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A woman in Nepal holds her newborn at a government maternity hospital. A woman in Nepal, which has seen a decline in maternal mortality, holds her newborn granddaughter at a government maternity hospital, Katmandu, Nepal, Sept. 10, 2010 (AP photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe).

Leveling the Field: A Global Inventory of Gender Equality for Women

Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015

There was a time when “affairs of state” were seen as having nothing to do with women. That time is now over. Today we have a strong evidentiary base that links the situation and security of women to state-level outcomes across a wide variety of issue areas—from health, wealth and governance to national security and stability. These linkages are no longer obscure. And because they have been made visible, policymakers have begun to address issues of women’s empowerment, both domestically and as a matter of foreign policy. In some cases, these issues have even reached the top of the policy agenda, as we saw with the articulation and implementation of the so-called Hillary Doctrine by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2013, or the recent pronouncement of a feminist foreign policy by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.

Has this extraordinary shift in policy focus resulted in actual changes for women? For a close observer of global women’s issues during the first 15 years of the century, there are causes for both satisfaction and frustration. What follows is a global inventory of progress and setbacks for women along several key dimensions, as well as an assessment of policy successes and failures. We’ll start with the good news.

Maternal Mortality Has Plummeted

One of the most important and least-trumpeted changes for women worldwide is that maternal mortality rates (MMR) have plummeted, dropping by 45 percent since 1990, according to the United Nations. East Asia and North Africa saw the greatest improvements, with China’s maternal mortality rate dropping by over 75 percent from 1990 to 2014. We still see unacceptably high levels of maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, however. Indeed, the World Health Organization asserts that half of all maternal deaths now occur in Africa, and another third in South Asia. Ironically, while countries like Afghanistan have significantly decreased their MMR over the past 15 years, the United States’ MMR is rising, despite the fact that the U.S. spends more on hospitalized births than any other country in the world. Indeed, the U.S. MMR now exceeds that of China. ...

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