When I initially conceived of this blog post, I’d been planning to share some facts about gender equality from around the world, to highlight how wrong it is to focus most of our feminist energies on the problems at home (and in similar places to home, which for me are developed, Western nations) and remain unaware of the issues women are facing in other countries. However, it’s also important to not pretend that it’s only less developed countries that struggle with some of the most serious gender-based inequalities – which reeks of ignorance – and remember that, while less equal in some sense, many developing nations are miles ahead of the US and UK in many important measures of gender parity, in practice and in attitude. It’s a hard balance to strike.
For example, while FGM is massively concentrated – and is reported to remain at epidemic levels – in the Middle East and North and East Africa, the USA remains the only developed nation in the world (and one of only nine countries worldwide) to have no paid maternity leave. And the while the USA’s growing efforts to elect a woman to their highest national office continue to dominate mainstream news, the truth is that – while parity in political leadership and government roles still seems like a pipe dream sometimes – many countries have already hit that milestone, with Pakistan, Brazil, India, Namibia, Myanmar, Estonia and Lithuania, among others, having had a woman as the head of state. The point isn’t that because some countries have shattered certain glass ceilings, while others continue to rap gently at the glass, that the fight is over. Over a hundred countries have never had a woman in charge. But it’s crucial to remember that while it may feel like certain countries lag far behind more ‘developed’ nations, that may well have a lot more to do with our colonialist history than an individual country’s commitment to gender equality.
In fact, when the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) every year, we see that it’s not always obvious which countries are leading the world when it comes to tackling gender equality within their own borders. The GGGR measures the efforts being made to close the gender gap in each country, ranking each country on how much they closed their own gender gap, rather than in comparison to the rest of the world. This avoids less developed nations being at an inherent disadvantage. Using this scale, we see that Nicaragua comes in fifth after the four oft-lauded Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, which come in at numbers one, two, three and four, respectively. Rwanda, the Philippines and Namibia all feature in the top ten. The UK comes in at 15 while the USA languishes back at 51, which doesn’t seem much like the land of the free, as far as women are concerned. Crucially, this doesn’t mean that it’s better to be a woman in Rwanda than the UK right now. It does mean that Rwanda is doing a better job of closing its gender gap than the UK, which should be noted, as therefore the objective difference in quality of life between Rwandan women and British woman may have less to do with entrenched gender inequality and more to do with centuries of imperialism.
It’s complicated, right? You can’t really compare progress being made toward gender equality between countries without discussing racism, colonialism and the lasting effects of the various empires that wreaked havoc on the world for decades. If you try to take those out of the equation – as the GGGR attempts to – you’ll see that it’s not as simple as developing nations bad/okay/good, developed nations better than that. This made collecting facts about each country in isolation seem reductive.
I started to collate the facts and struggled to keep them separate in the post. It felt impossible to discuss issues in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Nigeria without also doing service to the wonderful steps forward many other Middle Eastern and African countries are taking. It also felt wrong for me, with my colossally limited perspective, to be picking sensationalised facts that are only one piece of the gender situation in that country. It didn’t feel right. Yes, the fact that women still aren’t able to obtain a passport in Iran without their husband’s permission or that domestic violence is legal in parts of Nigeria for the purpose of ‘correction’ seems like a great injustice to me – and it probably is – but those particular laws are tied up in a host of complicated religious, cultural and historical factors that it’s impossible to understand with a quick Google search. Rather than try, and perhaps spectacularly miss the mark, I decided to write about what I found instead.
Along with feeling like these negative facts were just a small piece of a much larger and extremely complicated puzzle, I also found so much encouraging research that showed how much things were improving, not just in developed nations, but all over the world. There was an article from 2016 containing a collection of the ‘10 of the most unbelievable sexist laws,’ but many of them had been updated more recently to show how many of those laws had been abolished or changed. In fact, so many of the articles I found were from 2014, 2015 and 2016, which, while obviously not long ago, are far enough in the past to not reflect the rapid progress being made toward gender equality today.
Many countries have made concerted efforts to repeal outdated sexist laws, large and small, in order to make their countries a fairer place. Until very recently, Belarus still banned women, with an enforced decree, from 252 professions, due to ‘possible professional hazards.’ However, after heavy pushback, by 2014 this document ceased to exist. It’s not all sunshine and blacksmiths; this list was replaced by a similar list, in which women were still barred from certain professions unless their employer could prove that the workplace met the necessary professional requirements. It’s definitely not perfect, but in the few years since the decree was abolished, Belarus has seen more women become divers, bus drivers, long-distance lorry drivers and even the first female pilot was employed by Belavia, Belarus’ national airline. I wouldn’t call it a success story yet, but it’s a shuffle in the right direction, which is better than not taking a shuffle at all.
I came across this with every fact, law and country I researched. It would have been disingenuous to write that ‘Belarus bans women from 252 professions’ because that’s no longer true. However, it would also have been misleading to pretend that Belarusian women now have similar opportunities to men in the workforce, which they don’t. This whole post became a tug of war between the future and the past, between progress and antiquity.
While the details are often contentious – and challenging to write about fairly! – I believe that this pace of change is good thing. From reading the news, having conversations and being a generally conscientious person, it does feel like we are at a time of significant social change, where movements for social, political and economic quality have real momentum.
Fighting for gender equality has never been more urgent, as right wing governments are gaining support all over the world. While women still have a one in three chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence, we need feminism. While the pay gap continues to mean that women earn less than men, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars over a college-educated woman’s career, we need feminism. While people everywhere feel restricted, held back and made smaller by outdated, reductive gender roles, we need feminism.
But change is happening, all over the world, for millions of women in a million different ways. The momentum is there. It is hard to find evidence of nations with no push for change, with no movement for gender parity. Last year, for the first time, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving. Pakistan has finally made honour killings illegal. Last year, Ireland agreed to legalise abortion, after a historic vote.
Change is happening. Yes, we still need feminism, but more than ever, feminism needs us.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I’ve made a donation to Women for Women International to support marginalised women and girls. If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so here.