Way to go on women’s liberation

Alice Arkwright sees woeful progress on gender equality worldwide

No country in the world is set to achieve gender equality by 2030 according to a new report by Equal Measures 2030. The report states that 2.8 billion women and girls live in countries that are not doing enough to improve women’s rights.

The report summarises the findings of the first index to try and track progress with gender equality. The index tracks 51 targets across 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 193 countries signed up to the goals in 2015, which focus on ending global poverty and inequality and halting the climate crisis by 2030.

The 51 targets either specifically reference women’s rights or are related to issues that disproportionately affect women and girls, including the extent of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, the proportion of Parliamentary seats held by women and female victims of intentional homicide.

The average score for the 129 countries in the index – home to 95% of women and girls worldwide – was 65.7, considered a poor result in the scoring system. No country received an excellent score and depressingly half of countries scored badly on the sustainable development goal specifically focused on gender equality, which includes targets on eliminating violence against women, ending FGM and upholding women’s reproductive rights.

The report clearly exposes the amount of work there is to do and the urgency with which countries need to act. Here’s three other factors that we must consider if we are to promote women’s rights globally.

Firstly, this is not just an issue for developing countries. Whilst the report showed some correlation between scores and national wealth, countries with lower GDP are making better progress in some areas – for example, Rwanda has the highest share of female members of Parliament globally. Given the rolling back of abortion rights in the US in recent months, there is also a clear danger that progress in some countries is being reversed.

Western countries must also acknowledge and address the negative impact they have had on developing countries’ ability to make progress. The US now has clear red lines about the mention of sexual and reproductive health and gender in UN agreements, seeing them as code for abortion and LGBT+ rights. The US group C-Fam has also emerged as a powerful anti-abortion lobbying group influencing governments at the UN level. The growth of far-right actors in the US and Europe is worrying considering the power Western countries and companies have in international policy spaces.

Those at the bottom of the index also experience multiple political and economic challenges that relate to the legacies of colonialism, the impact of conflicts which Western countries have been involved in and the draining of resources. According to research more wealth leaves Africa every year than enters it, by more than $40 billion.

Secondly, we need to know more about women’s experiences. Whilst the index gives us a global overview, what it doesn’t tell us is about inequality within countries or the relationships between women’s rights and other factors, such as age, income, ethnicity, religion, immigration status and sexual orientation.

By relying too heavily on data, we risk ignoring the factors that are not easily measurable. Examples of this are the amount that women contribute socially, emotionally and economically in unpaid care work, domestic work and child-rearing and the allocation of resources inside households.

Nationally collected data also misses people’s attitudes and the content of their experiences. What stereotypes and cultural attitudes people hold about gender hugely impact issues like violence against women and access to the labour market. Certain groups are also often missed out of data collection. For example, migrant workers, those with disabilities and older women are frequently neglected in statistics collected on violence against women.

Thirdly, we need to promote public expenditure and free public services. The report does acknowledge that women have had to take on greater unpaid work as a result of cuts to education, health and other public services. But it does not unequivocally call for access to free and affordable services and the promotion of the welfare state. The targets in the index include measures on access to education, drinking water and family planning facilities, but it does not state the quality of these services, the maintenance of them and if they are free at the point of access.

Research has shown that austerity measures create additional burdens for women, so a key policy demand should be investment in the welfare state and the removal of any barriers that prevent economic, social and political participation.

We know urgent progress needs to be made. Now governments, organisations and international bodies must put women, and importantly, the most marginalised women, at the heart of any initiative for improvement.

Alice Arkwright

Alice Arkwright works at the TUC. She writes in a personal capacity.