Holding up half the sky: the struggle for gender equality in our world

by Brooke

If you were at church on the 5th of January this year, you would have heard me talk about the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals in the context of bringing light to the world in the form of the education and empowerment of women.  I also foreshadowed that I would be accompanying the Australian government delegation to the United Nations’ 58th Commission on the Status of Women in March.  I’m here today to share with you about it.

Just one of the many things I witnessed at the United Nations is that the discussion and activism in pursuit of gender equality and ending violence and discrimination against women are global issues that are above politics.  There was not one debate about whether ‘feminism’ was still a relevant  word.  There was no question that the education of girls, the economic empowerment and political participation of women, and the elimination of violence against women and girls are key to a more productive, peaceful, sustainable world. Politics is irrelevant.

I had the opportunity to meet some of the highest ranking, most accomplished and inspiring women and men throughout the many agencies of the UN in New York as well as delegations from many countries, all sharing practices and strategies for improving the lot of women both in their own countries and overseas.

I’d like to talk to you today about what I learned at CSW and about the state of gender equality in our country and our world… because, while I, like most of the women in this room, grew up with full access to education, no limitations on my career options, a choice about if, when and who I married, control over my reproductive rights, access to justice in the event of assault, and safe places to live and work, far too many women in our world do not have any of these things.  Far too many women in Australia do not have these things.

Globally, 1 in 3 women still experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime… however…

the Australian statistics are no less grim: 1 in 3 women experience physical violence;

  • 1 in 5 will experience sexual violence;
  • 1 in 4 Australian children has witnessed family violence;
  • 1 in 5 homicides in Australia is the death of a woman at the hands of a current or former intimate partner;
  • Domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and homelessness for Australian women.
  • For indigenous women the rates are even worse: an indigenous women is 80 times more likely than other Australian women to be hospitalised because of domestic violence.
  • Among our near Pacific neighbours, at least 75 per cent of women experience physical or sexual violence.

I think we can agree that this is absolutely appalling. These terrible statistics is why groups like the White Ribbon Foundation and why the leadership of men like Gordon Ramsay, who is a White Ribbon Ambassador, is so important – to stand up and swear to never commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women.

We can’t shy away from the fact that even our Christian tradition comes with a great deal of pretty dismal baggage when it comes to how women are viewed and treated.

According to various parts of the Bible, it would seem we are inherently wicked, to be punished with the risks and pain of childbirth, and are possessions of our fathers and husbands; we are to dress modestly, be silent in church, submissive and obedient to our husbands, and deemed unclean for normal biological processes.  We many not own property or be too smart.  Parts of the Bible can justify rape, domestic violence, incest, stoning, trafficking and slavery.  There are close to 400 outright misogynistic statements in the Bible ranging from basic discrimination through to the condoning of mass sexual violence in conflict.  When I spoke in January about the passages in the Bible that discuss light and enlightenment we found there are 250 reference to light.  But there are 400 about how you can sell, trade, beat, silence, rape and kill women.

Now, few bits of the Bible stack up well taken out of context and plenty of the New Testament tells husbands to be good to their wives.  But I’ve never heard the situation of women globally and historically put so depressingly eloquently as when I met the remarkable Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. She is the Under-Secretary-General of the UN, the Executive Director of UN Women, and  was the first female deputy president of South Africa.

She said, put simply, the one thing that every culture in the world has in common, no matter how much or how little contact these societies have had with each other over history, is that men beat women.

This is why the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW for short) is so important: its purpose is to lead global policy-making on gender equality and the advancement of women.  It is where representatives from member states, international aid and advocacy organisations, and NGOs gather to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide.

At this year’s session, the goal of the CSW was to focus on the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.

I spoke about the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) back in January: these 8 goals were established in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration.  mdgweekly

The MDGs expire in 2015 which was a the goal date for their achievement. They have been revolutionary in that they are globally agreed concrete goals aimed at achieving poverty alleviation; education; gender equality and empowerment of women; better child and maternal health: reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases; and environmental sustainability.

The MDGs are the most successful global anti-poverty push in history. Governments, international organisations, and civil society groups around the world have helped to cut in half the world’s extreme poverty rate. More girls are in school. Fewer mothers and children are dying. The world continues to fight killer diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

The goals expire next year but none of them has technically been fully achieved, and while progress has been somewhat slow and uneven, they have led to great leaps forward for millions of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

Millennium Development Goals video

Global attention is now on the post-2015 agenda and new ways of thinking about development.  By bringing together the views of governments, civil society, the private sector, academia and research institutes, philanthropic foundations and various international institutions, the UN is working toward a new development agenda for the future called the Sustainable Development Goals.

Important dimensions of gender inequality are now acknowledged to have been missing from the MDGs. These are the structural issues which underpin inequality. These include unpaid care work, violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s access to assets, the gender wage gap, and women’s equal participation at all levels of decision-making.

This is the status of gender inequality in the world:

70% of the people living in poverty are female

64% of illiterate adults are women

women do two thirds of the world’s work hours but receive one-tenth of the world’s income.

Every day, 39,000 girls are forced into early marriage

Only 21% of parliament seats globally are held by women – Australia ranks 49th with just 26% of our lower house being female representatives. The highest proportion of women in parliament occurs in Rwanda with 64% women in the lower house.

A large focus of CSW was for various governments, ours included, and human rights groups from all around the world, to advocate for gender equality to be at the heart of the new development goals. Our delegates shared ideas with like-minded countries and campaigned with the less like-minded to persuade them of the importance of striving for gender equality and women’s rights…

because, fundamentally,  equality for women means progress for all.

