What is the biggest obstacle to women's rights?

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 March 2014 11:46 GMT

Tadjroshan, 40, poses for a photograph with her daughter Ayman, 12, at their house in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, on Feb. 4, 2014. Tadjroshan said that she only went to school for two years, just long enough to learn to read the Koran, she then continued to practice reading at home. She now teaches the Koran to local girls. She would like her daughter to fulfil her dream and go to university. Ayman wants to become a doctor, and hopes that her parents will fund her study. She will need to study for 17 more years to become a general practitioner. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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The evidence on the return on investment in girls and women is overwhelming - yet not so obvious to some

At the opening event of the 58th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, Dame Billie Miller, former deputy prime minister of Barbados and a board member of the NGO Women Deliver, found herself once again stating the obvious.

“The evidence is strong. Girls and women are the heart of global development. But sometimes, something so obvious to us is not so obvious to others,” she told the audience in New York on Monday. “No matter how you look at the future, women and girls are the answer.”

Miller spoke at an event called “Invest in Girls and Women: Everybody Wins,” at which Women Deliver released facts and figures making the social and economic case for nations to acknowledge and support the value of women and girls.

The proof - garnered from reports from UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank, the World Health Organization and others - is compelling:

  • Girls and women spend 90 percent of their earned income on their families while men spend only 30 to 40 percent.
  • When 10 percent more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases by an average of 3 percent.
  • Eliminating barriers to employment for girls and women could raise labour productivity by 25 percent in some countries.
  • Closing the gender gap in agriculture could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.
  • Investing $8.1 billion a year in voluntary family planning in the developing world would reduce unintended pregnancies by 66 percent; prevent 30 percent of maternal deaths; avert 20 percent of newborn deaths and reduce unsafe abortion by 40 percent.
  • For every $1 spent on family planning, countries save $6.

 And yet…

  • Women make up half the world’s population but represent 70 percent of the world’s poor.
  • Two out of three adult women are illiterate.
  • Women work two-thirds of the world’s hours but earn only one-tenth of the world’s income.
  • More than 100 countries have legal restrictions on women’s participation in the economy.
  • Women hold 21.4 percent of the parliamentarian seats and make up 8 percent of the world’s executives.

As Crown Princess Mary of Denmark put it, “Being born a girl should not prevent a girl from reaching her full potential. But, in developing countries, it still does.”

The lack of investment in young people under 25 - now the largest group of adolescents in history - is particularly shortsighted and a conspicuous oversight in the last set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), she said.

This may be a costly mistake, said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UNFPA.

“The future is 10 years old, and she is a girl. So let’s give her a chance,” she said. “Despite all the evidence out there, only 1 percent of total global aid goes to adolescent girls. Only 1 percent.”

Progress has been made in terms of women’s rights, but “we keep getting stuck” with seemingly intractable problems of inequality and discrimination,” Albrectsen said. Along with investing in young girls, another way to break that cycle is to focus on helping men to give up “their obsession with controlling women’s fertility.”

Among other things, that means nations must address the fact that 222 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for modern family planning methods. There are many barriers to accessing contraception including lack of money, spousal or parental disapproval, insufficient stock of contraceptives and the stigma of using them. The result of those barriers is 80 million unplanned pregnancies, 30 million unplanned births and 40 million abortions every year.

Working with men and boys to change attitudes is one key, Albrectsen said. “I think the reality, ultimately, is the biggest obstacle to women’s rights is men.”

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