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

Despite Advances in Women’s Rights, Gender Equality Lags Around the World
Women take part in an International Women’s Day march in Santiago, Chile, March 8, 2019 (AP photo by Esteban Felix).

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 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.

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And in places where women’s rights have advanced, they face persistent attacks. In the United States, the Supreme Court last year 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. For now, some of those measures have been frozen by the courts or reversed by voters, creating even more uncertainty over the issue.

Meanwhile, several European countries, particularly France and Spain, have experienced high-profile incidents of gender-based violence and sexual assault in recent years 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, 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 that legal advances on women’s rights translate into substantive improvements in gender equality? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Abortion Rights Are Facing a Global Backlash

Despite a story of overall progress when it comes to liberalizing abortion laws, including recent victories in several countries, women’s rights advocates around the world are sounding the alarm. Three overlapping trends are leading to a global backlash that is causing concern among reproductive rights champions.

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, as illustrated most recently by the anti-feminist agenda of Spain’s far-right Vox party.

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.

Reproductive Rights

With the U.S. Supreme Court having overturned the federal guarantee of the right to legal abortion, the battle over reproductive rights has now returned 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.

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

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