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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Women and Human Rights

The first World Conference on the Status of Women convened in 1975 in Mexico City to coincide with International Women’s Year. Held to remind the international community of its duty to prevent discrimination against women, the summit kicked off worldwide discussions on the status, rights, and role of women at the local, national, and international levels. “A process was set in motion—a process of learning—that would involve deliberation, negotiation, setting objectives, identifying obstacles, and reviewing the progress made” (5th Women’s World Conference).
Subsequent conferences were held at five-year intervals—Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985—leading up to the major 1995 world summit in Beijing, which brought together over 17,000 representatives of states, NGOs, and international institutions to review and recommend progress on the promotion and protection of women’s rights, including the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (now the Advocates for Human Rights). Through deliberation, the focus was consciously shifted from discussion on women and their involvement in society to the concept of gender, recognizing the need to view the social construction of gender roles to support women in their claims for equality. The 1995 process culminated in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which reaffirms the international community’s responsibility and builds a global consensus around women’s rights and participation in economic, social, cultural, and political spheres—public and private. The Platform identified 12 key areas of urgent action, including women and power, women and armed conflict, women and health, and education and training of women, among others.

The U.N. has convened conferences to build upon the Beijing Platform for Action in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015. The most recent summit, Beijing Plus 20, was the largest review session to date, bringing together recommendations from the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment, states, NGOs, and representatives of the UN Economic and Social Council. Much like the previous meetings, this 20-year review process included comprehensive reviews of national actions, regional reviews by the UN regional commission, global-level reviews, and parallel NGO forums. Over 167 countries took part in forming the Beijing Plus 20 Report, which summarizes the present-day global status of equality and opportunities for strengthening gender equality and empowerment of women.

One of the outcomes of the 2015 conference was a focus on how to re-energize and speed up the movement with a ceremonial goal of reaching full gender equality by 2030—“Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality.” The UN has created a website to track member states’ progress in various sectors of promoting and protecting equal rights for all genders, including education, employment, and representation in the media. Much progress has been made over the past 40 years, but we still have a long ways to go to reach full gender equality. With Beijing Plus 20, the international community has taken a step in the right direction to create real, lasting change.

By Cameron Mailhot

As we take the time to recognize the achievements of women around the world during Women’s History Month, let us take a closer look at the progress being made in women’s rights to health and education and the contemporary women working to advance gender equality.

Zika Virus and Development Rights

There has been growing attention on the Zika virus and its connection to birth defects, specifically microcephaly and impaired mental development. From the Pope to national leaders, some have stood by the most stringent abortion laws and current restrictions and inaccessibility of birth control for the women in Latin America. Many national health organizations including the CDC have asserted that preventing pregnancy will be the most effective response to the epidemic.


One of the impacts of this tragic disease has been an increase in discussion of a broad range of human rights issues, including women’s reproductive rights, access to health care, and social determinants of the disease. Affordable childcare for special needs children is a particular concern in nations where abortions are illegal or inaccessible. Women are questioning their sole responsibility in controlling the epidemic when men are also carriers of the virus, which has been found to remain in the reproductive system for more than six months. Additionally, many public and private school systems teach abstinence only sex education, if there is any sex education provided at all.  Females and males who are coming of age and in relationships may not have the knowledge of what safe sex is, the difference between myths and facts in sexually transmitted diseases, how to access contraceptives, and how to use those contraceptives properly.

Brazil, ground zero for the current Zika outbreak, has been recording infections since April 2015, highlighting a disproportionate impact on poor and rural women. As reported by Debora Diniz, a founder of Anis and a law professor at the University of Brasília, “[Zika virus] is concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country’s least-developed regions.” Brazil and the other nations with active virus transmission are faced with a unique moment in their history. Expanding rights for women could benefit more than just women’s rights to health by moving into the closely related rights to education and economic well-being.

By Amanda Kruger

Women in STEM

As we enter women’s history month this March, it’s important not only to recognize all the amazing accomplishments made by women but to also highlight all the issues that still remain. Among the greatest of these issues is the topic of women in education—particularly the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, fields. Men have traditionally dominated STEM fields, and women were not often given as much opportunity to engage. Women’s involvement in the STEM field has increased since the 1970s, but women are still greatly underrepresented in both the STEM workforce as well as the related undergraduate degrees being awarded. According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women make up close to 49% of the U.S. workforce but just are only 25% percent of STEM workers. Despite this, young women in middle school and high school perform at and often time outperform their male counterparts in STEM courses. But by the time young women get to college, they are less likely to pursue STEM as a career path.

There are a number of challenges facing women pursuing careers in STEM fields. Among these challenges is the fact that there simply are not enough mentors in higher education for young women seeking to build relationships with a faculty member. Another challenge is the fact that overt sexism remains a huge deterrent for women considering STEM as a path. The environments in STEM fields are heavily male and often times women are harassed, not accepted or discriminated against in the hiring process as well as when it comes to pay. Also, strong gender roles are reinforcing the idea that STEM fields are only for men.  Yet, women with STEM jobs earned about 35% more than women in non-STEM jobs. The gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs. This is even more important to recognize because women are more likely to attend college and graduate with degrees than their male counterparts.

