Guest blog by Stephen B. Lavalah
Once again another International Women’s Day has come and gone, but the struggles, hardships and difficulties yet persist. Even though women have got fundamental human rights like their male counterparts, however, women and girls are every so often in many societies excluded from political decision making, policy formulation and essential public activities. Besides, this segment of the population in most countries, all too often are denied access to land ownership, right to acquire quality education and deprived of getting equal pay for equal work. Women and girls are still underrated and belittled usually stereotype of being weak and empty vessels. Moreover, many women and girls still live in societies where gender-based violence, forced teenage marriage, as well as sexual exploitation and abuse continue to increase on a daily basis.
More to the point, gender gap at all levels in society is generally very high as indicated in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report released on October 23rd by the World Economic Forum. It is without doubt that in most countries, women and girls even at this time lack access to justice, financial services, employment opportunities, water supply, farmland and effective, efficient and affordable health care delivery services. Moreover, for far too long harmful traditional, cultural and religious practices further worsen the condition of females and subject them to all sorts of unwholesome way of life that contravene their dignity and worth as human beings. These and many more factors affecting women and girls put them in disadvantage situation to have the chance to achieve their full potential and measure of happiness.
Consequently, the majority of women and girls are faced with extreme poverty and most often strive very hard to endure suffering for survival. While several women and girls are reduced to being mere servants or perhaps slaves, who by no means question or ever reject request from men. At the same time, others are sexually humiliated, raped and brutally assaulted on countless occasions. Furthermore, too many intra-state and inter-state conflicts continue to use women and girls as shields to commit hideous crimes against humanity. Some women and girls are conscripted into warring factions while others are made sex slaves. Sadly, a number of pregnant women get slaughter as a result of dissident forces argument about fetus’ gender. The vulnerability of women and girls has become clearly visible as evidenced in most war-torn, post-war and developing countries, where basic social services and fundamental needs are still lacking. In addition, some have got neither children nor husband due to civil conflicts and to greater extent some got pregnant through gang rape from rebel forces and give birth to children. These alarming circumstances underscore the need for appropriate and timely interventions and actions to be taken so as to curtail or mitigate the unremitting ordeals.
Progress despite Challenges
In spite of the difficulties women and girls are encountering, there is somewhat great progress being accomplished; even though there still remain enough rooms for improvement. Women are aspiring in all aspects of life politically, socially and economically. The world is gradually shifting to women-led authority. More than ever before, in this 21st Century, there are more and more women in top-level leadership positions, however, the gender gap remains relatively high and yet again women remain underrepresented at all levels. Women are beginning to be seen in the limelight of political decision making processes. For the first time in many years, the International Monetary Fund has got a female as its head, former French Finance Minister Christine Legarde. The world’s fifth largest country has got its first female President, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. Indeed, female political leadership power also shifted to Africa, where the African Union for the first time since its establishment has a female, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Chair of the Commission.
All the more so, one of Africa’s oldest nation, Liberia, after more than a century of male dominance rule made history by democratically electing the very first female Head of State and Commander in Chief, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for two consecutive terms as required by the organic law. Similarly, Joyce Banda has obtained the mantle of authority to become Malawian first female President. In addition women are now steadily playing pivotal leadership roles in science and technology, commerce and industry, banking and finance, agriculture and food production, as well as academia and politics among others.
Notwithstanding, gender equality is still far from being realized in most societies. For this reason, the United Nations and other international institutions have developed lots of resolutions and conventions to promote gender equality, ensure women’s participation at all levels, protection against violence and prevention in conflict resolution including: peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian responses and post-conflict reconstruction. Nonetheless, the lack of political will on the part of many state actors continue to serve as a major hindrance to ensuring women’s rights are respected and their equal and full participation in peace and security are taken into consideration. On the other hand, several Western European countries including Scandinavian nations, which have a well-documented and long-standing history of valuing social welfare and gender equality, continue to rank at the top in promoting women’s rights as indicated in the World Economic Forum’s index.
The Swedish Perspective
As a stranger in Sweden from Liberia, it was surprising to see many men in the streets of Stockholm carrying strollers with babies and even feeding babies in restaurants. It is without doubt that Sweden has got tremendous achievements in upholding gender equality. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2010, Sweden is one of the world leaders in equality. It has got the institutional and legal framework to ensure gender mainstreaming is an acceptable societal norm.
