Before she became the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, in her role as UN Women’s Advocate for Political Participation and Leadership, gave a speech at the UN to mark International Women’s Day 2015. In it, she described being proud to be a woman and a feminist and talked about how far women’s rights have come. But she also hit on an important, and sometimes overlooked, point: we have come so far, but we still have a long way to go.
The landscape of being a woman has changed massively over the last 100 years. In 1918, after years of the suffrage movement, women were finally granted the right to vote. This right was not extended to all women, however, with only those women who were over 30 years old and who owned a house (or who were married to a man who owned a house) being allowed to vote. Still, it was an important and crucial first step towards a more equal society and ten years later, in 1928, the women’s right to vote was extended to all women over 21 years old. In America, developments occurred within a similar timeframe: in 1920 the 19th amendment was passed granting the right to vote to women. However, this right was not extended to all women: it wasn’t until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed that black women were allowed to vote. This period of history represented a turning point in the rights of women both in the UK and in America. Finally, they were being seen as equal members of society, whose voices and political opinions deserved to be heard. But, as Barack Obama so astutely put it, ‘progress doesn’t travel in a straight line’, and this turning point did not immediately lead to the total emancipation of women.
The strident efforts of previous generations of women cannot be understated; it was they who protested against women’s oppression and the roles that had been attributed to them for decades, and they who fought for their right to be seen as equal to men. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted by the UN. It was the first treaty that outlined an objective to end discrimination against women. However, progress was still zigging and zagging. For example, rape within a marriage did not become illegal until the 1990s, and in some countries it wasn’t until the early 2000s that marital rape was finally outlawed. Only in 2002 did the UK parliament pass a law which allows lesbian and unmarried couples to adopt children. It wasn’t until 2013 that the ban against women in military combat in America was removed. And it was as recent as May 2018 that Ireland voted to overturn the abortion ban that was put in place in 1983.
In 2018, it is not uncommon for us to be or to know women who run their own business, who pursue higher education, who have children and work outside of the home, who have children and work inside the home, who choose to get married, who choose not to get married, who choose not to have children… The greatest gift that our foremothers gave us, surely, is the gift of choice, the freedom to choose what kind of woman we want to be and the confidence to know we can do whatever we want.
But has wider, global society progressed at the same pace? Can we really say that the battle for equality is won?
One of the UN’s seventeen sustainable development goals is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Their aim is to have achieved this by 2030, which is just 12 years away.
If we continue as we are going now, it will take another 100 years to close the global gender gap.
But women in Saudia Arabia have only just gained the right to drive in a move that is thought will increase women’s employment in the state, which currently stands at just 20.9%. Worldwide, only 57% of working age women are employed compared to 70% of men. In 2017, progress towards closing the gender gap (which includes factors such as employment, pay, education, health and political empowerment) was at 68%, meaning that, on average worldwide, there is still a gap of 32% between men and women. Western European countries take the lead towards ending the disparity, with a gap of 25%. Middle Eastern and North African regions are lagging behind with a gap of 40%. According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, if we continue as we are going now, it will take another 100 years to close the global gender gap. Globally, 76 million young women are illiterate and less than 40% of countries provide girls and boys with equal access to education. 130 million girls are not in education and 15 million girls will never enter a classroom. Period poverty is thought to account for many girls from low income backgrounds missing out on days of school every month. And this is not restricted to developing countries – in the UK some girls miss up to a week of school every month when they are on their period because they cannot afford sanitary products.
The ramifications of simply ‘being a girl’ on education, health, employment and, frankly, the right for women to hold equal status to men is shocking and sad. Worldwide, there are only 14 female heads of state and just 22% of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Women account for less than 30% of the world’s researchers.
Without having women in the position to empower girls and other women, the road to gender equality will continue to be long and bumpy. But how can we improve the situation when it seems like an impossible task? And what difference can one woman make to this global situation? Well, like most things, small efforts lead to big results. Stand up and be counted. Use your voice. Support other women. Talk about the issues. Get educated. Lean in. Whether it is fighting for the pay rise you know you deserve, refusing to stand for sexism or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, donating to non-profit organisations, being a mentor to other women, following your dream, speaking out or simply not judging other women for their personal choices, you will make a difference. There are numerous initiatives out there that are dedicated to empowering and educating women (and men). Movements such as Plan International, International Women’s Initiative, Lean In, HeForShe, Empower Women, 30% Club and, we hope, She, are dedicated to the cause.
As Meghan Markle said in her closing remarks:
‘It isn’t enough to simply talk about equality – one must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to simply believe in it – one must work at it. Let us work at it, together, starting now.’
What are you waiting for?
Written by Ciara Gigleux