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Programme Director’s August 2020 Message

Gender Balance/Equity

Gender balance refers to “an equitable distribution of life’s opportunities and resources between women and men, and/or the equal representation of women and men.” Given the differences between men and women, equal treatment may not always result in equal outcomes and so the concept of gender equity, referring to fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs has been adopted.

There is no country in the world where there is true gender equality.  In spite of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) being agreed in 1979 there is still a long long way to go in its implementation. However, I want to be positive and forward thinking. Although much progress has been made, the rate of progress is slow. Can we use the inequalities that the COVID-19 (C-19) pandemic has highlighted as opportunities to step up now and implement a fairer society for all, turning governmental promises into action and making gender equity a lived reality?

As Soroptimists believing women and girls should be able to achieve their aspirations and full potential, we must continue to work for Human Rights for all, and women and girls in particular. Gender equality cuts across all 17 of the UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), and there can be no sustainable development without gender equity. To achieve this we need public action, better policies and implementation of the ones already agreed, such as the Istanbul Convention agreed in 2011, better data and greater accountability.

This means being proactive, but what can we do?

Families are at the centre of life as we know it. Families are diverse and shaped by demographic trends, policies and social norms, but women are at the heart of any family they belong to; they manage resources and provide love and stability. Gender equality has helped drive the changing patterns of partnership formation with less marriage, more divorce and increasing co-habitation.

Human rights provide the framework for the rights of women and girls in families based on principles of equality and non-discrimination. The right to live a life free of violence and in the best interests of children is an aspiration enshrined in human rights legislation. This safe space is contradictory for many women. The family may be loving and nurturing but also the most likely place to experience violence and discrimination.

In societies where patriarchy is inserted in laws and social norms the relationships of women are often characterised by a “co-operative conflict”. This varies from country to country. In some countries for example women are denied inheritance rights, they may have conflict with their faith, have to bargain for their fair share of household resources and have to accept compromise at their own expense for the benefit of others in the family.

In countries where significant progress has been made in terms of legal equality and where there has been an apparent convergence in gender roles, the convergence is often one sided. Women are taking on roles traditionally done by men but it is less likely that men are taking on the traditional women’s roles, particularly in the caring sector.

In spite of legislation there is still a gender pay gap and attitudes to women at work are slow to change.

Gains in women’s earning capacity have not been accompanied by a commensurable increase in men’s contribution in unpaid work, with women globally doing three times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. A family model where both paid and unpaid work are equally shared is a dream yet to be realised.

Having a young child takes its toll on women and their ability to participate in the labour force and this is the time when equity becomes most apparent. It is well known that affordable childcare and paid leave are key to women’s wellbeing. However, both men and women are parents and so the childcare issues, seen stereotypically as women’s problem, need to change. Men and women should not be penalised, or thought less career orientated for taking on their fair share of childcare responsibilities and flexible working should become the norm for all. Would this be a good outcome of the C-19 pandemic?

Families need support and family-friendly policies that advance women’s rights. This will require statistics to be improved and new methodologies developed on which to base policy-making that captures the reality of modern-day diversity.

Home is where the heart is, but can also be where the hurt is. Globally 17.8% of ever-partnered women aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and or physical violence in the previous 12 months. VAW in families, described by the Secretary General of the UN as the 2nd global pandemic, is evidenced by child marriage, early and forced marriage, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), marital rape, reproductive coercion and elder abuse as well as intimate partner abuse. This has all worsened considerably since the C-19 pandemic.

VAW needs to be conceptualised as a continuum with everyday experiences of control and coercion, including financial and psychological abuse, at one end and extreme forms of gender related violence and honour killing at the other. This will help to overcome the tendency to focus on extremes which minimise the effect of long-term everyday abuse and control on a woman’s life and will help change the social norms and attitudes used to justify, minimise and normalise violence.

Without good legislation there will be no change, and in most countries, this is slowly being enacted. The recent Female Offender Strategy and Domestic Abuse Bill are all welcome and necessary steps, and the Criminal Justice System is responding. Legislative change is, however, not a long-term sustainable solution to such an entrenched problem on its own, but acts as a driver to attitudinal change. This is always the most difficult to enact but also the only sustainable solution.

Gender equality is at the heart of what we as Soroptimists strive for and is embodied in the UN SDG 5 (Gender Equality). Society has had years to change and include women equally. This has not yet happened. It will best be achieved by engaging and empowering women. This is where we come in!

We need projects that:

  • Mobilise communities to change social norms, specifically focused on gender and power relations and hold government to account to enact CEDAW and ratify the Istanbul Convention.
  • Intervene in schools to shift gender norms. This could engage girls in considering careers that are in the traditional male sphere, and vice versa.
  • Promote respectful relationships in school. These can reach adolescent girls when they are particularly vulnerable. A comprehensive Sexuality Education programme that promotes gender equality and human rights will prevent VAW by engaging all young people around concepts of consent, respectful relationships and sexual rights.
  • Provide training for women and men on gender norms.
  • Provide Economic Empowerment programmes for women that seek to transform power relations and address the gender pay gap.
  • Help children exposed to domestic violence, child carers and those who are disabled.
  • Address parenting and child abuse issues.

Oh! We have them!

Searching the SIGBI database I have found 1742 projects from January 2020 to date which address these issues.

Keep it up everyone.

Liz Dominey
Chair UK PAC