According to Facts About Sweden from the gender equality perspective, gender teaching is being integrated in many preschools geared towards giving children the same opportunities in life, regardless of their gender, through teaching methods that allow each child to grow into a unique individual. Sweden has got parental leave being instituted when a child is born or adopted, which obligates each parent to get sixty days leave that cannot be transferred to the other. There is also a unique and appreciative compensation package to enforce the policy. In addition, the father of a newborn baby gets 10 extra days leave in connection with the birth or 20 days if they are twins. A parent adopting a child is entitled to take 1.5 years leave from the time the child comes under his or her care. Besides, Sweden has come a long way in making sure that women and men are treated equally in the workplace. Regardless of the extent of gender equality in Sweden, many Swedes are still yearning for quantitative gender equality (50/50) between men and women in all areas of society.
In an endeavor to empower and enable post-war countries sustain and preserve long-awaited peace and security, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) offers, as part of its bilateral development assistance, Advanced International Training Programmes of strategic importance to the social and economic development. This training is deeply rooted in the Swedish frame belief that when women and men share power and influence equally it leads to a more just and democratic society. It employs the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 as a tool to increase women’s influence and participation in the political process during conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. This intensive and comprehensive training programme also highlights the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. It further builds capacity on how to use tools and methods for the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and as well creates networks on UNSCR 1325.
This five weeks training program which is in five phases is being funded by Sida and jointly organized by Indevelop and Kvinna till Kvinna in collaboration with the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Operations 1325 as well as other Swedish and international experts.
On and around International Women’s Day, it was a great pleasure and privilege to be seated in a lecture hall discussing women’s issues having been selected through a competitive process to participate in this prestigious training programme that is very fascinating, rewarding, inspiring and full of amazing experiences. As a matter of fact, it is a wonderful opportunity to listen, learn and share knowledge with government and civil society representatives from Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Liberia and the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. It is an obvious fact that each of the illustrious twenty seven participants and many more to come would become agent of change to implement specific change projects in their respective countries to empower and enable women and girls achieve their full potential and measure of happiness.
Turning the Tide
According to the World Economic Forum, countries where men and women are closer to enjoying equal rights are far more economically competitive than those where the gender gap has left women and girls with limited or no access to medical care, education, elected office, and the marketplace. Likewise, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women farmers had the same access to seeds, fertilizer, and technology as men do, they could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 million to 150 million.
From these classic studies, societies around the world most especially, post-conflict and emerging democratic nations should now begin to encourage gender equality at all levels so as to ensure a well-developed welfare system as seen in Sweden that makes it easier for both sexes to balance their work and family life. Societies that are involved in marginalizing women and girls under the pretext of traditional, cultural and religious practices must stop and alter to respecting the worth and dignity of women and girls. Besides, societies should muster the courage to ensure the human rights of women and girls are protected.
The time has come for governments to prioritize gender equality in all aspects of decision making and representation. Member states of the United Nations must begin to develop and implement strategies as well as national action plans to ensure that the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 is applicable and achievable. The United Nations too should begin to take further steps and lead with examples. In so doing, the United Nations should contemplate on electing a qualified and competent female to serve as Secretary General, a position that has not been occupied by female since its inception. Furthermore, the United Nations and other international, regional and national organizations should become much more practical and supportive to ensuring gender equality works. Even civil society institutions, nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups should turn the tide to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls which have existed for far too long. The time has come for everyone to form a cohesive and cooperative framework to give women and girls equal opportunities like their male counterparts.
From this moment upward, women and girls must rise above the stereotype of being weak and empty vessels to becoming the best in whatsoever area they find themselves. Hence, women and girls should take education serious so as to be equipped and prepared for challenges that lie ahead in becoming not just politicians, but top-class engineers to build infrastructural facilities, agriculturists to produce more food, doctors to care for sick, entrepreneurs to establish businesses and even become chief executive officers for multinational corporations and as well contest to become the next Secretary General of the United Nations, President of the World Bank as well as other great international portfolios. Together, everyone must work to ensure women and girls are treated fairly.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES). He is currently in Stockholm, Sweden participating in Advanced International Training Programme funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency jointly organized by Indevelop and Kvinna till Kvinna in collaboration with the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Operations 1325 as well as other Swedish and international experts