Gender equality

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A generic symbol for gender equality

Gender equality, also known as sex equality, gender egalitarianism, sexual equality or equality of the genders, is the view that men and women should receive equal treatment, and should not be discriminated against based on gender.[1] This is the objective of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which seeks to create equality in law and in social situations, such as in democratic activities and securing equal pay for equal work. To avoid complication, other genders (besides women and men) will not be treated in this Gender equality article. The related topic of rights is treated in two separate articles, Men's rights and Women's rights.


An early advocate for gender equality was Christine de Pizan, who in her 1405 book The Book of the City of Ladies wrote that the oppression of women is founded on irrational prejudice, pointing out numerous advances in society probably created by women.[2]


Further information: Shakers
Life of the Diligent Shaker, Shaker Historical Society
The Ritual Dance of the Shakers, Shaker Historical Society
The Shakers harvesting their famous herbs

As a group, the Shakers, an evangelical group which practiced segregation of the sexes and strict celibacy, were early practitioners of gender equality. They branched off from a Quaker community in the north-west of England before emigrating to America in 1774. In America, the head of the Shakers' central ministry in 1788, Joseph Meacham, had a revelation that the sexes should be equal, so he brought Lucy Wright into the ministry as his female counterpart, and together they restructured society to balance the rights of the sexes. Meacham and Wright established leadership teams where each elder, who dealt with the men's spiritual welfare, was partnered with an eldress, who did the same for women. Each deacon was partnered with a deaconess. Men had oversight of men; women had oversight of women. Women lived with women; men lived with men. In Shaker society, a woman did not have to be controlled or otherwise owned by any man. After Meacham's death in 1796, Wright was the head of the Shaker ministry until her own death in 1821. Going forward, Shakers maintained the same pattern of gender-balanced leadership for more than 200 years. They also promoted equality by working together with other women's rights advocates. In 1859, Shaker Elder Frederick Evans stated their beliefs forcefully, writing that Shakers were “the first to disenthrall woman from the condition of vassalage to which all other religious systems (more or less) consign her, and to secure to her those just and equal rights with man that, by her similarity to him in organization and faculties, both God and nature would seem to demand."[3] Evans and his counterpart, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, joined women's rights advocates on speakers' platforms throughout the northeastern U.S. in the 1870s. A visitor to the Shakers wrote in 1875:

“Each sex works in its own appropriate sphere of action, there being a proper subordination, deference and respect of the female to the male in his order, and of the male to the female in her order [emphasis added], so that in any of these communities the zealous advocates of ‘women’s rights’ may here find a practical realization of their ideal.”[4]

The Shakers were more than a radical religious sect on the fringes of American society; they put equality of the sexes into practice. They showed that equality could be achieved and how to do it.[5]

In the wider society, the movement towards gender equality began with the suffrage movement in Western cultures in the late-19th century, which sought to allow women to vote and hold elected office. This period also witnessed significant changes to women's property rights, particularly in relation to their marital status. (See for example, Married Women's Property Act 1882.)

Post-war era[edit]

Further information: Anti-discrimination laws

After World War II, a more general movement for gender equality developed based on women's liberation and feminism. The central issue was that the rights of women should be the same as of men.

The United Nations and other international agencies have adopted several conventions, toward the promotion of gender equality. Prominent international instruments include:

Such legislation and affirmative action policies have been critical to bringing about changes in societal attitudes. Most occupations are now equally available to men and women, in many countries. For example, many countries now permit women to serve in the armed forces, the police forces and to be fire fighters – occupations traditionally reserved for men. Although these continue to be male dominated occupations an increasing number of women are now active, especially in directive fields such as politics, and occupy high positions in business.

Similarly, men are increasingly working in occupations which in previous generations had been considered women's work, such as nursing, cleaning and child care. In domestic situations, the role of Parenting or child rearing is more commonly shared or not as widely considered to be an exclusively female role, so that women may be free to pursue a career after childbirth. For further information, see Shared earning/shared parenting marriage.

Another manifestation of the change in social attitudes is the non-automatic taking by a woman of her husband's surname on marriage.[11]

A highly contentious issue relating to gender equality is the role of women in religiously orientated societies. For example, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam declared that women have equal dignity, but not equal rights, and this was accepted by many predominantly Muslim countries. In some Christian churches, the practice of churching of women may still have elements of ritual purification and the Ordination of women to the priesthood may be restricted or forbidden. Some Christians or Muslims believe in Complementarianism, a view that holds that men and women have different, but complementing roles. This view may be in opposition to the views and goals of gender equality.

