Despite Advances in Women’s Rights, Gender Equality Lags Around the World

A woman holds a cloth with text that reads in Spanish ‘All violence’ during a march called by feminist activists, Santiago, Chile, May 11, 2018 (AP photo by Esteban Felix).
A woman holds a cloth with text that reads in Spanish ‘All violence’ during a march called by feminist activists, Santiago, Chile, May 11, 2018 (AP photo by Esteban Felix).
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Despite progress in codifying women’s rights into law, advances in gender equality around the world have been halting, at best. This, despite the additional attention that the #MeToo movement brought to incidents of sexual assault and harassment in parts of the Global North—and increasingly in the Global South.

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa made news in mid-2019 when he appointed a Cabinet that included as many women as men. Later the same year, the European Commission also achieved the European Union’s self-imposed goal of gender parity. The thinking behind gender parity in government is that with greater levels of representation, women policymakers and legislators will pay more attention to issues that are often ignored by men, like gender-based violence or inheritance laws that discriminate against women.

But where quotas are used, they have failed to achieve parity for women in all but a few cases. Nor are they a panacea. Even with increased representation, policymakers must figure out how to turn good intentions into change on the ground, so that removing restrictions on education, to take one example, actually leads to improved school attendance rates for girls and young women.

And in places where women’s rights have advanced, they face persistent attacks. In the United States, the Supreme Court recently overturned the historic 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, numerous states rolled back abortion rights, including several that instituted total or near-total bans, while others plan to follow suit.

Meanwhile, several European countries, particularly France and Spain, have experienced high-profile incidents of gender-based violence and sexual assault that activists say call into question their commitment to ensuring women’s safety. And in Latin America, campaigns against femicide have done little to reduce the levels of violence women face across the region. More recently, the public health measures taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic, particularly lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, have further highlighted the particular challenges women face in developed and developing countries alike, from domestic violence to gender imbalances in child care responsibilities.

WPR has covered women’s rights in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will more countries institute quotas to guarantee female political representation? What impact will the rollback of abortion rights in the U.S. have on campaigns to legalize abortion elsewhere around the world? And what can governments do to make sure their post-pandemic economic recovery plans don’t widen gaps in gender equality? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Sierra Leone Could Become the Latest African Nation to Expand Abortion Rights

In early July, Sierra Leone’s Cabinet approved the decision to draft a bill conferring a constitutional right to safe abortion. But once passed, the law will only be the first step in ensuring access to safe abortions and other reproductive health services in a country where unsafe abortions have dire health consequences.

The Politics of Women’s Rights

Increasingly, the fight for women’s rights has become a mainstream political issue in many countries around the world. But legal advances don’t necessary bring societal change. And hard-won gains often face a backlash, with the pandemic raising new fears of a widespread regression in women’s economic progress.

Reproductive Rights

With the U.S. Supreme Court having overturned the federal guarantee of the right to legal abortion, the battle over reproductive rights now returns to the individual states. But those debates, in the U.S. and elsewhere, are not limited solely to access to abortion, as women and women’s rights activists around the world are also pushing for access to a broad array of reproductive health services, including contraception and other family planning tools.

Confronting Gender-Based Violence

The #MeToo movement drew global attention to the scale of sexual harassment and gender-based violence that women regularly face in developed countries. A similar effort in the Global South has been slower to take shape, in part because accusations of violence and harassment are not taken seriously and the avenues to seek redress are not formalized. More recently, the war in Ukraine has put the impact of conflict on women in the spotlight.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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