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Gender Inequality

Gender Inequality in Society

"The facts of gender inequality - the restrictions placed on women's choices, opportunities and participation - have direct and often malign consequences for women's health and education, and for their social and economic participation. Yet until recent years, these restrictions have been considered either unimportant or non-existent, either accepted or ignored. The reality of women's lives has been invisible to men. This invisibility persists at all levels, from the family to the nation." - from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

From acid attacks in Asia to the economic inequity between genders in the U.S., women face a vast array of discriminatory practices and human right violations worldwide. A few of these are highlighted below. There are many more.

Access to Health Care, Education, & Other Resources

There is a worldwide discrepancy between women's access to basic resources such as health care and education and the access their brothers enjoy. Education is gender-imbalanced in this regard because in many countries it is seen as pointless to send a girl to school. In fact, two-thirds of the world's children who receive less than four years of education are girls. This might explain why 70% of the 855 million illiterate adults in the world are female.

By the same token, a girl's illness is not regarded as equally demanding of professional help, and women are unlikely to seek out health services for themselves when they have been conditioned in this way. This is illustrated by the fact that the primary cause for an estimated 8 million stillbirths and newborn deaths is cited as lack of obstetric care. Ironically, while women produce nearly 80% of the world's food, they receive less than 10% of the agricultural assistance.

America's Glass Ceiling

In every country on earth, women are paid less for doing the same work as men. In the U.S., women earn only 77 cents on the dollar paid to men; women of ethnic minorities earn considerably less. Only of senior managers at Fortune 1000 corporations are NOT white males. The novelty of twenty-something, snow-boarding CEOs gave the "dot com gold rush" a reputation for having shaken up the make-up of corporate power, but the gender-power breakdown remained the same: in Silicon Valley, the ratio of female to male stock option ownership is 1 to 100.

After the career years, women are only half as likely as men to receive a pension, which will be half the amount awarded to men. This could explain why 75% of 85-year-old Social Security recipients are female and why women are almost twice as likely as men to spend their later years in poverty.

Political Representation

Equal representation is not a reality when over 50% of Americans are women yet only 22% of American senators are female. That's only slightly better than the world statistics which show that 52% of the humans on the planet are female, yet only 17% of members of national parliaments worldwide are women.

Far from leading the way, the U.S., with its powerful origin myth of freedom and equality, is way behind developing countries like Argentina, which has more than twice as many female representatives. Sweden is the only country that comes close to a balance with 43% of its ministerial posts being filled by women. There are some women ambassadors to the United Nations -- nine to be exact -- but while one is from Jamaica and another from Turkmenistan, none are from the U.S., as might be expected.

Legal Status & Property Rights

It has only been a little over 100 years since the first nation to grant women full voting rights (New Zealand) did so. In the U.S., it took 70 years for the Suffrage Movement to reach this goal. As unbelievable as it may seem today, a common argument for denying women an equal vote was that a woman could not be expected to comprehend matters of politics and thus choose intelligently.

In some countries, women still cannot vote. In many others, a woman's opinion, choice or testimony is legally given third-class treatment; for example, a 1997 report states that Jordan's Shari'a courts, which govern marriage, divorce and inheritance issues, for Muslims and Non-Muslims alike, a women's testimony is worth half a man's. The majority of the world's women cannot own, inherit, or control property, land, and wealth on an equal basis with men which could explain why 99% of the world's assets are in men's names.

One positive effort underway globally is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international bill of rights for women. CEDAW provides the basis for realizing equality between men and women through insuring equal access and equal opportunities in political and public life. One hundred and forty four countries have already ratified CEDAW since the United Nations adopted it in 1981; the U.S. is NOT one of those countries.

The Example of Afghanistan

Afghanistan's last century of history provides us with a tragic example of what to expect in a society that openly discriminates against one half of its population due to gender bias.

It seemed that a progressive era was dawning in 1920s Afghanistan, when King Amanullah and Queen Soraya began reforming strict social customs that disenfranchised women. These included the wearing of head-to-toe veils in public, seclusion of women, arranged marriages, FGM, restricted access to education and work, and other harsh traditions. However, from the end of the 20s through the beginning of the 60s, the old codes were once again enforced.

In the mid 1960s, change began to be felt in Afghanistan, resulting in the election of the first woman cabinet member, a relaxing of dress codes and even the adoption of the far less restrictive clothing of Western women. Many freedoms were granted while the communists were in power from 1978 to 1996, including the right of women to work.

But when the Taliban--the recently removed regime of hard-core extremists--took over in 1996, they brought with them the harshest restrictions on women's rights of the century. These included severe restrictions on participation in public life and extremely limited access to education, work, travel, health care, legal resources and recreation. In fact, only one province of Afghanistan even allowed girls access to formal education, and the literacy rate, which was only 27% for men, dropped to a 5.6% for women.

The Taliban issued edicts forbidding women from working outside the home except under limited circumstances in the medical field; hardest hit were the 30,000 widows who were sole providers for their families. Under the Taliban, women and girls in certain regions were required to wear a head to toe covering called the burqa when out in public. Women were also forbidden to appear in public with a male who was not their relative. The Taliban's claim to be a pure strain of Islam is bogus as they have been heartily condemned by the great majority of Muslim scholars and countries.

Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other U.S. targets on September 11th, the Taliban has been removed from rule in Afghanistan. But, as many Afghan women and political observers are quick to point out, their successors, the Northern Alliance, are also implicated in many human rights violations and must be pressured by the international community if women are to have a greater role in the future of this troubled land.

Actions, Information & Opportunities to Help

Statistics, campaigns, history and action alerts are among the resources available at these websites.
    Gender Equality/Inequality

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Council of Europe Steering Committee for the Equality of Men and Women
  • Equality, Equity and The Empowerment of Women
  • International Labour Organization's Gender Equality website
  • Sociological Comparisons between Men and Women by the U.S. Census Bureau
  • UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
  • The White House Project-working to help women launch successful political campaigns
  • Action Alert! from Women Leaders Online/Women Organizing for Change
  •'s page on Women's Issues

    There are many websites -- both comprehensive and single-issue -- dedicated to informing and analyzing issues related to Afghanistan and the struggles of women there, particularly in light of political changes since September 11, 2001. Also listed below are resources that offer help, theoretical sociological works, cultural studies and multiple published news articles and campaign information pieces.

  • Afghanistan Refugee Women (after September 11, 2001)
  • Afghan Women's Mission
  • Northern Alliance Information
  • Afghanistan Online - Women's Position, Role and Rights In Islam
  • Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
  • Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan
  • Women and Girls in Afghanistan - U.S. State Department Fact Sheet
  • Women's Spiritual Status in Islam

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