To move forward and create an enriching experience for young women interested in pursuing STEM careers in the future, these challenges need to be addressed. In light of the awareness developing nationally regarding the inclusion of and engagement with more young women in STEM, there are a number of initiatives being brought forth by organizations, corporations and governmental entities, including the White House. The STEM workforce has also been making an effort to end disparities when it comes to gender. More work must still be done in creating a safe environment for women and young girls as well erasing harmful gender norms that prevent young girls from reaching their potential.

By Sara Osman

Trailblazers and Remaining Challenges

According to the UN Women’s 2015-2016 study on the status of women from 2015, 22% of all national parliaments were female as of August 2015, which is an increase of 11.3% since 1995. Women serve as Heads of State in 11 states and women serve as Heads of Government in 10 states. Rwanda boasts the highest number of women in parliament in the world, with over 63.8% in the lower house. Women parliamentarians varies across regions in the following way: Nordic countries, 41.1 per cent; Americas, 25.5 per cent; Europe excluding Nordic countries, 24.4 per cent; sub-Saharan Africa, 23.0 per cent; Asia, 18.4 per cent; Middle East and North Africa, 17.1 per cent; and the Pacific, 15.7 per cent. Studies indicate women’s representation in local government has improved the daily lives of citizens.  Research on local councils in India have found the “number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62% higher than in those with male-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found.”  Out of the 41 countries with over 30% women in single or lower houses, 34 had applied some form of quotas, opening space for women’s political participation. Specifically, 17 use legislative candidate quotas; 6 use reserve seats; and in a further 11, parties have adopted voluntary quotas.

In regards to violence, 35% of women are estimated to have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Over 700 million women today were married as children.  Around 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts, and at least 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation.  Adult women constitute over half of all human trafficking victims. In order to remedy these issues, over 119 countries have passed laws regarding domestic violence, 125 on sexual harassment and 52 criminalizing marital rape. In February 2016, the Punjab region of Pakistan enacted a new law criminalizing violence against women, including domestic, emotional, psychological, economic or sexual and provides shelters and hotlines for women at risk. There is also more comprehensive data regarding violence against women than ever before. Some of these studies indicate that non-heterosexual women and women with disabilities are at greater risk of experiencing physical/sexual violence. These studies have also found that women’s participation in peace agreements in conflict zones increases the probability of the agreements at least two years by 20% and increased the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years by 35%.

Despite the persistent gender wage gap worldwide (which results in particular large pay gaps for minority women), research from this study concludes that more women in the workforce results in faster economic growth. Educating women has also proven to contribute to economic growth. Companies with three or more women in senior management receive higher scores in all dimensions of organization effectiveness. “Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50 per cent of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years, of which over half is due to girls having had access to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in education between men and women.” Additionally, a study spanning 1970 to 2009 from 219 countries shows that for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%. 

UN Women has taken steps to engage and empower women in the world.  In 2013, UN Women supported 65 countries to make gender equality priorities in national, sectorial and local development plans and budgets.  In 24 countries, national planning documents incorporated priorities and budgets on gender equality and women’s empowerment. For example, the “Government of Nepal increased gender-responsive budget allocations from USD 1.13 billion in 2013/14 fiscal year to USD 1.36 billion in 2014/15, accounting for 21.93 per cent of the total budget. The country developed, implemented and refined a tracking system to provide critical information on gender-responsive investments.”

Beyond the challenges and steps made in these macro-level issues concerning female empowerment, a number of individuals have broken barriers and trail blazed their own paths for women in the generations to come in 2015. Mazoun Almellehan, known as the “Malala of Syria” fled the Syrian conflict with her family to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. At the age of 16, Almellehan has dedicated her life to educated young girls in these camps, campaigning for parents to send their children to school instead of forcibly marrying them off due to economic instability. Rafea Um Gomar, born and raised in a poor Bedouin community of Jordan, has become the first female solar engineer in her country.  She has successfully set up over 80 solar installations to provide electricity to her village and is motivated to reduce poverty, empower women in the local economy and provide opportunities for a better life for her daughters. Misty Copeland was promoted to the role of principal dancer--the highest position within a ballet company, and is the first African American woman to do so at the most prestigious ballet company in the country, the American Ballet Theatre in New York.

In November of 2015, Ethiopian airlines made history by sending an all-female crew for the first time in a flight from the country’s capital to Thailand.  Lt. Col. Christine Mau became the first female fighter pilot for the US Air Force. For the first time, NASA's latest class of astronauts is 50 percent female, comprised of a group of women who have already flown combat missions in Iraq, braved the South Pole, and dived under thick layers of ice in Antarctica. When these women were chosen for the class of 2013, NASA announced that they could be selected for an inaugural trip to Mars. In the fall of 2015, a new professional women's hockey league was launched, and one of the founding teams has chosen to honor a famous feminist icon in its name and logo—the New York Riveters. In the summer of 2015 in Delhi, the first female bus driver took to the streets, complementing the rising number of female taxi drivers in the city. Finally, in December of 2015, for the first time in its history, women voted in local council elections and stood as candidates in Saudi Arabia. 

All around the world, women are shattering the limits placed on them and defying “traditional female” roles to empower other women, their communities, improve our world and continue to reach for the stars, pushing the boundaries of human endeavor. 

By Marie-Christine Ghreichi