Whenever I read the phrase “closing the gap” when issues on gender equality are raised, I sometimes can’t help asking “Is it a competition?” It is not. But the constant struggle we women have to put up with, to be recognized for what we truly are worth can be quite frustrating. Women are as capable and can be better in many aspects than men but it is the perception of women being the weaker sex that makes achieving gender equality more difficult and complex.
It affects me that there is a woman who openly admitted that she strangled her female children after they were born and had done it not once, not twice, nor five times but EIGHT times because she wanted a baby boy. I cannot imagine what went on in her mind as she smiled for the camera while being interviewed and pointed to the place where she threw the female babies she strangled to death.
It affects me that gendercide or infanticide can be so common in some areas of the world because of the family’s preference for a specific sex of their children – the male sex.
It affects me that girls in other countries who are half my daughter’s age are sold or married off to pay the family’s debts and end up being child brides or sex slaves.
I can empathize with the feeling of helplessness of a cause-oriented volunteer who goes to houses of pregnant women in a desperate attempt convince the families not to abort the female babies in the mother’s womb. They would openly tell her they want to abort the baby girl; that a baby girl would be costly because they have to pay dowry if she gets married, a custom practiced by many in countries like India but has been illegal for years; that they have heard of the dowry system being stopped since they were kids but nothing has changed; that a baby girl will one day marry to live with her husband and his family and leave with their money or treasure; that a baby boy will carry the family’s name and not the girl. How can one not be so frustrated and feel helpless with these kinds of justifications to abort the female baby?
A major obstacle that slows down the progress of gender equality is the strong cultural belief that females are the weaker sex. As such, they are treated as less deserving of an education and can be traded off¸ bartered or sold like an animal. There are documented stories of families forcing their daughters into early marriages, in-laws forcing their daughters-in-law into prostitution or to abort their female babies. Though there are more women now speaking out and fighting for their rights, the repression and violence on females continue. It is worth noting though that with technology and media exposure, these incidents are brought to the limelight and countries acknowledge the need to address the problem.
Poverty also drives some families to extreme that when financial difficulties force them to decide who should be sent to school, it is usually the females that end up staying home to do the chores, bartered, sold or married off to pay off the family debts. United Nations Statistics Division statistics show that Afghanistan has the lowest rate of educated women at 18%. However, in terms of employment, Muslim or Middle East populations dominated the lowest share of female workers like Qatar with the lowest at 12%, Iraq at 17%, Palestine, Oman and Pakistan at 19%. The statistics are indicators that poverty, religion and culture are factors that can strongly affect gender equality.
Though governments have exerted efforts in addressing gender issues, the role of Non-Government Organizations (NGO) and cause-oriented groups has been critical over the years. They fill in the “lack of attention” given by governments on gender issues. They provide shelter, protection and counselling for abused girls/children, feed children in school to keep them educated and out of the danger of being recruited as child labourers or slaves.
Many of these NGOs and cause-oriented groups have been clamouring for an increased budget for education. Though there has been significant progress in expanding enrolment and increasing years of schooling since 1960, the UNDP 2003 statistics points out that 113 million children of primary school age are still not enrolled in school, 94 percent of whom live in developing countries (UNESCO, 2002).
Educating girls can make a difference in their lives and their families’ lives. Giving them education is like throwing a pebble into the water...it creates a ripple that widens. With education, women become aware of their rights, are able to contribute to the economy as part of the workforce, and can become independent to be able to support themselves and provide for their children’s needs and education – a rippling effect. Education broadens the females’ horizon of opportunities for themselves and their families.
It’s worth mentioning that even in the United States where gender equality and democracy are strongly espoused, the gender gap exists. In 2008, 59.5 percent of all women were in the labour force versus 73.0 percent of all men. Out of 23 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the United States has the seventh largest gender earnings gap. According to the OECD, “the gender wage gap in the United States is 21.6%, well above the OECD average of 18.5%.” (http://www.pay-equity.org/PDFs/ProfWomen.pdf)
All these are realities of the gender gap that exists and will continue to exist unless we change the mindset of people on how the female gender should be treated. And clearly, poverty, culture, and religion are major factors that can slow down the progress towards achieving gender equality. BUT education is the one golden opportunity for women that will help create the ripple effect to hasten seal the gap on gender equality.