I want to quote to you a few parts of Ban Ki-Moon’s message for International Women’s Day this year which was on 8 March.

“achieving equality for women and girls is essential not merely because it is a matter of fairness and fundamental human rights, but because progress in so many other areas depends on it.

…countries with more gender equality have better economic growth; peace agreements that include women are more durable; and parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support.

…a baby girl born today will still face inequality and discrimination, no matter where her mother lives. As such, the international community has a common obligation to ensure her right to live free from the violence; to earn equal pay for equal work; to be free of discrimination; to have an equal say in the decisions that affect her life; and to decide if and when she will have children, and how many she will have.

…realising equality is not a dream, it is a duty of governments, the United Nations and every human being…  And men and boys have a part to play. All of us benefit when women and girls – your mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues –can reach their full potential.”

A parallel statement from Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka added:

“…empowering women and girls and supporting their full participation can help find lasting solutions to the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

We can no longer afford to hold back half the world’s population. The 21st century has to be different for every woman and girl in the world”.

As CSW58, the Australian government delegation worked hard: in just four days the Minister and the Ambassador each held around 15 bilateral meetings with ambassadors and ministers from other countries, and addressed around a dozen forums on topics including violence against women, education of girls, ending FGM and forced & early marriage, working with our Pacific neighbours, and the role of women in peace and security.

We met with the heads of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Women, and the UN Development Programme (Helen Clark). We also met with a remarkable woman,  Zainab Hawa Bangura, who is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  A survivor of Sierra Leone’s long and brutal civil war, she became a vocal human rights advocate and successful politician.  The stories she told us of things she has experience and witnessed are really too awful to discuss in a polite suburban church on a Sunday morning but there was not a person in the room who was not weeping in horror at her words.  The experience of that hour and of those intense four days at CSW left me profoundly grateful that there are people in our world, indeed in our church and community, who work hard to make the world a better place.

A very interesting thing about CSW was that despite the delegations being probably 80% women and the fact that the majority of the injustices levelled against women globally is at the hands of men, there was never a sense of man-hating about the entire event.  What there was, was a keen sense that gender equality is a human rights issue and that men are partners in achieving true equality.  This was embodied beautifully by the presence of twelve-year-old twins – a boy and a girl from Ethiopia –  at a very emotional forum about FGM. The little girl spoke about her intention to grow up campaigning against the practice so that she and other girls will never have to submit to it, and then her brother stood up to declare he will grow up to be a man who takes a stand to protect his sister and all other women from FGM.  It was a perfect articulation that the journey to gender equality must be shared by both women and men.

I could literally talk about all this for hours but I’d like to start winding up by just taking you through some interesting infographics that summarise these many issues around the undeniable benefits of empowering women and striving for gender equality. Because it’s not just a rights issue: there are major social, economic, health and environmental benefits too.

Girls who stay in school beyond primary school marry later, live longer, are less likely to die in childbirth, have fewer and healthier children, and will send their own children to school.

Women who can earn an income spend 90% of their earned income on their families, while men spend only 30-40%.

Every extra year of education for a girl, can increases her earning potential by 10-20%.

Every ten percent more girls who are educated raises GDP by 3%.


Eliminating gender barriers in employment and allowing fuller participation of women in economic activity could raise productivity by 25% in some countries and it’s not just a third world issue: Japan is suddenly looking to radically address its very low female workforce participation rate because of an economic and demographic crisis.

The things that have to change for girls to be educated and women to participate fully in the economy include

  • ending early marriage
  • making schools and workplaces safe from rape and robbery
  • providing adequate sanitation facilities
  • giving women property rights and access to banking facilities
  • training women in business and budgeting skills
  • equipping women for seeking political office
  • providing affordable childcare
  • acknowledging the value of unpaid care work
  • and ensuring women have adequate retirement savings.

Educating and empowering women is just part of the picture: women have to be regarded as fully equal to men in order to be safe and participate fully in society. This means that violence against women and children has to end. Globally there must be

  • an end to impunity for perpetrators and there must be meaningful justice for victims
  • violence against women must be made completely unacceptable
  • the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war must be utterly outlawed
  • women must be a part of peace-building and peace-keeping in conflict zones
  • we must promote non-violent models for masculinity and promote respectful relationships
  • and we must protect children from violence so that they are not exposed to damaging patterns they may grow up to repeat.

It’s easy to worry that global problems are so huge as be insurmountable but what I observed at the UN is that there is enormous momentum out there for change and most of it is being achieved at the community level. What every citizen of the world can do is think globally but act locally.

Be equipped to make a difference in things like girls’ education, women’s economic participation, and ending violence against women by knowing what you can do in our community.

Support Uniting Care Kippax which provides services aimed at early literary, good parenting, and breaking cycles of poverty and welfare dependence.

Read about the White Ribbon movement and know what you can and should do if you experience or witness violence.

Do simple things like help to break down gender stereotypes for boys and girls. Be a good gender role model: research shows that girls are making study choices as young as year four that vastly affect their future learning and learning potential. Groups like the Techgirls Movement are working to encourage girls to pursue scientific, engineering  and technological careers.

And, if you can, support the agencies that work globally to improve the lot of women and girls in the parts of the world where they are still so profoundly disadvantaged.

I’d like to finish by showing you a video by UN Women about a campaign called He For She, which emphasises the importance of the role of men as partners and champions for change in achieving gender equality around the world.

He for She video

And while I started out by listing some of the Bible’s dodgier bits about the treatment of women, at least the New Testament gets around to the right point: Galatians 3:27-28 says that

as we are baptised in Christ, we are clothed in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 May that be our blueprint for the future.


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