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It’s 2021. What’s changed for women’s rights?

It’s 2021. What’s changed for women’s rights?

So, what are we working with? 

We’ve all seen the protest signs reading ‘Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights,’ and while the banners might look cute on Instagram, it’s also a worthy lesson – women’s rights are fundamental human rights. You might be thinking, well, duh. But almost everywhere in the world, women and girls are still denied them, often because of their gender. 

According to Amnesty International, fundamental human rights (aka women’s rights) include the right to live free from violence and discrimination; to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; to be educated; to own property; to vote, and to earn an equal wage.

And how close are we to achieving this equilibrium? Sure, let’s celebrate the strides for women’s rights and gender equality, but also take stock of where we are and what still needs addressing. 

This subject covers a myriad of issues, from reproductive rights to career opportunities. With so much on the agenda, we’re relying on sources like the WHO, UN, and reputable human rights charities to provide the necessary data. 

How can we even begin to measure this?

Measuring how far women’s rights have progressed and where we are in 2021 is hard. We can’t ignore that. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends using the Millennium Development Goals as an international indicator of progress for women. The MDGs include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education,  promoting gender equality, and empowering women. 

Another solid indicator of women’s rights progress is the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which remains the world’s most progressive blueprint for advancing gender equality worldwide. This landmark declaration was signed in 1995, and over 25 years on, it stands as a good indicator of progress. UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said in a statement in 2020 marking the 25th anniversary of the declaration, "on this important anniversary, let us reaffirm the promises the world made to women and girls in 1995." The Conference’s deliberations back in 1995 resulted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – a plan for change across 12 critical areas to realize women’s and girls’ human rights – whose continued relevance “cannot be overstated today,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. 

Where have we made progress?

  • There has been a marked improvement in maternal mortality rates, and the world has seen maternity mortality drop from 385 to 216 per 100,000 from 1990 to 2015. As with all data, though, the figures aren’t black and white. For example, while maternal mortality rates have generally improved, per birth, a woman in Nigeria is still more than 200 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Sweden. Another striking talking point is that the US is getting worse, despite having one of the lowest mortality rates of anywhere in the world. Between 1990 and 2016, it’s worsened from 12 to 14 per 100. 
  • Public awareness around period poverty has seen a huge surge in the past few years, and Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free period products for everyone. Hurrah for free tampons! 
  • England has also made strides (although slightly less impressive than Scotland) by abolishing the so-called tampon tax from 1st January 2021, so women no longer have to pay VAT on sanitary products. Hurrah for cheaper tampons! 
  • The ‘Me Too’ movement (first coined by Tarana Burke in 2006) highlighted women’s struggles and the sexual harassment they’ve too often faced. It was a call to arms for women all over the world to speak out about their experiences. A collective response like this does some amazing things.

  • The British government made “upskirt” photos a crime. Offenders face up to two years in jail, with the most serious put on the sex offenders register. Quite infuriating and maddening, it took until 2019 for this to become a crime, but we move. 
  • Specific cultures have stepped forwards, and as of 2018, women can now drive in Saudi Arabia. That was the last country to still prevent women from driving. Just getting in a car alone was illegal until 2018. Let that sink in. 
  • In October 2017, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became the world's youngest female head of government at 37 and then only the second elected head of government to ever give birth while in office. As if that wasn’t kick ass enough, she made history again in 2018 as the first world leader to attend the United Nations general assembly meeting with her baby in tow.
  • Finally, in January 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman Vice President of the United States, shattering barriers that have kept men entrenched at the highest levels of American politics for many years. She joined the ranks of other female vice presidents worldwide, in countries including Bulgaria, Nicaragua, Liberia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, The Gambia, and South Sudan.

Where should we focus our energy in the next decade?

In October 2020, more than 100 countries committed to concrete actions that will advance gender equality for women and girls everywhere at a high-level virtual meeting during the UN General Assembly. It marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and is hopefully going to be a catalyst for further change. 

In the meantime, instead of getting disheartened about the seemingly slow process, we should be regrouping and focusing our energies on the fight for equality. 

Here are some of the causes that are well worth focusing on: 

  • Violence against women and girls is the most frequent human rights abuse worldwide. More awareness and legislation is needed. Listen to survivors, teach future generations and hold each other accountable. UN Women has lots of ideas for how you can take action against violence against women.  
  • Poverty is a lead restriction to female healthcare and education, so supporting charities focusing on women need our support. 
  • More than 1 in 10 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby. The pressures and loneliness of motherhood are still considered a bit of a taboo. We don’t mean to be crass, but F**k that. We need to speak openly about the issues pregnant women and new mothers face. We need to put pressure on governments to improve the inadequate and outdated policies that surround maternal mental health. 
  • Although the gender pay gap now has a brighter spotlight on it – since 2018 in the UK, companies with more than 250 employees must publish it – in 2020, women still only made $0.81 for every $1 a man makes. This is improving each year but at a slow rate, and we must keep the pressure on. Talk to your employer about what data they’re publishing. 
  • Attitudes are improving but still need work. 1 in 4 respondents to a 2019 UN survey agree a woman should not earn more than her husband. I mean, come on. 

Wrapping up

Where we campaign is a deeply personal decision, but if you do choose to involve yourself in the fight for women’s rights, then measuring progress is one way to stay optimistic about the steps forward we make. 

While constant setbacks and the daily news cycle can leave us feeling helpless, there’s undoubtedly been progress in the last 25 years. We can’t expect victories every day, but we sure should celebrate them when they do happen. So here’s to 25 more years of progress.