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Great progress has been made in recent decades in terms of gender equality. However, the gap between formal and substantive equality must be acknowledged: differences still remain, and no country can claim to have achieved perfect equality.
A change of mindset is unavoidable, but compensatory measures can and must be put in place to facilitate the transition to a new way of thinking. Indeed, societal phenomena, whether obvious or insidious, still exist today:
- Gender-based violence, both in the private and public spheres (domestic violence, street harassment, among others)
- Internationalised misogyny and self-censorship of girls and women
- Ordinary sexism, and the stereotypical construction of gender that creates rigid and categorised boxes from which it is difficult to escape
- The limiting social structures, which make any project of parity half effective, notably because of the unpaid work largely assumed by women in the world today
- And many other issues
Thus, gender inequalities must be understood within the structure they rose in. Any superficial change would not be effective in the long term, since inequalities are reproduced in a structural way. Some avenues of work have already been explored:
- The promotion of equal opportunities
- The progressive recognition of unpaid care work, which is mostly the responsibility of women
- Quotas and other compensatory measures (sex ratio)
- The fight against selective abortion
- And other measures
These advances are largely due to a growing conceptualisation of gender issues at the individual, collective and societal levels by activist, political and international movements.
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Bettisia Gozzadini, an Italian jurist born in 1209, was probably one of the first women to obtain a university education and then be appointed professor at the University of Bologna. From the 18th century onwards, aristocratic women in the West gradually gained access to formal education. The intellectual and political fields were still reserved for men, and the difference between the genders were seen as natural, but society nevertheless had an interest in allowing noble women to develop their intelligence. Feminist movements were born and allowed women of different social classes to enter the labour market, and to break away for some of them from the traditional model where they were confined to the role of wives and mothers. Education this opened a door to the emancipation of women, and vice versa. It was at the end of the 19th century that the first laws on girls’ education were passed, first in France and then in Spain.
It is important to note that although women gained progressive access to education, it was not free from the reproduction of gender stereotypes. Women were not educated to participate in society; they were confined to a passive status, and the main purpose of obtaining an education was to be perceived as more virtuous. However, these beginnings allowed women to gradually gain more rights and develop the first feminist movements. Over the years and the progress made, the demands of these movements moved from the physical world to the theoretical world. These successive movements have been conceptualised as “waves”:
- The first wave is devoted to political rights such as the right to vote, the right to hold public office and the recognition of women as fully-fledged persons. This wave is notably concretised with the suffragette movement.
- The second wave shifted the focus to sexual and reproductive rights, including the demand for access to contraception. The conceptualisation of patriarchy and gender studies begins in the social sciences under the particular influence of Simone de Beauvoir, among others.
- The third wave displays values of social mix and seeks to include men in the discussion and in a common voice. It is about deconstructing gender and sexual roles. This wave is therefore different from the second wave, which sought on the contrary to create a female voice differentiated from that of men.
- The fourth wave is very recent and essentially revolved around violence such as street harassment, harassment in the workplace, sexual aggression, and rape culture.
Thus, a real social, political and economic change was born through the feminist waves but also through the different implications of women in contemporary issues. This is the case of the great wars, which have allowed a certain transformation of the place of women in society, by putting them at the heart of the work force when men were mostly away fighting. Despite the progress observed, many advances remain to be made in many areas, and no geographical area is exempt.
A regional portrait of gender inequality
In today’s Western world, women still face many discriminations. Both the monumental advances in recent history and in the insidious nature of the remaining obstacles may lead one to believe at equality between women and men has been achieved. However, the third feminist wave has brought to light many shadows that had previously been little considered: the weight of domestic work and mental burden, women’s sovereignty over their bodies and their private lives, among others. A new way of conceptualising inequalities is emerging, linking the private sphere to the public sphere. Thus, issues such as the remuneration of domestic work, wider access to contraception, among others, are addressed.
Here is a brief portrait of the progress in terms of gender equality around the world:
- In Africa, women have a fairly high rate of economic activity, albeit disparate, and work mostly in agriculture. However, many inequalities still exist in the field of education and in their representation in politics. Violence such as genital mutilations are also still happening in a few areas of the continent.
- In Latin America, it is possible to observe a certain economic and political emancipation, especially in the area of entrepreneurship and parliamentary representation. However, it is important to note that this region of the world is particularly affected by violence against women. On the other hand, many social movements are concerned about the current criminalisation of sexual and reproductive health issues, such as abortion.
- In the Middle East and North Africa, women’s labor force participation rates are among the lowest in the world, while access to education is almost equal for girls and boys. Thus, the relatively high educational attainment of women in the region does not translate into economic or political empowerment of women.
- Asia is a disparate region: it is possible, however, to note violence against young girls, with infanticide or selective abortion. East Asia, however, has made great strides in terms of education and women’s participation in the workforce, albeit often in informal jobs. South Asia, on the other hand, has great disparities in education, starting at the primary level. Women’s participation in the labor market is also well below the global average. Finally, this region is also marked by common physical and sexual violence, such as honor killings, where a woman will be stoned to death if it is considered that her honor has been defiled.
The place of gender equality in sustainable development
Gender equality is one of the greatest challenges of our time, because the discrimination faced by women prevents them from participating in the sustainable development of our societies. Therefore, it is necessary to promote the involvement of women as a source economic, social and environmental vitality, incorporating these issues into a need for global, economic and democratic development.
Between the massive ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted at the United Nations in 1979 and regional agreements such as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the field of international law is a powerful tool for moving towards gender equality. However, due to its non-binding nature, local disparities and the weight of tradition or religion, the application of international treaties and conventions is heterogeneous. The international community still lacks methodological tools to fight violence against women and against the more insidious discriminatory phenomena, which are generally rooted in a mentality that is difficult to change. In many parts of the world, women are still excluded from certain social and professional spheres traditionally reserved for men.
For this reason, the international community, governments and civil society must unite to give birth to realistic but ambitious initiatives in gender equality, as one of the foundations of sustainable development.
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