Women rights are human rights

By Valbona Zeneli, Professor of Security Studies, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

“Women rights are human rights”, is the famous expression of Hillary Clinton–one of the most remarkable agents of change for advancing women’s empowerment — during a speech held in Beijing in 1995. At the moment, gender politics is everywhere. The issue was a central theme in President’s Obama 2013 State of Union speech making the promotion of gender equality and advancement of status of women central to the U.S. foreign and national security policy. It certainly will translate into well defined policies that will bring positive change not only in the U.S., but worldwide.

Today, women in many places all over world enjoy more freedom and power, being more involved than ever on a grassroots level. As they represent more than 50 percent of the population, and more than 90 years of having the right to vote — with the exception of few countries – women’s access into public life and decision making is increasing very slowly. However, women are still discriminated and are far from reaching their potential. Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, and produce 50 percent of the food. They earn 10 percent of the income and 1 percent of the property globally.

Out of 197 countries, only 22 of them have women currently serving as heads of state, just 11.2 percent. When the United Nations introduced the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979, less than 6 percent of seats in parliaments were held by women. Today, women’s global parliamentary representation is 21.4 percent, according to statistics compiled by Inter-parliamentary Union. This is still well short of their proportionate share of the population. The most advanced are the Nordic countries with 42.2 percent representation, followed by the Americas with 25 percent and Europe 23 percent.

Political life is more open, however, many political, legal, cultural and economic barriers still exist. They range from non-enforcement of equitable laws; lack of confidence and/or family support, and a masculine political culture that appears unfriendly for women juggling work and family responsibilities.

The 1995 Beijing Platform suggested target of a 30 percent “critical mass” is seen as the minimum threshold for women’s political participation. However, the current focus is more on the ability of elected women to have their voices heard and be recognized as real leaders and not just supporters of their male colleagues.

Measures, quotas and prejudice

Many countries have adopted measures, such as quota systems, which have proven to be relatively effective at increasing the number of women in elected office at a more rapid pace. However, in many of them, the effectiveness of quotas has been limited by their lack of specificity, weak incentives/disincentives for political parties, and the failure of electoral authorities to implement them. Personally, I have never been a big fan of quotas — considering them another form of discrimination — but on the other hand I have to acknowledge that they are an important tool to be used against prejudice.

The truth is that in the last three decades women have made significant strides. They have slowly and steadily advanced earning more of the college degrees, taking more of the entry level jobs and entering more into the fields dominated by men. In education, women outpace men in educational achievements, with 58 percent of college graduates. While two-thirds of women graduate in humanity and arts, men continue to dominate in science with 60 percent of graduates.  More girls than boys now complete their secondary education in 32 out of 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, with around 60 percent.

While suggestive of progress, these statistics are confounding. Women are not making any real progress at the top of any industry. In business, the gender gap remains wide, with only 21 female CEO-s running Fortune 500 companies. The translation? When it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, voices are not heard equally. Even with the necessary education, too many women face ceilings that hold back their ambition and aspiration; containing them to advance in their careers up to certain levels.

Women face real obstacles in the professional world: discrimination, sexism, and barriers by the society. They have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do. A 2011 McKinsey report shows that men are promoted based on their potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.

Different societies impose psychological barriers by fostering stereotypes about lack of competence, intelligence and abilities. Unfortunately, stereotype judgments exist about women in career and politics, helping the “keep away” of women from mastering the courage to fight for leading positions. But some of these challenges are objective in their forms, such as the reconciliation of professional and personal life, with women having to choose between having families and raising children or advancing their careers.

And the woman’s journey to this point has not been easy. Remarkable women paved the way for others to have a voice, including Mother Theresa, Susan Anthony, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton.  They braved the storm and fought through bold actions for more equability in the society and there are so are many other brave women who fight everyday for a better life.

“It’s the economy stupid”

The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve. Research studies confirm a direct correlation between gender gap in economic opportunities and economic growth. By contrast, the smaller the nation’s gender gap, the higher its economic productivity. Examples from the Scandinavian countries are a full confirmation of the theory.

Women’s economic empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable economic development and equitable societies. In the global economy, no organization can ensure long-term success if it excludes half of the population’s talent pool.

In nearly every country, women work longer hours than men being paid less. Women in poor countries do more unpaid work, work longer hours in the informal economy and accept degrading working conditions. Domestic works still remain “invisible” work, leading to lower entitlements to women than to men. In developing countries, customs and traditions override formal legal protections, through the patriarchal and conservative characters and leadership myths are still in existence. To make things even worse, domestic violence runs rampant in both rural and urban areas in these regions. Women are not informed of their rights, and a vast majority of them do not even trust the very structures that should protect them. The media has an important role in imprinting stereotypes.

Social, cultural and political factors have significant influence on a woman’s abilities to fully participate in poor countries. They include such as access to education and vocational training, access to family planning, health-care services, social protection; access to finances, markets, governance structures and decision-making. Interestingly enough, research shows on the other side that women are much wiser investors and their long-term priorities, such as education and healthcare, lead to sustainable economic development and stronger societies.

Politicians should do more to empower women. They should lead by giving women more power. Women in power should support other women. Because, as President Obama said recently, “empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

A shortened version of the article was published in daily Pravda, in Slovak language. This paper reflects the views of the author and is not necessarily the official policy of the U.S. or German governments.

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