In addition, there are also non-Western countries of low religiosity where the contention surrounding gender equality remains. In China, cultural preference for a male child has resulted in a shortfall of women in the population. The feminist movement in Japan has made many strides and has resulted in Rethe Gender Equality Bureau, but Japan still remains low in gender equality compared to other industrialized nations.

The notion of gender equality, and of its degree of achievement in a certain country, is very complex, because there are countries that have a history of a high level of gender equality in certain areas of life, but not in other areas. An example is Finland, which has offered very high opportunities to women in public/professional life, but has had a weak legal approach to the issue of violence against women, with the situation in this country having been called a paradox.[12][13][14] Denmark has also received harsh criticism for inadequate laws in regard to sexual violence in a 2008 report produced by Amnesty International,[15] which has described Danish laws as "inconsistent with international human rights standards",[16] which has led to Denmark eventually reforming its sexual offenses legislation in 2013.[17][18][19] Indeed, there is a need of caution when categorizing countries by the level of gender equality that they have achieved.[20] According to Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon "gender policy is not one issue but many" and:[21]

"When Costa Rica has a better maternity leave than the United States, and Latin American countries are quicker to adopt policies addressing violence against women than the Nordic countries, one at least ought to consider the possibility that fresh ways of grouping states would further the study of gender politics."

Not all ideas for gender equality have been popularly adopted. For example: topfreedom, the right to be bare breasted in public, frequently applies only to males and has remained a marginal issue. Breastfeeding in public is more commonly tolerated, especially in semi-private places such as restaurants.[22]

Gender biases[edit]

There has been criticism from some feminists towards the political discourse and policies employed in order to achieve the above items of "progress" in gender equality, with critics arguing that these gender equality strategies are superficial, in that they do not seek to challenge social structures of male domination, and only aim at improving the situation of women within the societal framework of subordination of women to men.[23] One of the criticisms of the gender equality policies, in particular those of the European Union, is that they disproportionately focus on policies integrating women in public life and the working environment, such as equal pay, while ignoring other issues such as the lack of bodily autonomy and control over their sexuality.[24]

A further criticism is that a focus on the situation of women in non-Western countries, while often ignoring the issues that exist in the West, is a form of imperialism and a way of reinforcing Western moral superiority. These critics point out that women in Western countries often face similar problems, such as domestic violence and rape, as in other parts of the world.[25] They also cite the fact that women faced de jure legal discrimination until just a few decades ago; for instance, in some Western countries such as Switzerland, Greece, Spain, and France, women obtained equal rights in family law in the 1980s.[26][27][28][29] Another criticism is that there is a selective public discourse with regard to different types of oppression of women, with some forms of violence such as honor killings (most common in certain geographic regions such as parts of Asia and North Africa) being frequently the object of public debate, while other forms of violence, such as the lenient punishment for crimes of passion across Latin America, do not receive the same attention in the West.[30] In 2002, Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, pointed out that "crimes of passion have a similar dynamic [to honor killings] in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived [in those relevant parts of the world] as excusable or understandable".[30]

Efforts to fight inequality[edit]

World bodies have defined gender equality in terms of human rights, especially women's rights, and economic development.[31][32] UNICEF describes that gender equality "means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. It does not require that girls and boys, or women and men, be the same, or that they be treated exactly alike."[33]

UNFPA stated that, “despite many international agreements affirming their human rights, women are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. They have less access to property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence.” [34]

Thus, promoting gender equality is seen as an encouragement to greater economic prosperity.[31] For example, nations of the Arab world that deny equality of opportunity to women were warned in a 2008 United Nations-sponsored report that this disempowerment is a critical factor crippling these nations' return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture.[35] That is, Western bodies are less likely to conduct commerce with nations in the Middle East that retain culturally accepted attitudes towards the status and function of women in their society in an effort to force them to change their beliefs in the face of relatively underdeveloped economies.

In 2010, the European Union opened the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in Vilnius, Lithuania to promote gender equality and to fight sex discrimination.

