Governments need to take action on new commitments to women and girls

by Shelby Quast | ShelbyRQuast | Equality Now
Friday, 25 September 2015 14:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Heads of states from around the world meet at the United Nations today to commit to 17 goals, which will set out the entire international development agenda for the next 15 years. A central aim will be to end poverty and fight injustice and inequality.

One of these goals relates specifically to ensuring an end to gender inequality – including violence against women and girls. However, ensuring equality for girls and women should be at the centre of all goals.

Harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) are targeted specifically under the gender equality goal, with an indicator that will ensure its implementation. A global indicator on FGM is needed to promote this target. This extreme human rights violation is a phenomenon which exists not only on the African continent, but in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, in the United States and other parts of the Americas, in various parts of Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

Over the past 20 years, Equality Now has helped to build a global movement towards gender equality. We have seen some progress on governments fixing their many anti-women and girls laws. Over half of the sexist laws we highlighted five years after the Beijing conference have been either amended or repealed, but more needs to be done; we continue to identify and highlight new sex discriminatory laws.

Gains have been made in girls’ access to education, maternal mortality has halved over the past two decades, women are more likely to be in leadership positions and almost all new constitutions written since 1995 consider legal equality for women and men.

However, progress has been inconsistent and many countries have failed to fulfill commitments made over two decades ago. In Russia, there are 456 jobs that women cannot legally do. Marital rape is legal in dozens of countries around the globe. In Malta, if a kidnapper “after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution”.

Our campaign to fix all sex discriminatory laws around the world is one way to encourage governments to follow through on what they have agreed, but there is no reason for women and girls should have to go on waiting.

Women’s participation in decision making is still a long way from parity too and in a broad sense, violence against girls and women has not been significantly reduced; a third of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence; 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM during the coming decade; the sexual abuse of children under the guise of supposed “marriage” continues to affect 15 million girls per year.

In some nations, we have seen backtracking too from equality for women. Kenya introduced a new Marriage Act as recently as 2014, which legalized polygamy, including without the consent of a man’s first wife.

Globally, there continues to be a huge gap between what governments commit to do and what happens in practice. In many cases, even if good laws against violence and discrimination do exist, they are not being effectively implemented. This weekend, there is a huge risk that governments (once again) agree to commit to achieving these new global goals, but do not give enough time, effort and other resources to ensure tangible change in their own countries.

Societies cannot develop socially, economically, politically or culturally without ensuring equality for all citizens. We cannot have sustainable peace and security without safeguarding the rights of half of society. We cannot end poverty without addressing the gender imbalance, where a majority of the world’s poor are women.

The needs of girls and women are central to all sustainable development. Every single girl should have an equal opportunity to access justice, education, healthcare and live in a safe and peaceful environment. Women need to be valued as equal members of society.

The global movement for equality is growing all the time. World leaders meeting at the UN this weekend have the power to really listen this time and actively translate words into improvements for all of the world’s people. We cannot afford to be in the same position in 15 years from now.