Women rise to the occasion

Richard Synge

The fact that women joined, fully and vocally, in the protests that led to the downfall of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt is just one among many signals that female emancipation cannot be stopped. It is a powerful force for change, even in countries where traditional views about the place of women still hold sway.

Societies that have, over the centuries, limited the role of women to domestic responsibilities alone still have a long way to go if their females are to get a foot on the ladder of responsibility in politics, business and civil society. But the ongoing changes in the Middle East certainly hold the promise of wider opportunities for all women in future.

The struggle for emancipation and gender equality is ongoing, and it is universal.

In every society there are visible and invisible barriers to women’s advancement. These may often be seen as a matter of culture and tradition, maintaining the familiar role of child-bearer and family carer, but they are as often imposed by harsh economic realities.

In the poorest parts of the world, women are frequently unable to move forward because of a stark lack of opportunity and choice. If, as young girls, they have been unable even to start at school, they can rapidly become the most marginalised people in their society, and their powerlessness is compounded as they grow up.

It is also true that girls and women, when given even small opportunities and choices, can become the very people that bring about some of the most beneficial changes in society. Overcoming the toughest barriers from an early age is very good training for the challenges that arise later in life.

But there is much work still to be done if both governments and the wider society in many countries are to recognise – and then change – the low status of women in different parts of the world.

In Africa, the challenge is not just to outlaw discrimination, as the African Union’s Bience Gawanas points out, but also to translate commitments into meaningful change. And this means involving women in leading the process, much as Rwanda is already demonstrating.

As is the case in many parts of Africa, India displays some daunting barriers too. Its women are widely deemed a burden, their work is not valued and they are often subjected to the most extreme humiliations, writes journalist Kalpana Sharma. And yet, this is also a country that now boasts of more than one million women holding some form of elective offi ce, while there are even more who excel in business and the professions – in turn becoming role models for millions of others.

The work of change is clearly underway, and yet, as Sonia Gandhi noted in her recent Commonwealth Lecture: “Although the women’s movement has already transformed the way in which we look at society in each of our countries, the search for equality is far from fi nished. History, culture and economics still remain weighted against women.”

Mary Robinson is among those who see the need to maintain the pressure for greater women’s leadership in dealing with the major challenges of our time, and especially that of climate change. She says that the impact of global warming is greater on women and so they are also best placed to propose solutions. In Bangladesh, for example, it is the women who have to go further for water, are more directly affected by food shortages and have to manage households devastated by flooding.

The search for greater equality is not only a developing country concern. In the global corporate world, some unexpected patterns show up in the data for women’s advancement in boardrooms and senior management. The nations leading the way are not the supposedly more enlightened countries of the West, but Thailand, Georgia, Russia, Philippines and China. This suggests that all countries have lessons to learn from each other.

No one need be in any doubt. Wherever one goes in the world, there is work still to be done to bring about an improvement in women’s status. Perhaps the 21st century will yet give all women both their due place and their own distinctive voice.

About the author:

Richard Synge, Editor of Global, is a freelance journalist, editor and writer, specialising in the politics and economics of Africa


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