Gender equality is part of the national curriculum in Great Britain and many other European countries. Personal, Social and Health Education, religious studies and Language acquisition curricula tend to address gender equality issues as a very serious topic for discussion and analysis of its effect in society.

A large and growing body of research has shown how gender inequality undermines health and development. To overcome gender inequality the United Nations Population Fund states that, “Women's empowerment and gender equality requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy-making. These levels include reproductive health, economic empowerment, educational empowerment and political empowerment." [36]

UNFPA says that “research has also demonstrated how working with men and boys as well as women and girls to promote gender equality contributes to achieving health and development outcomes.” [36]

Violence against women[edit]

Anti-FGM road sign, Bakau, Gambia, 2005

Violence against women (in short VAW) is a technical term used to collectively refer to violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women. This type of violence is gender-based, meaning that the acts of violence are committed against women expressly because they are women, or as a result of patriarchal gender constructs. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines VAW as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life" and states that:[37]

"violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men"

Forms of VAW include sexual violence (including war rape, marital rape and child sexual abuse, the latter often in the context of child marriage), domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, sex trafficking, honor killings, dowry killings, acid attacks, stoning, flogging, forced sterilization, forced abortion, violence related to accusations of witchcraft, mistreatment of widows (e.g. widow inheritance). Fighting against VAW is considered a key issues for achieving gender equality. The Council of Europe adopted the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).

In Western countries which are overall safe (i.e. where gang murders, armed kidnappings, civil unrest, and other similar acts are rare) the vast majority of murdered women are killed by partners/ex-partners: as of 2004-2009, former and current partners were responsible for more than 80% of all cases of murders of women in Cyprus, France, and Portugal.[38] By contrast, in countries with a high level of organized criminal activity and gang violence murders of women are more likely to occur in a public sphere, often in a general climate of indifference and impunity.[38] In addition, many countries do not have adequate comprehensive data collection on such murders, aggravating the problem.[38]

In some parts of the world, various forms of VAW are tolerated and accepted as parts of everyday life; according to UNFPA:[39]

"In some developing countries, practices that subjugate and harm women - such as wife-beating, killings in the name of honour, female genital mutilation/cutting and dowry deaths - are condoned as being part of the natural order of things."

In most countries, it is only in recent decades that VAW (in particular when committed in the family) has received significant legal attention. The Istanbul Convention acknowledges the long tradition of European countries of ignoring, de jure or de facto, this form of violence. In its explanatory report at para 219, it states:

"There are many examples from past practice in Council of Europe member states that show that exceptions to the prosecution of such cases were made, either in law or in practice, if victim and perpetrator were, for example, married to each other or had been in a relationship. The most prominent example is rape within marriage, which for a long time had not been recognised as rape because of the relationship between victim and perpetrator."[40]

In Opuz v Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights recognized violence against women as a form discrimination against women,[41] para 200: "[T]he Court considers that the violence suffered by the applicant and her mother may be regarded as gender-based violence which is a form of discrimination against women." [42] This is also the position of the Istanbul Convention which reads:

"Article 3 – Definitions, For the purpose of this Convention: a “violence against women” is understood as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women [...]".[43]

In some cultures, acts of violence against women are seen as crimes against the male 'owners' of the woman, such as husband, father or male relatives, rather the woman herself. This leads to practices where men inflict violence upon women in order to get revenge on male members of the women's family. Such practices include payback rape, a form of rape specific to certain cultures, particularly the Pacific Islands, which consists of the rape of a female, usually by a group of several males, as revenge for acts committed by members of her family, such as her father or brothers, with the rape being meant to humiliate the father or brothers, as punishment for their prior behavior towards the perpetrators.[44][45]

Reproductive and sexual health and rights[edit]

Global maternal mortality rate per 100 000 live births, (2010)[46]
In 2010, Sierra Leone launched free healthcare for pregnant and breastfeeding women

The importance of women having the right and possibility to have control over their body, reproduction decisions and sexuality, and the need for gender equality in order to achieve these goals are recognized as crucial by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the UN International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that promotion of gender equality is crucial in the fight against HIV/AIDS.[47]

Maternal mortality is a major problem in many parts of the world. UNFPA states that countries have an obligation to protect women's right to health, but many countries do not do that.[48] Maternal mortality is considered today not just an issue of development, but also an issue of human rights.[48] UNFPA says that, “since 1990, the world has seen a 45 per cent decline in maternal mortality – an enormous achievement. But in spite of these gains, almost 800 women still die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. This is about one woman every two minutes.” [49] According to UNFPA:[50]

"Preventable maternal mortality occurs where there is a failure to give effect to the rights of women to health, equality and non-discrimination. Preventable maternal mortality also often represents a violation of a woman’s right to life."

