inequality, discriminatory laws and social norms—shows that countries with better SIGI scores have women participation in paid jobs close to 50%, while in countries with high discrimination, women employment is just above 20%. In OECD countries, men earn on average 16% more than women in similar full-time jobs, and 21% more at the top of the pay scale. While women-owned businesses is around 30% in OECD countries, self-employed women earn 30-40% less than their male counterparts. Globally, women make up only approximately 9% of corporate board memberships.

Women’s share of wages of paid employment worldwide is 41%. Although 117 countries have equal pay laws, in many cases women are still paid up to 30% less than men for similar work. Women do most of the informal or un-monetized work in all regions, and they represent 50.5% of the 1.52 billion workers in vulnerable employment, often lacking legal and economic protection. Since old family structures persist, in most cases women’s economic roles are added to her traditional housework. Hence, basic services such as preschools and child care should be integral part of strategies to improve the status of women.
About 70% of people living in poverty are women, most of them in rural areas. While representing a large share of the agricultural workforce, women farmers benefit from only 5% of agricultural extension services. FAO estimates that equal access with men to ownership and management of productive resources and assets could raise agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4%, improving food security and reducing the number of hungry people by 100–150 million. Microcredit institutions report that in 1999–2010, the number of poor women reached has increased from 10.3 million to 113.1 million, representing 82% of microloans. However, many of these businesses are too small to significantly improve living standards unless entrepreneurial talent is engaged to scale up the business.

With an estimated control of over 70% of global consumer spending, women strongly influence market preferences. Analysis shows a direct interdependence between countries’ Gender Gap Index and their Competitiveness Index scores and that Fortune 500 companies with more gender-balanced boards could outperform the others by as much as 50%.
UNESCO reports that youth literacy is 95% or higher in more than half of the countries. Despite important gains, in 2010 the basic literacy rate for young females was 87%, compared with 92% for young males. Women continue to represent about 64% of the 775 million adult illiterates, and more than 800 million women lack the skills necessary for improving their economic opportunity. Mothers should use their educational role in the family to assertively nurture gender equality.
The health gender gap is generally closing, but women-specific challenges persist. Although maternal mortality decreased 47% over the past two decades, in 2010 about 287,000 women died of pregnancy-related complications. The global maternal mortality ratio was 210 deaths per 100,000 live births, with highest prevalence in parts of Africa and Asia due to high fertility rates and weak health care systems. Recognizing women’s reproductive rights and providing effective family planning are crucial to curb maternal deaths and to achieve the MDG goal of reducing maternal mortality to 120 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015.

Lack of sanitation kills over 2.7 million people each year, including 5,000 children under the age of five. WaterAid says that 1 in 3 women and girls do not have access to toilets, while unsafe or open toilets increase the risks of physical and sexual violence.
Female genital mutilation traumatizes about 3 million girls each year, in addition to the estimated 140 million women and girls already affected, mostly in Africa and some parts of Asia and the Middle East. Thanks to concerted efforts by UN and NGOs, over the last few years some 8,000 communities abandoned FGM/C and almost 3,000 religious leaders declared that the practice should end. A new UN resolution calls on States to take all measures – including legislation – for prohibiting female genital mutilation.

Violence against women is the largest war today, as measured by death and casualties per year. Although 125 countries have laws that penalize domestic violence, up to 70% of women continue to be targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, and 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.These are the most underreported crimes worldwide, continuing to be perpetrated with impunity. The UN new initiative, COMMIT, aims to encourage countries to adopt new policies to protect victims. Of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually, 80% are female, 79% of whom are trafficked for sexual exploitation. While domestic violence is outlawed in 125 countries, 603 million women live in countries where it is not considered a crime. School systems should consider teaching self-defense in physical education classes for girls. Infringements on women's rights should be subject to prosecution and international sanctions. (See Appendix E for an annotated list of resources addressing gender equity and the study conducted by Millennia 2015 on potential policies to improve the status of women.)

The UN Trust Fund grants to end violence against women are expected to reach 6 million people in 86 countries. Resolution 1325 protects women in wartime and their active participation in peace-building, as do the 15% of UN post-conflict budgets allocated to women. A panoply of international treaties and dedicated UN organizations are vigorously advancing women’s rights. With the patronage of UNESCO, the global foresight process Millennia 2015 prepares an action plan for women's empowerment and is developing the first Women State of the Future Index.
Traditional media are not combating gender stereotyping, and women are poorly represented in journalism top management positions. However, more women than men are active users of social media, a powerful new medium for change. A global survey showed that mobile phones make 93% of women feel safer and 85% more independent, while for 41% they increased economic opportunities. A recent Millennium Project study on changing stereotypes concluded that slow but massive shifts in gender stereotypes will occur over the next few decades. (See Chapter 12. Changing Gender Stereotypes.)

Challenge 11 will be addressed seriously when gender-discriminatory laws are gone, when discrimination and violence against women are prosecuted, when the goal of 30%+ women’s representation in national legislatures is achieved in all countries, and when development strategies include gender equity throughout all sectors.

