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March 9, 2015

Responding To: Week 7: Gender Issues

Women's Equality: This is the Great, Unfinished Agenda of the 21st Century

Melanne Verveer

The gender equality gap has yet to close completely in any country in the world. As we mark International Women’s Day 2015, the need for action on our collective unfinished agenda stares us in the face, wherever we live. There has been real progress but the work is far from over. Even where laws exist to protect women from harm, enforcement is often weak. Gains have been uneven, not only from one geographic region to another but within countries across urban and rural divides.

Women today are still too often seen and treated as mere victims or subjects. But while they are subjected to unique and disproportionate harms, especially but not solely during armed conflict – including outrageous sexual violence – they also represent our greatest untapped resource to creating a more peaceful world.

Wise international leaders acknowledge the essential role that women play in peace and prosperity. This is dramatically evident in conflict zones. Secretary of State John Kerry noted, “Countries that value and empower women to participate fully in decision-making are more stable, prosperous and secure. The opposite is also true. When women are excluded from negotiations, the peace that follows is more tenuous. Trust is eroded, and human rights and accountability are often ignored”.

For countries emerging out of conflict, women’s access to jobs and markets is essential to ensuring stability. Peace agreements alone do not bring security; employment brings stability that is critical to security. Access to a sustainable livelihood is especially important for women survivors of conflict who must care for themselves and dependents such as children and elderly parents. The Philippines offers an example of progress. Women helped lead peace negotiations that culminated in a historic agreement between the government and rebel forces in the Mindanao region. There, for the first time ever, a woman was the chief signatory to a peace agreement in 2014.

A plethora of data demonstrates how much women’s economic participation grows economies, creates jobs, and builds inclusive prosperity. Yet women’s participation is often stymied by discriminatory laws, customs, and structural barriers that restrict women from full participation, especially in the formal economy. In the United States, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. The pay gap has barely changed in a decade. It exists in nearly every occupation and it is exacerbated for women of color and older women. The failure to provide paid maternity leave makes it difficult for women to have children and work outside the home, no matter the family’s needs. The resulting loss of income hurts families and the larger economy.

Progress has been slowest for women’s political participation. Rates of women’s participation in parliaments and as heads of state are low in both the US and internationally. Rwanda serves an example of success, where women have led the charge to transform their country after the horrific 1994 genocide; it is the only country in the world with a higher percentage of female parliamentarians (64 percent).

Where women and girls can access education and employment alongside men and boys, countries are more likely to prosper. Yet women in many countries still lack access to education and vocational training. In Pakistan and Nigeria, extremists threaten and commit violence against girls seeking to go to school. In Afghanistan, girls’ enrollment in primary education has increased drastically in the last decade but there has been less progress on higher education for women. Lack of access to education is exacerbated in refugee settings and for internally displaced persons while child marriage continues to disempower young women and undercut their potential to live productive and happy lives. 

Empowering women and girls worldwide is strategic and smart. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind. This is the great, unfinished agenda of the 21st century.

A version of this response was published in the Guardian on March 8.

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

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