Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"Global Women: Good News, Bad News"

From the Nation - by Katha Pollitt

And the winner is... Iceland! According to the 2009 Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum, the land of glaciers and puffins, population 319,000, is the most gender egalitarian country on earth, with women having closed 80 percent of the gap with men. Finland (2), Norway (3), Sweden (4) and Denmark (7) are in the top ten too, as is New Zealand (5). You could try harder, Spain (17) and Germany (12)--in 2007 you were in the top ten. And O, Canada: 25. Very sad.

The WEF measures the gap between women and men in four areas--economic activity, education, health and political representation--regardless of the absolute level of resources. Thus South Africa (6) and Lesotho (10) make the top ten, despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and a raging AIDS epidemic. The way the WEP measures the gap is a bit strange. Among the items not measured are reproductive rights (abortion is banned in Ireland (8), and the Philippines (9), where birth control is also hard to find, so how equal is that?); sexual violence (South Africa has the world's highest rate of reported rape); and legal inequality, to say nothing of cultural practices like forced marriage, child marriage and female genital mutilation, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women...

Protracted struggle is the theme of the UN's Beijing Plus 15 conference, taking place in New York as I write. For example, equal access to education was a key goal of the 1990 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and, as the WEF report found, real progress has been made--in many countries, females now outnumber males in schools and universities. But education is no magic bullet. As Mario Osava writes, "females represent a majority at every level of education in Brazil, and the average rate of schooling among Brazilian women is more than one year higher than that of men. Yet women continue to earn 30 percent less than men for the same work, and they occupy a mere 56 of the 594 seats in the Brazilian Congress."

What's the lesson for the United States? Wealth helps, but it's not enough. It's not automatic that as a country becomes richer and more developed men and women become more equal--especially when conservative religion has power, as in the United States and many nations. To an unusual degree, Americans resist "government" solutions to women's inequality as an affront to meritocracy and individual initiative. But without paid parental leave and a reliable system of quality childcare, women will never be able to get much further toward workplace equality than they are now. Scandinavia's extensive and flexible system of support for parents, including single mothers, is one of the major reasons Scandinavia leads the world in gender equality. Similarly, countries with lots of women in parliament--Rwanda is first, with 56 percent--tend to have quota systems, at least at first. The United States seemed to recognize their efficiency and fairness when it supported quotas in Iraq and Afghanistan. But here at home? Hard to imagine.

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