Regional Considerations

Africa: Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa became the first woman Chairperson of the African Union Commission. In sub-Saharan Africa, women representation is 19.7% in legislature and 20.4% in ministerial positions, while Rwanda has a women-majority parliament. Gender-focused programs and initiatives are expected to substantially improve women’s status by 2060. Presently, the average fertility rate in the region is 5.1 and is not expected to drop below 3 by mid-century. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest maternal mortality, with woman facing a 1-in-39 lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. According to Save the Children, Niger is the worst country on Earth in which to be a mother. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rates of youth literacy (72%) and secondary school enrollment (34%), and only 50% of adult women and 70% of adult men can read. Although women represent 52% of agricultural labor force, they have little or no land ownership and are further affected by increasing land-grabbing by foreign companies or countries. Women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment in North Africa (55% versus 32%), the Middle East (42% versus 27%), and sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 85% versus 70%). In the MENA Arab States, women’s rights and liberties are poor, and despite their equal participation in the revolutions, women’s representation in the new governments has been overlooked. In Egypt’s recent elections, only 6% of the 376 women candidates were backed by political parties, and women represent only 2% in the new legislature.

Asia and Oceania: High incomes and education rate in countries like Japan challenge old family structures; many women are not getting married. Countries as diverse as Japan and Saudi Arabia accept women earning a PhD but not so much that women hold senior executive positions, which may lead to a “female brain drain” to more-tolerant countries. The literacy rate for women 15–24 years old is now 99% in China and 80% in India. In Southeast Asia, a woman faces a 1-in-290 lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, and 20% of worldwide maternal deaths occur in India. The fertility rate in India is 2.7, infant mortality is 50 per 1,000 births, about 43.5% of children are underweight, and 33% are not immunized with triple vaccine. The preference for male children, largely due to inheritance laws and dowry liabilities, is causing a gender imbalance, with some communities in China and India reaching birth ratios of 60–70 females to every 100 males. According to UNICEF, in some parts of Nepal and India about 40% of girls become child brides. With more than a million Indian women now members of panchayats (local village councils), unethical practices are expected to change. Women representation in legislatures is 17.9% for Asia, 14.9% for the Pacific, and 13% in the Arab States (up from 3.6% in 2000). The Arabian Peninsula is still dominated by purdah and namus customs. Sexual abuse and gang rape has increased in Egypt over the past two years and women have no confidence that the legislation that began being drafted in March 2013 for improving their status will help. In Saudi Arabia, women are promised participation rights for the first time in the 2015 local elections.

Europe: Gender parity is central to the economic recovery strategy and structural changes in Europe. Women represent 25.7% of ministries of the 27 EU governments; they hold 42% of parliamentary seats in Nordic countries, 21.1% in OSCE countries (excluding Nordic ones), and 35.2% of EU Parliament seats. France’s new government is composed of equal numbers of women and men. An EU Commission planned directive would require company boards to have 30% women by 2015 and 40% by 2020. In 2010, only 12% of board members were women, and salaries of women continued to be 16.4% lower than men's for the same work. In the UK, only 14% of SMEs are led by women, and the Aspire Fund was set to support female business initiatives. In Germany, a campaign aims to get women 30% of journalism management positions by 2017. In Russia, a draft law proposes that at least 30% of parliamentary seats should be occupied by women (compared with present 13.6%), as well as providing advantages for men to play a greater role in the family life. Poland has passed a law that states at least 35% of local candidates in general elections must be female. However, the number of women in the Parliament didn’t increase much after the last election because men got better places on ballot papers.

Latin America: Five of the region’s countries have female heads of government. Women’s participation in Latin American parliaments improved due to the introduction of quotas in many countries. More women than men attain tertiary education across the region, but wage discrepancies persist. Despite economic and political progress, women’s well-being continues to be hindered by the machismo structures. Women are victims of organized crime in various forms, but they also represent an increasingly important force fighting it. Rural and indigenous women work at least 16 hours a day, mostly not paid. As a result of restrictive legislation, one in three maternal deaths is due to abortion, and the lifetime risk of maternal death is 0.4%.

North America: Violence against women was reduced by 55% since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. About 10% of women in the U.S. and 31% in Canada earn more than their partners. One third of the Canadian self-employed are women. More women are graduating from universities than men in North America and increasingly in other countries as well. Yet only 15% of senior managers in the U.S. are women, and they earn 23% less than men for comparable work. At California's largest 400 companies, only 3.3% are female, and only 8.9% of highest-paid executive positions are held by women. The Paycheck Fairness Act—a bill not yet approved—aims to counter gender-based pay discrimination. Over 50% of births to women younger than 30 in the U.S. occurs outside marriage. About 4 million women and children of low-income single mothers are jobless and without financial aid. Women’s representation in U.S. legislatures is only 16.9%, while in Canada the figure is 24.7%. Both U.S. and Canadian governments made critical cuts in domestic and international family planning programs for women.

Graph using Trend Impact Analysis; it is part of the 2012 State of the Future Index computation (See Chapter 2, SOFI 2012)

Data source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

Seats Held by Women in National Parliament (% of all parliamentarians)

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