Gender gap stands in the way of womenís progress

by Dr. Maswoodur Rahman Prince


The Beijing Conference in 1995, coming after three other major United Nations conferences on women, marked the culmination of a cycle of conferences, which served as real engines of progress for women around the world. Apart from providing real impetus for the advancement of women, the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing offered the first truely comprehensive plan to improve the situation of women in the world. However, despite the legislative gains made since the conference, women continue to fight for their most basic rights in many countries. Apart from being abused physically, emotionally and economically every day, millions of women are denied their reproductive rights, making pregnancy and childbirth unsafe. They are sexually harassed, assaulted and killed every day just because they are women. Baby girls are still killed because of social norms favouring boys in some developing countries, even foeticides are also undertaken to prevent girl childbirths. Many girls are still not sent to school. They are poorly fed, not properly cared for, and subjected to harmful practices such as genital mutilations.

In the last decade, the situation of women has moved to the forefront of national and international policy debates. Several major UN conferences, as mentioned earlier, have called for greater equality and opportunities for women, and governments around the world increasingly recognise that the advancement of women is key to progress in attaining health and development goals.

While the last half-century has seen major gains in womenís health, education, and rights, progress has been slow or uneven in many areas. Gender inequality or disparities between men and women, is still pronounced in the poorest regions and countries of the world. And in all parts of the world womenís advances in political representation have lagged behind gains in other areas such as education and employment. Being born female affects oneís life chances in all societies, but the particular conditions facing women vary from one society to another. The poorest countries continue to be marked by gender inequality that, for many women, limits their schooling, hinders their ability to plan their pregnancies and affords them few economic opportunities, according to the Population Reference Bureauís (PRBís), Women of Our World 2002 data sheet.

The data sheet, released in advance of International Womenís Day (i.e. March 8) 2002, catalogues the status of women in 168 countries, with indicators on demography, reproductive health, education, economic status, and political leadership. The findings, as summerised, are:

(1) Women tend to equal or out- number men in the population for biological reasons. However, some countries, mainly in Asia, have markedly fewer women than men because discrimination against girls and women can result in inferior nutrition and health care and, in some places, sex-selective abortions or infanticides.

(2) Globally, women account for just under half of adults living with HIV/AIDS. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the virus is spread mostly through heterosexual activities, 55 percent of infected adults are women.

(3) The picture is worse for young women: In Sub-Saharan Africa, they are two to six times more likely than young men to become infected with HIV. In South and South-east Asia, 60 percent of young people with HIV/AIDS are female.

(4) Nearly all of the half million women who die every year from pregnancy-related causes live in developing countries. These are strongly associated with a lack of medical care around the time of childbirth.

(5) Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal death ratios (820 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) in western and southern Asia. But the ratios in several Sub-Saharan African countries are more than twice as high. Also, Afghanistanís fertility rate of 6 children per woman is the highest in its region, but exceeded by more than a dozen Sub-Saharan African countries.

(6) Though more than half of couples in the developing world use family planning, more than 100 million women in these countries want to plan their pregnancies but donít use contraception for various reasons, including fear of side-effects, their husbandís disapproval, family pressures to have more children and inaccessibility of contraceptive supplies.

(7) School enrolments for girls and boys increased during the 1990 in most regions of the world. However, at the secondary level, the gap remains wide in Western and southern Asia, North Africa, and much of sub-Saharan Africa. In these regions girls are more likely than boys to discontinue schooling for a variety of reasons, including household duties, marriage, child-bearing, and parentsí perception that education benefits boys more than girls.

(8) Womenís participation in the labour force has increased in most areas of the world, but typically they are paid less than men, even when they work in the same sector. (9) In industrialised as well as developing countries, womenís political representation has lagged behind gains in other areas. Globally, women held 14 percent of seats in national legislative bodies, only slightly higher than a decade earlier. Womenís lack of political representation hinders their ability to influence public policies. Now letís have a look into the demographic profile, Reproductive health challenges and such other issues catalogued in the data sheet :

Demographic profile: Infant girls survive in greater numbers than infant boys almost everywhere, but in a few countries due to gender discrimination and neglect outweigh girlís biological advantage. In a table showing deaths under age 1 per thousand live births, 1995-2000, in some selected countries, it is seen that Burkina Faso topping the list with 96 girls and 102 boys deaths (under 1 year of age) followed by Nepal where 84 girls and 81 boys died, in Bangladesh the rate is girls 79 and boys 81 while in India, girls 78 and boys 67. In USA the rate for girls is 6 whereas for boys it is 8.

Challenges in reproductive health: Contraceptive use has risen nearly everywhere in the developing world, leading to marked declines in fertility. A table showing contraceptive use in some selected countries (percent of married women 15-49 using any method of contraception) projects that between 1995 to 2000, contraceptive use in Mexico rose to 67 per cent from only 30 per cent in 1978. In Bangladesh it was only 8 per cent in 1978 which rose to 54 per cent in 1995-2000 period. Pakistanís rate was 5 per cent in 1978 and has risen to only 18 per cent between 1995-2000 period.

Skilled care at delivery and maternal death ratios : Womenís deaths due to complications of pregnancy and child birth are strongly associated with inadequate medical care at the time of delivery. A table showing the ratios in some selected countries shows that in Chile where percentage of births attended by skilled attendant is 100 per cent, the rate of maternal death, deaths per 100,000 live births, the maternal death is only 33, on the other hand, in Niger the deliveries attended by skilled attendants are only 18 per cent and maternal deaths are as high as 920.

Young Women and Men aged 15-24 living with HIV/AIDS (Estimates as of December -2001): In regions where HIV/AIDS is spread mainly through heterosexual activity, young women are becoming infected in greater numbers than young men. Adolescent girls are vulnerable for both biological and social reasons. Estimates as of December 2001 show that there were 5,700,000 young women and 2,800,000 young men living with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by South and Southeast Asia. Western Europe had the minimum infected, 33000 young women and 55,000 young men. World total stood at 7,300,000 young women and 4,500,000 young men.

Source: The Independent, Dhaka, April 5, 2002

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