In Belong’s fifth article on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we examine SDG 5, equality of gender, and why this is proving so hard to change and create a fairer world for women and girls.  

Anita Bhatia, the Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, told Belong in an exclusive interview that achieving gender equality across the world will be very difficult because it is such a complex issue that has many different sides to it.

While there has been significant progress in the last three decades in trying to reach gender equality, change in this area tends to be slow and steady and does not happen overnight.

“The nature of the problem is such, is that there is no single solution, there is no one silver bullet, but a combination of many different initiatives,” said Bhatia.

 She explained that what is needed to reach parity between men and women is a change in power structures across society, a change to social norms, a change in attitudes, legal reform and progressive legislation. As well as all this you need investment in public and private sector programmes to give women access to all the resources and services they need.

None of this is achievable without “political leadership at the highest level. Somebody in government who is really effective and is going to push boundaries and take very bold action,” said Bhatia.

No Country Has Full Gender Equality

Bhatia was quick to explain that there isn’t a single country in the world which can claim to have achieved gender equality.

“There are things you can look at in the world and say, you know, we’ve managed to eradicate polio or we’ve managed to eradicate TB (although it’s coming back again now), but on gender equality, the whole notion of equality consists of so many different aspects, you can’t look at any one country and say its reached gender equality,” she said.

Even countries which many people perceive to be very good on gender equality, like the Scandinavian countries, there is still a lot of discrimination, maintains Bhatia, particularly at the workplace and in women’s participation in politics.

“I have yet to find a country that is good on all aspects of gender equality because most countries can do better in most fields,” she said.

Gender Parity in Government

The case of Canada shows what can be done in terms of achieving 50% gender parity in cabinet and is an example of how political will and strong leadership can enforce institutional change. This came about because of a personal commitment by the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to implement gender parity in his government.

There are now 12 countries, including Canada and South Africa, Nicaragua, Sweden and France which have full gender parity in cabinet, which is double what it was in 2017.

There are also a further nine countries, including Spain, El-Salvador and Peru where there are at least 40% women ministers in the cabinet. Once this becomes the norm in a particular country, then it’s pretty hard to go back on.

“I think it’s wonderful that some countries have raised the bar because once the bar is raised that high, it’s hard to go back. I think this illustrates that it does take political will, and this is an example of someone having a vision and taking the action to implement it,” said Bhatia.

What has been successfully implemented in cabinet and government can be emulated in the senior management of an institution or major corporation. There is now an initiative called TheBoardroom Africa where there are people who are trying to ensure that companies working in Africa have gender-balanced boardrooms.

There is also a lot of research that had been carried out, which proves that whether in small or large companies, or whether in cabinets, boards or management structures having gender creates greater diversity and creativity in decision making leading to better overall results.

 Sexual Violence Against Women Still Widespread

Bhatia explained that in many countries and cultures society is still completely dominated by men and this results in increased levels of violence and sexual violence against women and in some countries there is still not enough of an outcry about rape.

“There just isn’t enough outrage about it, and the root cause of this is fundamentally unequal power structures and access to power by men versus women in society,” Bhatia explained.

When women are marginalised because of their sex, this is often accompanied by other kinds of marginalisation on grounds such as class, religion or ethnicity.

This can create a situation where “you just have this disease of violence against women and sexual harassment, which turns up over and over again,” she added.

In many societies, there is still a culture of blaming women and girls who have experienced sexual violence and therefore many women stay silent and don’t report crimes that have been committed against them. In such an environment it can take a huge amount of courage for someone to be able to speak out about what has happened to them. However, there is evidence that this is beginning to change with the use of targeted social media campaigns by women, such as the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment. 

“Then you get #MeToo happening and suddenly the flood gates open,” said Bhatia.

Then people realise that “in fact, sexual harassment has been normalised and made invisible and in-fact societies often justify it with phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ to explain all sorts of obnoxious behaviour,” she added. 

Bhatia believes that this will lead to women and girls, as well as men, speaking out about incidents, which in many cultures were previously unspeakable and this will lead to change.

She believes that if there is to be real and lasting change in this area, then men and boys, as well as women and girls must call out what is increasingly being regarded as unacceptable behaviour and that they are beginning to do this in increasing numbers.

In response to a question by Belong on the decision of the Russian parament in 2017 to decriminalise some kinds of domestic violence, which has had a terrible effect on women in Russia in abusive relationships. According to the amendments, first-time offenders receive a fine and are no longer tired and charged in a court of law. Since the legislation change, there has been a threefold increase in battery cases against women in Russia’s courts and these are just the cases that are reported. Bhatia said it represents on serious step backwards for women’s rights in Russia.

“There is nothing acceptable about being able to hit another person. It’s a human rights violation actually. Laws like that should not exist,” she said.

Forced Marriage and Child Marriage Still an Issue

UN Women and UNICEF have been working hard to eliminate all laws that discriminate against women and girls and there has been some success in the past three decades. In 1990, 10% of girls globally under 15 were married, now the figure is at 6% and most of this progress has been in the Middle East and Africa where there is traditionally a high proportion of girls that marry before reaching adulthood.

While legislation that protects children from marriage is important, changing the law is often not enough because in some cultures this practice is deeply embedded.

“It’s connected to poverty. It’s connected to the perception that marriage will make things safer and men will provide protection. It may be connected to notions of family honour, to religious laws and very deeply embedded social beliefs about women who are not married,” said Bhatia.

Unpaid Care Still Mainly Carried out by Women

Bhatiya believes that governments could play a much greater role in putting in place alternatives to unpaid care and there needs to be a recognition that unpaid care work is real work that should be compensated.

“Governments should invest in policies such as universal childcare, which gives women freedom and access to services and enhancing early education for children can reduce the time that women spend on unpaid care,” she explained.

Introducing national paid parenting leave would allow women and men some leeway while still fulfilling their parenting responsibilities. 

The Belong view is that while progress has been made on achieving gender equality in the past three decades more needs to be done by governments in developed as well as developing countries to give women greater access to the power bases of countries and businesses, that in the long term will make governance and management better and make sure women are not discriminated against.

Aisha Mohamed