The right to reproductive and sexual autonomy is denied to women in many parts of the world, through practices such as forced sterilization, forced/coerced sexual partnering (e.g. forced marriage, child marriage), criminalization of consensual sexual acts (such as sex outside marriage), lack of criminalization of marital rape, violence in regard to the choice of partner (honor killings as punishment for 'inappropriate' relations). Amnesty International’s Secretary General has stated that: "It is unbelievable that in the twenty-first century some countries are condoning child marriage and marital rape while others are outlawing abortion, sex outside marriage and same-sex sexual activity – even punishable by death."[51] All these practices infringe on the right of achieving reproductive and sexual health. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for full respect and recognition of women's autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights, stating:[52]

"Violations of women's human rights are often linked to their sexuality and reproductive role. Women are frequently treated as property, they are sold into marriage, into trafficking, into sexual slavery. Violence against women frequently takes the form of sexual violence. Victims of such violence are often accused of promiscuity and held responsible for their fate, while infertile women are rejected by husbands, families and communities. In many countries, married women may not refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands, and often have no say in whether they use contraception."

Adolescent girls are at the highest risk of sexual coercion, sexual ill health, and negative reproductive outcomes. The risks they face are higher than those of boys and men; this increased risk is partly due to gender inequity (different socialization of boys and girls, gender based violence, child marriage) and partly due to biological factors (females' risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections during unprotected sexual relations is two to four times that of males').[53]

Socialization within rigid gender constructs often creates an environment where sexual violence is common; according to the WHO: "Sexual violence is also more likely to occur where beliefs in male sexual entitlement are strong, where gender roles are more rigid, and in countries experiencing high rates of other types of violence."[54] The sexual health of women is often poor in societies where a woman's right to control her sexuality is not recognized. Richard A. Posner writes that "Traditionally, rape was the offense of depriving a father or husband of a valuable asset — his wife's chastity or his daughter's virginity".[55] Historically, rape was seen in many cultures (and is still seen today in some societies) as a crime against the honor of the family, rather than against the self-determination of the woman. As a result, victims of rape may face violence, in extreme cases even honor killings, at the hands of their family members.[56][57] Catharine MacKinnon argues that in male dominated societies, sexual intercourse is imposed on women in a coercive and unequal way, creating a continuum of victimization, where women have few positive sexual experiences; she writes "To know what is wrong with rape, know what is right about sex. If this, in turn, is difficult, the difficulty is as instructive as the difficulty men have in telling the difference when women see one. Perhaps the wrong of rape has proved so difficult to define because the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is defined as distinct from intercourse, while for women it is difficult to distinguish the two under conditions of male dominance." [58]

One of the challenges of dealing with sexual violence is that in many societies women are perceived as being readily available for sex, and men are seen as entitled to their bodies, until and unless women object. Rebecca Cook wrote in Submission of Interights to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of M.C. v. Bulgaria, 12 April 2003:[59][60]

"The equality approach starts by examining not whether the woman said 'no', but whether she said 'yes'. Women do not walk around in a state of constant consent to sexual activity unless and until they say 'no', or offer resistance to anyone who targets them for sexual activity. The right to physical and sexual autonomy means that they have to affirmatively consent to sexual activity."

Freedom of movement[edit]

Women in Afghanistan wearing burqas. Some clothes that women are required, by law or custom, to wear, can restrict their movements
Further information: Freedom of movement

Women's freedom of movement continues to be legally restricted in some parts of the world. This restriction is often due to marriage laws. For instance, in Yemen, marriage regulations stipulate that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission.[61] In some countries, women must legally be accompanied by their male guardians (such as the husband or male relative) when they leave home.[62]

The CEDAW states at Article 15 (4) that:[63]

Article 15
"4. States Parties shall accord to men and women the same rights with regard to the law relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile."

