Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Archival Rescue 14 ~ Gender Equality

Topping up the other half of the glass;

For Women half is the battle
March 8, 2005 Sydney
Morning Herald

There is not one country where women are truly equal with men, reports Cosima Marriner on International Women's Day.

Women have made great strides in recent years - increasing their numbers in parliaments, gaining on men in the pay stakes and becoming more educated. The last big international study of gender equality, Progress of the World's Women, issued by the United Nations in 2002, found advances around the world, although the pace of change was too slow in many regions, especially sub-Saharan African countries struggling with poverty, conflict and the effects of HIV/AIDS. Where are the best - and worst - places for women to live? The answer is not as obvious as it may seem. Despite their problems, at least 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have higher rates of women's parliamentary participation than countries such as France, Japan and the United States, the UN notes.

Few countries shine on many levels and in some categories there are surprising standouts, including Rwanda and Kenya. Nordic countries such as Sweden, Finland and Norway come closest to female nirvana when judged by political representation, wages, health and family-friendly policies.

The worst countries for women to live in - by our standards at least - are likely to be poor and war-torn, or unsympathetic to women's rights, such as Saudi Arabia. But finding the faultlines is not as simple as plotting the borders between East and West.

The chasm between the haves and have-nots makes the US "shocking" for many women, says a University of Adelaide academic, Barbara Pocock. Low minimum wages (about $A6.50 an hour compared with $12.30 an hour in Australia), a welfare system aimed at pushing people back into work, expensive health care and the dominance of individual bargaining means many women are left on the outer.

In Australia, women are generally well educated and healthy, their wages are relatively close to men's and they have their rights enshrined in law. But academics warn the gains of the 1970s and '80s are starting to erode as women struggle to balance work and family.

"We certainly have more [Australian] women in positions of power than we had, we have more women earning higher incomes and they are better educated," says the feminist Eva Cox, a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of
Technology, Sydney. "But we haven't changed our work culture nearly enough. On the numbers game we've done a lot better than we have on the power-shifting game."


Rwanda is an unlikely bastion of female empowerment. But with women occupying 39 of the 80 seats in its national parliament, the war-torn nation boasts the highest proportion of female politicians anywhere in the world. Rwanda's gender balanced parliament is due to two factors: a 30 per cent quota for women enshrined in its constitution and a proportional representation system for elections.

Quotas and proportional representation are crucial if women are to increase their numbers in government, says Marian Sawer, professor of politics at the Australian National University. Quotas force parties to stand a certain number of female candidates. Proportional representation provides an incentive to put forward a balanced ticket to appeal to a range of voters.

Women in the Nordic countries have benefited from these two measures, making up 45 per cent of the Swedish parliament, 37.5 per cent in Finland and 36 per cent in Norway, according to the Interparliamentary Union.

At the other end of the scale are the Gulf states and some Pacific
nations. The parliaments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have no female representatives. Nor do Tonga, Micronesia, Nauru or the Solomon Islands.

In recent decades Australian women steadily increased their
representation in Federal Parliament, only to suffer a decline in last year's election when the proportion of female MPs dipped from 25.3 per cent to 24.7 per cent. Sawer attributes this to the Coalition's increasing move to the right, its aversion to quotas (unlike Labor, which has achieved a 35 per cent quota), and
the adversarial nature of Westminster politics. Sawer believes quotas are important if the sexes are to be equally represented. "It's important to ensure there are a range of perspectives represented in Parliament ... It also raises the status of women in society in general," she says.


Nowhere on Earth can women expect pay equity, but Kenya comes closest. Kenyan women earn 10 per cent less than Kenyan men, the UN's 2004 Human Development Index says. But this is probably due to the relatively small participation of women in the formal labour force in Kenya, says Pocock. This also explains the small wages gaps in Cambodia (where women earn 77 per cent of what men do), Ghana (75 per cent), and Tanzania (71 per cent).

An effective minimum wage is the key to narrowing the gap, says Pocock. Sweden has the second best female-to-male wage ratio, at 0.83. Australian women have the seventh smallest wages gap in the world, earning 71 per cent of the male wage.

The wages gap is widest where pay rates are unregulated, individual bargaining rights are minimal and immigrants with little protection make up a large proportion of workers. This includes Saudi Arabia, where women earn just 21 per cent of the male wage, Oman (22 per cent), Belize in Central America (24 per cent) and Peru (27 per cent). How much women earn is partly dictated by their education level. Most countries have now achieved gender equality in secondary school education, according to the Progress of the World's Women report.But in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia there are still far fewer girls in secondary school than boys. In Niger, Guinea, Mozambique, Burundi and Chad, fewer than 10 per cent of teenage girls are enrolled in high school.


