Freelance journalist on international development and social issues
For women in a working class neighbourhood in the north Peruvian town of Huanchaco, the opportunity to run their own business is a dream come true. Thanks to donations, a local charity has enabled them to build a bakery and trained them how to market their business. Now these women are not only equipped to earn a living, they are also financially secure and independent. The bakery supplies a daily hot lunch to every child at the neighbouring school. With dinner in their tummies, the pupils are able to concentrate and learn more. The women have instigated change in their community because they were given the opportunity.
The United Nations believes that education is the key to change and economic development in third world nations. The third UN Millennium Goal is to promote gender equality by eliminating ‘gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015′. The Girl Effect, a movement working to improve the economic and social conditions for women around the world, works off the premise that education is crucial for women’s empowerment. If girls are educated, they have choices. They can find a job, be economically independent and decide to start a family when they are ready. Research shows that educated women delay pregnancies, and have fewer and healthier children. For each year of schooling a woman receives, the likelihood of her children dying in infancy drops by 5 to 10 per cent, according to the UN Population Fund. Through education girls are able to raise the standard of living for themselves and their families. Their children are more likely to go on to be educated, finish school, make a living, marry when they are ready and so on.
If education is the key to development, as the UN and the Girl Effect argues, why is there such a big gap in gender equality in Latin America? Universal primary education is almost achieved in Latin America, with 98 girls per 100 boys in schools compared to less than 80 girls per 100 boys in Central Africa, according to a UNESCO study of 2009. But inequalities between men and women is still high in Latin America. Despite being educated, Latin American women face limited work opportunities. This applies especially for the poor. Women work 2/3 of world’s working hours but earn only 10 per cent of the global income. They are less likely to occupy leadership roles or political positions. Women in Brazil hold only 9% of seats in parliament; Colombian women occupy only 8%. These figures are far below the average of 19% worldwide.
Considering the case of Latin America suggests that education is not enough for development. A holistic approach – encompassing social, political, cultural and economic concerns – is necessary to address gender inequality.
To achieve equality in politics, gender quotas is the way forward. Argentina and Cuba apply quotas and have almost accomplished gender equality in parliament with ratios of 40% and 43%. To empower women we need positive discrimination to guarantee female participation in politics and leadership roles. Almost half of the countries worldwide practice gender quota in some way, but the quota system is controversial. Opponents argue that women should be elected because of their qualifications, not their gender. While these arguments may be valid, the pros outweigh the cons. Women’s experience is needed in politics. Men and women approach situations from very different perspectives. It is necessary that governments consider both perspectives when drafting legislation that affects everyone. This is what democracy is about.
Rwanda has superseded Sweden as the world leader in terms of female parliamentary representation with 56.3% of the Rwanda parliament being women, compared to Sweden’s 47.3%. The African country is a role model of how to use electoral gender quotas to fast track gender balance in politics.
Gender equality and women’s empowerment in politics can be achieved rapidly with positive discrimination. What is more difficult to change is culture, tradition and religion. In Latin America, for example, ‘machismo’ undermines the struggle for gender equality. ‘Machista’ men dominate their wives and children, they don’t let anyone question their actions. Women often encounter economic and sexual exploitation. They are subordinate to men.
In many cultures and religions all over the world women are relegated to a subordinate status compared to their male counterparts. These cultural patterns have existed for centuries and are difficult to eradicate. They represent a huge barrier to gender equality. How can we overcome this inbuilt imbalance?
First of all, with patience. It is easy to change laws, but to change mentalities takes time. It is a process that needs to come from within. It cannot be forced upon a community. Education is important. But it has to go beyond primary schooling. Adults, especially men, need to be informed about the advantages of equality. Studies by the International Centre for Research on Women have shown that men are happier in equal relationships than in those where they are dominant. Equality improves the quality of life and satisfaction of both partners.
Empowering women can even improve whole communities. When women are given access to microfinance, they invest up to 90 percent of their income in their families and communities, whereas men only invest 30 to 40 percent, according to a study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Through their involvement in microfinance, many women become leaders, instigating change in social practices and relationships. Women’s status at home and in their communities is improved when they are responsible for finance. When they generate and control their own income, women gain a level of power that means they can make decisions independently and command more respect.
Gender equality is a complex issue that needs to be approached holistically. Education is key but not a sole panacea. Development strategies need to involve access to information and financial assistance, as well as positive discrimination laws. If one of these elements is missing, it will be hard to achieve equality of men and women.