In addition to laws, women's freedom of movement is also restricted by social and religious norms - for example purdah, a religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as upper-caste Hindus in Northern India, such as the Rajputs, which often leads to the minimizing of the movement of women in public spaces and restrictions on their social and professional interactions;[64] or namus, a cultural concept strongly related to family honor.

The custom of bride price can also curtail the free movement of women: if a wife wants to leave her husband, he may demand back the bride price that he had paid to the woman's family; and the woman's family often cannot or does not want to pay it back, making it difficult for women to move out of violent husbands' homes.[65][66][67]

Restrictions on freedom of movement also exist due to traditional practices such as baad, swara, or vani, common especially among Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whereby a girl is given from one family to another (often though a marriage), in order to settle the disputes and feuds between the families. The girl, who now belongs to the second family, has very little autonomy and freedom, her role being to serve the new family.[68][69][70][71][72]

Gendered arrangements of work and care[edit]

Since the 1950s, social scientists as well as feminists have increasingly criticized gendered arrangements of work and care and the male breadwinner role. Policies are increasingly targeting men as fathers as a tool of changing gender relations.[73] Shared earning/shared parenting marriage, that is, a relationship where the partners collaborate at sharing their responsibilities inside and outside of the home, is often encouraged in Western countries.[74]

Girls' access to education[edit]

School girls in Gaza Strip

In many parts of the world, girls' access to education is very restricted. Girls face many obstacles which prevent them to take part in education, including: early and forced marriages; early pregnancy; prejudice based on gender stereotypes at home, at school and in the community; violence on the way to school, or in and around schools; long distances to schools; vulnerability to the HIV epidemic; school fees, which often lead to parents sending only their sons to school; lack of gender sensitive approaches and materials in classrooms.[75][76][77] According to OHCHR, there have been multiple attacks on schools worldwide during the period 2009-2014 with "a number of these attacks being specifically directed at girls, parents and teachers advocating for gender equality in education".[78] The United Nations Population Fund says:[79]

"About two thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women. Lack of an education severely restricts a woman's access to information and opportunities. Conversely, increasing women's and girls' educational attainment benefits both individuals and future generations. Higher levels of women's education are strongly associated with lower infant mortality and lower fertility, as well as better outcomes for their children."

Political participation of women[edit]

Main article: Women in government
A world map showing countries governmental participation by women, 2010.
Headquarters of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, United States, early 20th century

Women are underrepresented in most countries' National Parliaments.[80] The 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation called for female participation in politics, and expressed concern about the fact that "women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere".[81] The Council of Europe states that:[82]

"Pluralist democracy requires balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making. Council of Europe standards provide clear guidance on how to achieve this."

Institutions also play an essential role in achieving and enforcing gender equality. However, basic legal and human rights, access to and the control of resources, employment and earnings and social and political participation are still not guaranteed in many social and legal institutions. For example, only 22 per cent of parliamentarians globally are women and therefore, men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority.[34] As of November 2014, women accounted for 28% of members of the single or lower houses of parliaments in the European Union member states.[83]

In some Western countries women have only recently obtained the right to vote, notably in Switzerland, where women gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1971;[84] but in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden women obtained the right to vote on local issues only in 1991, when the canton was forced to do so by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.[85] In Liechtenstein, women were given the right to vote by the women's suffrage referendum of 1984. Three prior referendums held in 1968, 1971 and 1973 had failed to secure women's right to vote.

Economic empowerment of women[edit]

Female economic activity is a common measure of gender equality in an economy. UN Women states that: "Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth."[86]

Gender discrimination often results in women ending in insecure, low-wage jobs, and being disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation.[86]

The UN Population Fund says that, “Six out of 10 of the world’s poorest people are women. Economic disparities persist partly because much of the unpaid work within families and communities falls on the shoulders of women, and because women continue to face discrimination in the economic sphere.” [34]

While women have been persisting through these economic disparities, they have also been facing gender discrimination from the products and services that they rely on. Differential pricing of products and services is one of the world’s last remaining vestiges of formal gender-based discrimination.[87] The term "Women's Tax", also known as "Pink Tax", refers to gendered pricing in which products or services marketed to women are more expensive than similar products marketed to men. Price discrimination involves companies selling almost identical units of the same product or service at comparatively different prices, as determined by the target market. Studies have found that women pay about $1,400 a year more than men due to gendered discriminatory pricing. Although the "pink tax" of different goods and services is not uniform, overall women pay more for commodities that result in visual evidence of feminine body image.[88] For example, studies have shown that women are charged more for services especially tailoring, hair cutting and laundering.[87]

The fact that the disparity of gendered pricing still exists within today’s society, shows that women still continue to be disempowered in many aspects of economic life. It is also important to remember that price differentials will have differing effects on women of different cultural backgrounds and social standing, thus affecting the economic empowerment of women in different ways.