Many developed countries - including Australia - score poorly on child care, maternity leave and child benefits for women. A 2004 OECD report found Turkey, Mexico and New Zealand were the only countries in the developed world with poorer family-friendly provisions than Australia. Scandinavian mothers receive the most support. Australia, New Zealand and the US are among a handful of governments that do not require women to be paid some form of maternity leave. In countries as diverse as Russia, Colombia, Laos and Morocco, the government foots the entire bill for three to six months of maternity leave. In other countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, employers must pay maternity leave benefits.

The Howard Government recently introduced lump sum baby care payment, which will eventually increase to $5000, but this is not genuine maternity leave, because it is paid to all mothers regardless of whether they return to work after the birth of their child or stay at home.The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, blames the lack of maternity leave, affordable child care and flexible workplaces for the slow growth in the number of Australian women in full-time work. In 1980, 27 per cent of Australian women were in full-time work. Despite a surge in female university graduates, that figure has increased only to 31 per cent today. "Good child care is essential if you're going to increase the participation of women in the workforce," says Goward. "Women can't work without feeling confident their children are well looked after."


So poor is their health that Zambian women can expect to live to only 32.5 years, Zimbabwean women to 33.5 and Sierra Leonean women to 35.6, according to the 2004 Human Development Index. The combined effect of civil wars, HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty shorten the lives of many African women and contribute to high maternal mortality rates.
Japanese women are likely to live nearly three times as long as African women, on average reaching their 85th birthday. Hong Kong women also live long lives (average age 82.7), as do those in Sweden (82.5), Australia (82) and Italy (81.9).

Women in disadvantaged social positions are twice as likely to suffer poor health, says a 2004 World Health Organisation report, because they are likely to be exposed to malnutrition, poor water supply and sanitation, unsafe sex, tobacco, drug and alcohol use, dangerous work and pollution.Health is a key factor in rating women-friendly countries because it is linked to education, wealth, employment and gender bias, says Dr Angela Taft, from the Public Health Association of Australia. Under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were not allowed to be seen with a man who wasn't a family member. As there were no female doctors, this meant they were unable to seek medical treatment. The suicide rate increased, as did the mortality and morbidity rate. In China and India, where there is cultural preference for sons, there are high rates of foeticide and infanticide.


Although the UN rates the mistreatment of women as one of the three biggest problems hindering development, there is little internationally comparable data. Results from a UN survey are expected by the end of the year.

Among developed countries, Australia has a relatively high incidence of sexual assault. One per cent of women in Australia, Finland and Sweden reported having been sexually assaulted, compared with the 0.6 per cent international average, according to the UN's International Crime Victims survey 2000. Women in Japan, Ireland, Poland and Portugal were least likely to have been sexually assaulted.

But Australian women were less likely to suffer domestic violence than those in other countries. "Women in our country are well educated, and the legal system makes physical and sexual assault crimes," Taft says, noting the laws also need to be properly implemented.Eight per cent have been physically assaulted by an intimate partner, according to the UN, compared with nearly half the Bangladeshi female population, 34 per cent in Egypt and 29 per cent in Canada.Violence against women is rife in countries involved in civil wars. In Rwanda from April 1994 to April 1995, estimates of the number of women and girls raped range from 15,700 to more than 250,000, the UN says.

Domestic violence increases in countries at war. Women who live in male-oriented societies are also more vulnerable. The first sexual experience of many girls is often unwanted and forced.
Gender mutilation and child marriages are common in some countries, and hundreds of thousands of girls are bought and sold into prostitution or sexual slavery every year, according to a WHO report on violence and health.

"In countries where women are legislatively and culturally inferior, the rate of violence against women is much higher," Taft says.Free at last to lead a life of her own "I have my freedom," says Marie Baby Sapateh when asked what she likes best about living in Australia. The 36-year-old Sierra Leone native was one of 2 million people - more than a third of the country's population - forced to flee her homeland in the late 1990s. Sierra Leone was destroyed by a decade of civil war that came to an end in 2002.

Sapateh escaped to Guinea first before arriving in Australia in 2001 as a refugee. She suffered the full horror of war in Sierra Leone. Her husband was shot dead in front of her, she was gang-raped, and two of her children went missing. "We suffer the worst suffering," Sapateh says of Sierra Leone women, who have a life expectancy of 45. "They rape women young and old; they don't ask. They amputate some girls. They ask the son to rape the mother."

Sapateh has since been reunited with her two children - she declines to speak about the details - and is working as a nursing assistant and living in Marrickville."My life is happy because I am here with my family. We came here traumatised from war, we were treated badly ... and now we are free." In Australia she has access to medical care, government assistance and better wages - and she is free to wear trousers."There I eat and sleep, but not like here. Here I have computer, I have video, I have this, I have that ... I can also look after my other family back home. When I was there I couldn't give them five cents. There you are the man's belonging. Here everyone gets their own share."


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