Despite the U.N.’s significant record of accomplishment, cultural, religious, and individual gender attitudes continue to define and often limit the role and freedom of women, not just in traditional societies, but in some more “advanced” ones, as well. Finding the keys to unlock personal and individual attitudes towards gender roles remains elusive, because they are closely linked to cultural, societal, and religious factors that help to determine how both men and women define their roles and their attitudes towards each other, particularly in the context of marriage, reproduction, and child-raising.
What became evident as the new millennium advanced was the substantial gap between what governments had committed to during the conferences of the 1990s and the actual implementation thereafter. Implementing new laws and policies related to women often gets caught up in broader reform efforts, which gradually grind to a halt after the initial enthusiasm wears off. Legal and policy changes may not be enough, if there are no changes in people’s perceptions and beliefs about the roles of women and girls in society. This boils down to individual and personal ideas that are based on tradition, religious beliefs, mental attitudes, and culturally defined stereotypes.
Education is widely acknowledged as the gateway to greater personal understanding, social awareness and heightened consciousness as the basis for changing attitudes about women and their role in society. At the same time, economic change and the necessity to work outside the home have motivated more women towards education, while the financial freedom that comes from gainful employment is key to changing women’s attitudes about themselves. Still, tradition, culture, and religious beliefs impede women’s full equality.
Discrimination against girls in access to primary and secondary education persists in many countries, due to customary attitudes, early marriages, and pregnancies, inadequate and gender-biased teaching and educational materials, sexual harassment, and lack of adequate and accessible school facilities. In some cultures, girls undertake heavy domestic work at a very young age; girls and young women are expected to manage both educational and domestic responsibilities, often resulting in poor scholastic performance or dropping out of the educational system. This has long-lasting consequences for all aspects of women’s lives.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits discrimination based on sex, but in many countries, girls are discriminated against from the earliest stages of life. As a U.S. congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm once said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’” As a result of this discrimination, there are some places in the world where the proportion of women in the adult population is actually decreasing. This is due to harmful attitudes and practices such as female genital mutilation, preference for male offspring, female infanticide, and prenatal sex selection.
Early childbearing is another form of discrimination. More than 15 million girls between
15 and 19 years of age give birth each year. Motherhood at this young age entails complications during pregnancy and delivery, and a risk of maternal death that is much greater than average. The children of young mothers have higher levels of morbidity and mortality. Early childbearing is an obstacle to improvements in the education and the economic and social status of women in all parts of the world.
Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of inequality for women and girls. Of the one billion people who live in conditions of abject poverty, the majority are women and girls. In many households, because of the gender division of labor and responsibility for household welfare, women bear a disproportionate burden of poverty. They attempt to manage household consumption and production under conditions of increasing scarcity. Rural women are particularly vulnerable in this way.
Even when women are not living in complete poverty, there are considerable differences in the control that women and men exert over financial decisions. In most parts of the world, women are virtually absent from or are poorly represented in economic and financial decision-making. The development of these economic structures and policies has had a direct impact on women’s and men’s access to economic resources, their economic power and the extent of equality between them, at the individual and family levels in addition to society as a whole.
In recent years, the United Nations has given increased attention to violence against women as a critical manifestation of inequality. In 2006, the secretary-general issued two studies relating to violence against women and children. These reports described the persistence of societal and family violence against women and girls and the numerous forms of violence they face daily. The studies demonstrate how violence remains a serious impediment to achieving progress for women and girls and to alleviating poverty.
Violence against women in the home is a symptom of the imbalance of power between men and women. Male violence against women preserves male authority. It also acts as the means for maintaining the boundaries of male and female gender roles. The norms governing these roles may be expressed in moral codes or in widely held social expectations. Intimate partner violence is significantly correlated with rigid gender roles that associate masculinity with dominance, toughness, and authority.
Many women’s advocates see inclusion of women as a key strategy for gaining greater equality and empowerment of women. Exclusion occurs when women are unable to gain to access to education, health care, social services, employment, or housing. Exclusion reinforces and further widens existing inequalities. Poverty, poor health, unemployment, and crime are among the costs of inequality, and are linked in a cycle of cause and effect. Poverty leads to exclusion, which then leads to poorer health. This in turn leads to further poverty, unemployment, and so forth. Breaking this cycle requires the development of inclusive public policies as well as local community involvement and participation in decision-making.
Women’s rights and gender equality often prove threatening to men and even to some women, particularly in traditional societies. Some critics strongly disagree with the Western concept of individual freedom and see the push for women’s rights as a tool of the West to intervene in countries for their own economic interests. It is important to develop indigenous institutions and groups that can advance women’s empowerment within the existing social context.
Moreover, women’s and men’s personal mental attitudes and beliefs are critical in effecting change. Religion and tradition play an influential part in how men and women see their roles and how they integrate change into their lives. New patterns of thinking, believing and acting need to build on existing modes of thought and behavior. Brain-based holistic education can, in this regard, play an important role. Promoting new ways to think about and understand religious teachings and practice, for example, can provide a platform for advancing changes in attitudes towards women. It is a challenge to get people thinking about women’s rights and empowerment in ways that do not overtly run up against entrenched traditional and religious values.
Promoting gender equality and empowering women will contribute to achieving all the other Sustainable Development Goals, from reducing poverty and hunger to saving children’s lives, improving maternal health, ensuring universal education, combating diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability. We should do this because, as Aung San Suu Kyi says, empowerment of women will have benefits that run throughout society.