Marriage, divorce and property laws and regulations[edit]

Equal rights for women in marriage, divorce, and property/land ownership and inheritance are essential for gender equality. CEDAW has called for the end of discriminatory family laws.[89] In 2013, UNWomen stated that "While at least 115 countries recognize equal land rights for women and men, effective implementation remains a major challenge".[90]

The legal and social treatment of married women has been often discussed as a political issue from the 19th century onwards. John Stuart Mill, in The Subjection of Women (1869) compared marriage to slavery and wrote that: "The law of servitude in marriage is a monstrous contradiction to all the principles of the modern world, and to all the experience through which those principles have been slowly and painfully worked out."[91] In 1957, James Everett, then Minister for Justice in Ireland, stated: "The progress of organised society is judged by the status occupied by married women".[92] Until the 1970s, legal subordination of married women was common across European countries, through marriage laws giving legal authority to the husband, as well as through marriage bars. In France, married women obtained the right to work without their husband's consent in 1965;[93] while the paternal authority of a man over his family was ended in 1970 (before that parental responsibilities belonged solely to the father who made all legal decisions concerning the children); and a new reform in 1985 abolished the stipulation that the father had the sole power to administer the children's property.[94] In Austria, the marriage law was overhauled between 1975 and 1983, abolishing the restrictions on married women's right to work outside the home, providing for equality between spouses, and for joint ownership of property and assets.[95] Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to establish gender equality in marriage, in this country married women's rights were severely restricted until 1988, when legal reforms providing for gender equality in marriage, abolishing the legal authority of the husband, come into force (these reforms had been approved in 1985 by voters in a referendum, who narrowly voted in favor with 54.7% of voters approving).[96][97][98][99] In the Netherlands, although the legal incapacity of a married woman was abolished in 1956, the marriage bar for women civil servants being lifted in 1957, it was only in 1984 that full legal equality between husband and wife was achieved - prior to 1984 the law stipulated that the husband's opinion prevailed over the wife's regarding issues such as decisions on children's education and the domicile of the family.[100][101][102] In 1978, the Council of Europe passed the Resolution (78) 37 on equality of spouses in civil law.[103]

In the United States, the wife's legal subordination to her husband was fully ended by the case of Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 450 U.S. 455 (1981), a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held a Louisiana Head and Master law, which gave sole control of marital property to the husband, unconstitutional.[104]

There have been and sometimes continue to be unequal treatment of married women in various aspects of everyday life. For example, in Australia, until 1983 a husband had to authorise the application by a married woman for a passport.[105] Other practices have included, and in many countries continue to include, a requirement for a husband's consent for an application for bank loans and credit cards by a married woman, as well as restrictions on the wife's reproductive rights, such as a requirement that the husband consents to the wife's acquiring of contraception or having an abortion.[106][107] In some places, although the law itself no longer requires the consent of the husband for various actions taken by the wife, the practice continues de facto, with the authorization of the husband being asked in practice.[108]

Although dowry is today associated with South Asia, the practice has been common until the mid-20th century in parts of Southeast Europe. For example, in Greece dowry was removed from family law only in 1983 through legal changes which reformed marriage law and provided gender equality in marriage.[109][110] These changes also dealt with the practice of women changing their surnames to that of the husbands upon getting married, a practice which has been outlawed or restricted in some jurisdictions, because it is seen as contrary to women's rights. As such, women in Greece are required to keep their birth names for their whole life.[111]

Laws regulating marriage and divorce continue to discriminate against women in many countries. For example, in Yemen, marriage regulations state that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission.[61] In Iraq husbands have a legal right to "punish" their wives, with paragraph 41 of the criminal code stating that there is no crime if an act is committed while exercising a legal right. Examples of legal rights include: "The punishment of a wife by her husband, the disciplining by parents and teachers of children under their authority within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom".[112] In the 1990s and the 21st century there has been progress in many countries in Africa: for instance in Namibia the marital power of the husband was abolished in 1996 by the Married Persons Equality Act; in Botswana it was abolished in 2004 by the Abolition of Marital Power Act; and in Lesotho it was abolished in 2006 by the Married Persons Equality Act.[113]

