Women's empowerment helps society and environment

Posted: 12 September 2002

Improving the status of women not only betters the lives of billions worldwide, but also creates many social and environmental benefits, reports a new study by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

This review of projects from around the world shows that policies that improve women's lives can enhance human rights as well as produce a handsome harvest of other effects, such as lower population growth, reduced child mortality, better management of natural resources, and healthier economies.

"What's good for women is good for the world," says Worldwatch staff researcher Danielle Nierenberg, author of Correcting Gender Myopia. "Ensuring the equality of women in all aspects of society-from government to business to the home-will benefit more than just women. If we really want to spur sustainable development, we must make action on women's issues a top priority."

Women's issues as related to development have become more prominent in international discussions over the last ten years, starting with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) inCairo.

Same obstacles

"There's a widespread perception that women have 'come a long way' in achieving improved social and economic status," says Nierenberg. "But women continue to struggle with many of the same obstacles they did ten years ago, and in some cases, things are worse."

Shares of reduction in child malnutrition attributed to underlying variables, 1970-95.Nierenberg notes that:

  • Young women are increasingly vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS virus. In sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS is spreading faster than anywhere else on the planet, women account for 55 per cent of all new cases of HIV. Most of these women lack the sexual autonomy to refuse sex or to demand that their "partners" use condoms.
  • One in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. An estimated sixty million girls are considered "missing" worldwide because of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and neglect.
  • Despite advances in education for both girls and boys, two-thirds of the world's 876 million illiterate people are female. Only about half of girls in the least developed nations stay in school after grade 4.
  • Globally, women earn on average two-thirds to three-fourths as much as men for the same work. In addition, women perform most of the "invisible" work - housekeeping, cooking, collecting firewood and water, childcare, and gardening - that sustains households from day to day.
  • In 2000, women held only 14 percent of seats in parliaments worldwide. At the United Nations, women make up only 34 percent of professional positions.

Patriarchal forces

"Faced with this litany of disparities, you would think that the world's leaders would be aggressively behind policies to end gender inequity," says Nierenberg. "But as we saw in July with President Bush's decision to hold back $34 million dollars of promised US funding to the United Nations Population Fund, the forces of patriarchy are still deeply entrenched." According to the UNFPA, Bush's decision could lead to 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 abortions, 5,000 maternal deaths, and 77,000 infant and children deaths.

For real change on gender and population to take place, Nierenberg proposes that nations take the following steps:

  • Commit to meet or exceed the goals set at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development and remove barriers to comprehensive and reproductive healthcare at the national level.
  • Persuade the United States to remove the barriers to funding for international family planning. President Bush should immediately rescind the global gag rule, which prohibits U.S. funding to international agencies that even talk about abortion with their clients.
  • Increase the number of women holding public office. The Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and other groups have called for 50/50 representation at all levels-from local village councils to the highest offices in national parliaments.
  • Remove obstacles that prevent girls from attending school. Study after study shows that girls with more education not only have fewer and healthier babies, but enjoy better health themselves.
  • Educate men and boys about the importance of gender equity and shared responsibility.
  • Increase youth awareness about reproductive health issues, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Enact and enforce strong laws that protect women from violence. Many national laws entrap women in violent relationships or make it impossible to prosecute men for beatings, rape, and other forms of abuse.

For a copy of Correcting Gender Myopia: Gender Equity, Women's Welfare, and the Environment , go to the Worldwatch Institute.