By Dr Shalini Mullick
Babylonian king Hammurabi’s code (1772 BCE) set in stone in central Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) defined the penalty for causing a woman’s death to be significantly lower than that for causing a man’s death.
Nearly 1800 years later, the Roman Empire was a typical male-dominated society with women assigned the roles of looking after the home and children.
In ancient India around the same time, Manu’s codification of social norms considered women to be impure as well as second-class citizens.
Such far-rooted origins of patriarchy and its deep-seated concepts are not easy to get rid of. In fact, they are propagated and perpetuated both deliberately and subconsciously through years and generations, as the timeline of gender inequality shows.
Throughout history, setbacks to women’s rights in property, education and suffrage continued. Their subjugation in family, marriage and society persisted and intensified.
By the end of the 18th century, this resulted in a hugely gender unequal world. It was also around this time that women’s voices began to be articulated.
The feminist movement originated in the 18th century and led to calls for reform. Suffrage, civil rights, nationalist movements became entwined with the struggle for gender equality through the 19th and the 20th century.
The three waves of feminism reflected the prevailing political and social scenarios and world events. The intervening periods of time were marked by slow but sure progress, adding to consistency of the movement in the 20th century.
International Women’s Day was marked for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland in March of 1911. Equality between men and women was enshrined as a core tenet in the UN Charter in 1945.
The United Nations later recognised International Women’s Day and formally celebrated it internationally in 1967. Major achievements by women’s organisations and movements were observed.
The new millennium, and the fourth wave of feminism saw extensive globalization of the movement, driven by social media and hashtags. Significantly, women across colour and race divides began to speak up.
Given the accelerated progress over the past two centuries, and its contrast from the deeply rooted inequality from ancient times, the struggle for gender equality has definitely made significant advances. All these milestones and developments must be communicated, celebrated, and cherished. However, it is also important to critically evaluate where exactly we stand, and how much more of the journey there is yet to traverse.
Some objective reports and tangible observations may help to maintain a perspective about the status of gender equality.
UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, reports that in 2020, as a global average, women made up 4.4 per cent of CEOs, occupied just 16.9 per cent of board seats, made up only 25 per cent of national parliamentarians, and just 13 per cent of peace negotiators.
Only 22 countries currently have a woman as head of state or government, and 119 have never experienced this. On the current trajectory, we will not see gender parity in the highest office before 2150.
A World Bank report from 2018 observed that of 189 economies assessed, 104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs. 59 economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.
The World Economic Forum integrates data from many statistical organisations and evaluates four parameters: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In its 2020 report, it reports gaps across all these domains and notes that it is the political empowerment gap which is the widest.
2020, the year of the pandemic, highlighted the varied roles women play in and out of the home. Yet, a survey of 30 countries with Covid-19 task forces and committees showed that, on average, only 24 per cent of members were women.
A recent WHO report states that one in three women have reported physical or sexual violence in relationships, and that younger women are more at risk.
Even though the HeForShe program by the United Nations, recognizes Gender equality as a global right, no country has achieved gender equality fully. The Nordic countries lead the world in their progress towards this goal.
What do all these facts tell us?
In spite of significant gains, there is a lot to be done.
There must be more widespread recognition that gender equality is a human-rights issue, not just a women’s issue. Involvement of men, and all genders, is essential to accelerate the changes we are working towards.
Speaking up encourages others to introspect and speak up. Each voice is important and needs to be heard. These voices must be encouraged and amplified.
As we inch towards bridging the many gaps that keep us from realising our true potential, it is important to remember intersectionality as an important principle.
The problem of gender equality is universal, as are its roots in patriarchy. However, its manifestations, expressions and impact may be subject to cultural, political, economic, and social situations which vary across various parts of the world.
Inequality can be moderated or exacerbated by multiple social identities and constructs – from race in one part of the world to caste in another. Solutions may sometimes need to be tailored to the populations affected; and this is where diversity needs to be recognised, and inclusivity ensured.
Understanding, and adopting these principles will not only bring us closer to our desired goals, but will also ensure a truly equal world, where no one is left behind.
Dr Shalini Mullick is a practising doctor specialising in pulmonary pathology, and a keen reader-turned-writer, who writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction. She is the author of the short story ‘La Bella Revenga’ in the anthology Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories (Embassy Books). Buy it on Amazon.
Lead image: Ekgekung / Pixabay