Women of every generation, race, nationality and ability are poised in potential, waiting for an inner cue to begin a peaceful revolution to answer the impelling call of evolution.
For millennia, women have left indelible marks on the world, at times changing the course of history and influencing some of the really significant spheres of life. Only in the past century, however, concerted efforts have been made to represent women’s contributions more comprehensively.
With the dawn of New Year, a note of cautious optimism is emerging from female leaders, activists and advocates who are anticipating major new strides as women issues go global. In selecting 300 influential women, Encyclopaedia Britannica has included contemporary women who are changing today’s world and those whose contributions have endured through the ages. Now, women all over the world are on the move. Responding to a vivid inner calling to make a contribution, they are finding a stronger voice and that voice is the mighty voice of conscience aligned with compassion.
In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the UN began to celebrate 8 March as International Women’s Day (IWD). Two years later, in December 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by member states in accordance with their historical and national traditions.
Discrimination and inequality
Unequivocally, to discriminate is to treat people unequally or unfairly due to some reason which they cannot help, or which is not relevant to the matter in hand. There are kinds of unfair discrimination on account of religion, disability, age, different language, or political opinions. Discrimination because of race or colour or where ancestry originates is called ‘racism’. Discrimination because you are male or female is called ‘sexism’
Discrimination is an assault on the very notion of human rights. It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as ‘less than human’. This is why international human rights law is grounded in the principle of non-discrimination. Yet discrimination due to factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion or belief, sex, gender, age or health status ‘or a combination of factors’ persists in many forms in every country of the world. While the perpetrators of discrimination and settings in which it occurs may vary, at the heart of all forms of discrimination are ignorance and prejudice.
In 1911, women were allowed to vote in just two countries of the world. Today, that right is virtually universal. During the last few decades, steps have been taken on road to equality.
Direct discrimination is the less favourable or detrimental treatment of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited characteristic or ground such as race or gender. Indirect discrimination occurs when a practice, rule, requirement or condition appears to be neutral but affects particular individuals or groups disproportionately unless that practice, rule, requirement or condition is justified.
Violence against women
It is a grim reality that violence against women exists even in this modern age of advancement and that it is frequently under-reported. Many women never speak out due to shame, fear or perhaps due to some feeling that they are somehow responsible for their victimization. Today, 125 countries outlaw domestic violence; 117 countries outlaw sexual harassment and 187 nations have ratified the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The
International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women is observed on 25 November.
Discussions of human rights often fail to acknowledge the unique concerns of women around the globe particularly as they relate to subordination of and injustice against them. Yet, clearly, women’s rights are human rights concerns. Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today. Eighty per cent of the world’s refugees are women and children. Ms Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has aptly remarked: ‘Bonded labour and trafficking of women and children have become our modern-day versions of slavery.’ According to estimates, more than one million children, mostly girls, are forced into prostitution every year.
Injury to women’s dignity
The United Nations Women’s Treaty was supposed to give women the right to take part in political and public life but that has not changed much. In many countries, women are still unable to purchase property, vote or even wear what they want. But we still have a long way to go to achieving equality. And women remain terribly under-represented in politics and decision-making. Today women make up less than 10 per cent of world leaders. Globally less than one in five members of parliament is a woman. Now is the time to make a major push for women’s enhanced political leadership and participation.
There are numerous laws and practices restricting women’s fundamental freedoms including freedom of movement and of expression. From infancy, girls face worse treatment than boys in such forms as selective malnutrition and denial of equal access to education and health services. Violence is used to terrorise women at home, at work, in custody and in conflict where rape is often used as a ‘weapon of war’.
Women’s social and economic empowerment
The empowerment strategies vary and refer to strategies which enable women to realize their full potential. They consist of greater access to knowledge and resources, greater autonomy in decision-making, greater ability to plan their lives, greater control over circumstances that influence their lives and finally factors which would free them from the shackles of custom beliefs and practices.
The empowerment of women aims at inspiring the ‘weaker vessel’ to encourage and break free from the chains of limiting belief patterns and societal or religious conditioning that have traditionally kept women suppressed and unable to see their true beauty and power. A majority of the world’s 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. A major global women’s rights treaty was ratified by a majority of the world’s nations a few decades ago. Yet, despite efforts in empowering women, numerous issues still exist in areas of life. Women often work more than men yet are paid less. ‘Women issues are world issues,’ said Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of the United Nations (UN).
The empowerment of women refers to providing necessary rights and responsibilities to women to make them self-reliant. Empowerment is the process of building capacities of women, creating an atmosphere which will enable people to fully utilize their creative potential. Empowerment gives women the capacity to influence the decision-making process, planning, implementation and evaluation.
The cultural norms in South-East Asia and South Asia perpetuate the subordinate and subservient position of women socially and economically. In this part of the world, very often young unmarried women suffer tremendous physical and psychological stress due to men’s violent behaviour. The nature of violence includes wife-beating, murder, kidnapping, rape, physical assault and acid-throwing. The most frequent causes for acts of violence are domestic quarrels due to the inability of a woman’s family to make dowry payments at the time of marriage. Illiteracy, political forces, a feudal and tribal culture, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religious principles and, above all, a woman’s low status in society encourages exploitation against her.
Economic empowerment constitutes one of the fundamental building blocks in efforts towards the overall empowerment of women. Participation in formal economic activities on terms and conditions which reflect the productive capacity of women and their control over their own incomes are some of the important dimensions of economic empowerment. Nevertheless, unless women themselves become conscious of the oppression meted out to them and show initiative to push forward, it would not be possible to change their status much.
Ten worst countries for women
The average Afghan girl will live to only 45′ one year less than an Afghan male. After three decades of war and repression, an overwhelming number of women remain illiterate in Afghanistan. More than half of all brides are under 16, and one woman dies in childbirth every half an hour.
Democratic Republic of Congo:
In the eastern DRC, a war that claimed more than 3 million lives has ignited again, with women on the frontline. Rapes are so brutal and systematic that the UN investigators have called them unprecedented.
The US-led invasion to ‘liberate’ Iraq from the hanged dictator, Saddam Hussein, imprisoned women in an inferno of sectarian violence that targets women and girls. The literacy rate, once the highest in the Arab world, is now among the lowest.
Early marriage and childbirth exhaust the country’s malnourished women, and one in 24 dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Daughters who are not married may be sold to traffickers before they reach their teens. Widows face extreme abuse and discrimination if they’re labelled bokshi, meaning witches.
While Sudanese women have made strides under reformed laws, the plight of those in Darfur, in western Sudan, has worsened. Abduction, rape or forced displacement has destroyed more than 1 million women’s lives since year 2003.
The impoverished female under-class of Guatemala faces domestic violence, rape and the second-highest rate of HIV/AIDS after sub-Saharan Africa.
In Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, few women escape torture of genital mutilation. Many of them are forced into early marriages, and one in 10 dies in pregnancy or childbirth.
In some tribal (border) areas, women are gang-raped as punishment for men’s crimes. But honour killing is more widespread, and a renewed wave of religious extremism is targeting female politicians, human rights workers and lawyers.
Women in Saudi Arabia are treated as lifelong dependents ‘under the guardianship of a male relative. Deprived of the right to drive a car or mix with men publicly, they are confined to strictly segregated lives.
In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a vicious civil war has put women, who were the traditional mainstay of the family, under attack.