Violence and mistreatment of women in relation to marriage has come to international attention during the past decades. This includes both violence committed inside marriage (domestic violence) as well as violence related to marriage customs and traditions (such as dowry, bride price, forced marriage and child marriage). Violence against a wife continues to be seen as legally acceptable in some countries; for instance in 2010, the United Arab Emirates's Supreme Court ruled that a man has the right to physically discipline his wife and children as long as he does not leave physical marks.[114] The criminalization of adultery has been criticized as being a prohibition, which, in law or in practice, is used primarily against women; and incites violence against women (crimes of passion, honor killings). A Joint Statement by the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice in 2012 stated:[115] "the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice is deeply concerned at the criminalization and penalization of adultery whose enforcement leads to discrimination and violence against women." UN Women also stated that "Drafters should repeal any criminal offenses related to adultery or extramarital sex between consenting adults".[116]

Investigation and prosecution of crimes against women and girls[edit]

Human rights organizations have expressed concern about the legal impunity of perpetrators of crimes against women, with such crimes being often ignored by authorities.[117] This is especially the case with murders of women in Latin America.[118][119][120] In particular, there is impunity in regard to domestic violence. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has stated on domestic violence against women:[121]

"The reality for most victims, including victims of honor killings, is that state institutions fail them and that most perpetrators of domestic violence can rely on a culture of impunity for the acts they commit – acts which would often be considered as crimes, and be punished as such, if they were committed against strangers."

Women are often, in law or in practice, unable to access legal institutions. UNWomen has said that, "Too often, justice institutions, including the police and the courts, deny women justice".[122]

Harmful traditional practices[edit]

Anti-dowry poster in Bangalore, India
Prevalence of FGM by country, according to a 2013 UNICEF report[123]

"Harmful traditional practices" refer to forms of violence which are committed in certain communities often enough to become cultural practice, and accepted for that reason. Young women are the main victims of such acts, although men can be affected.[124] They occur in an environment where women and girls have unequal rights and opportunities.[125] These practices include, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:[125]

"female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price"

Female genital mutilation is defined as "procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons".[126] An estimated 125 million women and girls living today have undergone FGM in the 29 countries where data exist. Of these, about half live in two countries, Egypt and Ethiopia.[127] It is most commonly carried out on girls between infancy and 15 years old.[124]

UNFPA and UNICEF state that, "In every society where it is practiced, FGM is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality. It persists for many reasons. In some societies, for example, it is considered a rite of passage. In others, it is seen as a prerequisite for marriage. In some communities, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, the practice may even be attributed to religious beliefs. Because FGM may be considered an important part of a culture or identity, it can be difficult for families to decide against having their daughters cut. People who reject the practice may face condemnation or ostracism. Even parents who do not want their daughters to undergo FGM may feel compelled to participate in the practice." [128]

Son preference refers to a cultural preference for sons over daughters, and manifests itself through practices such as sex selective abortion; female infanticide; or abandonment, neglect or abuse of girl-children.[125]

Early marriage, child marriage or forced marriage is prevalent in parts of Asia and Africa. The majority of victims seeking advice are female and aged between 18 and 23.[124] Such marriages can have harmful effects on a girl's education and development, and may expose girls to social isolation or abuse.[125][129][130]

The 2013 UN Resolution on Child, Early and Forced Marriage calls for an end to the practice, and states that "Recognizing that child, early and forced marriage is a harmful practice that violates abuses, or impairs human rights and is linked to and perpetuates other harmful practices and human rights violations, that these violations have a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls [...]".[131] Despite a near-universal commitment by governments to end child marriage, "one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will probably be married before they are 18." [132] UNFPA states that, “over 67 million women 20-24 year old in 2010 had been married as girls. Half were in Asia, one-fifth in Africa. In the next decade 14.2 million girls under 18 will be married every year; this translates into 39,000 girls married each day. This will rise to an average of 15.1 million girls a year, starting in 2021 until 2030, if present trends continue.” [132]

Abuses regarding nutrition are taboos in regard to certain foods, which result in poor nutrition of women, and may endanger their health, especially if pregnant.[125]

Women's ability to control their fertility is often reduced. For instance, in northern Ghana, the payment of bride price signifies a woman's requirement to bear children, and women using birth control face threats, violence and reprisals.[133] Births in parts of Africa are often attended by traditional birth attendants (TBAs), who sometimes perform rituals that are dangerous to the health of the mother. In many societies, a difficult labour is believed to be a divine punishment for marital infidelity, and such women face abuse and are pressured to "confess" to the infidelity.[125] The custom of bride price has been criticized as contributing to the mistreatment of women in marriage, and preventing them from leaving abusive marriages. UN Women recommended its abolition, and stated that: "Legislation should [...] State that divorce shall not be contingent upon the return of bride price but such provisions shall not be interpreted to limit women’s right to divorce; State that a perpetrator of domestic violence, including marital rape, cannot use the fact that he paid bride price as a defence to a domestic violence charge."[44]

The caste system in India which leads to untouchability (the practice of ostracizing a group by segregating them from the mainstream society) often interacts with gender discrimination, leading to a double discrimination faced by Dalit women.[134] In a 2014 survey, 27% of Indians admitted to practicing untouchability.[135]

Tribal traditions can be harmful to males; for instance, the Satere-Mawe tribe use bullet ants as an initiation rite. Men must wear gloves with hundreds of bullet ants woven in for ten minutes: the ants' stings cause severe pain and paralysis. This experience must be completed twenty times for boys to be considered "warriors".[136]

Other harmful traditional practices include marriage by abduction, ritualized sexual slavery (Devadasi, Trokosi), breast ironing and widow inheritance.[137][138][139][140]

Portrayal of women in the media[edit]

The way women are represented in the media has been criticized as interfering with the aim of achieving gender equality by perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. The exploitation of women in mass media refers to the criticisms that are levied against the use or portrayal of women in the mass media, when such use or portrayal aims at increasing the appeal of media or a product, to the detriment of, or without regard to, the interests of the women portrayed, or women in general. Concerns include the fact that the media has the power to shape the population's perceptions and to influence ideas, and therefore the sexist portrayals of women in the media may impact on how society sees and treats women in real life.[141] One common criticism of the way women are represented in the media is that the media reinforces stereotypical societal views of "what women are for", by portraying women either as submissive housewives or as sex objects.[142]


Further information: Gender disparities in health

Social constructs of gender (that is, cultural ideals of socially acceptable masculinity and femininity) often have a negative effect on health. The WHO cites the example of women not being allowed to travel alone outside the home (to go to the hospital), and women being prevented by cultural norms to ask their husbands to use a condom, in cultures which simultaneously encourage male promiscuity, as social norms that harm women's health. Teenage boys suffering accidents due to social expectations of impressing their peers through risk taking, and men dying at much higher rate from lung cancer due to smoking, in cultures which link smoking to masculinity, are cited by the WHO as examples of gender norms negatively affecting men's health.[143] The WHO has also stated that there is a strong connection between gender socialization and transmission and lack of adequate management of HIV/AIDS.[47]

Gender mainstreaming[edit]

Main article: Gender mainstreaming

Gender mainstreaming is the public policy of assessing the different implications for women and men of any planned policy action, including legislation and programmes, in all areas and levels, with the aim of achieving gender equality.[144][145] The concept of gender mainstreaming was first proposed at the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. The idea has been developed in the United Nations development community.[146] Gender mainstreaming "involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities".[147]

According to the Council of Europe definition: "Gender mainstreaming is the (re)organization, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and at all stages, by the actors normally involved in policy-making."[82]

An integrated gender mainstreaming approach is “the attempt to form alliances and common platforms that bring together the power of faith and gender-equality aspirations to advance human rights.” [148] For example, “in Azerbaijan, UNFPA conducted a study on gender equality by comparing the text of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women with some widely recognized Islamic references and resources. The results reflect the parallels between the Convention and many tenets of Islamic scripture and practice. The study showcased specific issues, including VAW, child marriage, respect for the dignity of women, and equality in the economic and political participation of women. The study was later used to produce training materials geared towards sensitizing religious leaders.”[148]

See also[edit]

General issues[edit]

Specific issues[edit]


Organizations and ministries[edit]

Historical anecdotal reports[edit]

Other related topics[edit]


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External links[edit]