Women’s rights have come a long way since the first International Women’s Day in 1900. Early campaigners would be proud of the transformative role they played in securing votes for women, opening up access to male-only professions, and criminalising domestic violence and rape in the UK. The world is unquestionably better for many women than it was 100 years ago, thanks in no small part to the early pioneers.
But we cannot be complacent. There is still a long way to go. There is not yet worldwide recognition that women’s rights are human rights. This year we have witnessed again how women are subjected to violence and oppression, and denied the most basic of rights around the world.
The horrific events unfolding in Syria remind us that we must stand in solidarity with women caught up in the horror of the conflict. Not only are brave women like Marie Colvin losing their lives to shine a light on the unfolding conflict, but Syrian women are at the frontline of a conflict that is tearing the country apart.
And out of the headlines, rape and sexual violence continue to scar women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – one in 10 of whom have been raped, many more than once. Around the world, women are paying the price of war; they work tirelessly for peace, yet they are often not invited to the negotiating table during the peace process.
In the Middle East women’s rights are still neglected, despite momentous changes that have taken place through the Arab spring. We mustn’t forget that in Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to drive, and if they are unmarried they must remain under male guardianship, effectively diminishing their status to that of a child. Even in post-revolution Egypt there are only nine women MPs – less than 1%, down from 12% under President Mubarak.
In fact, less than 20% of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Less than 10% of countries have a female head of state, and less than 3% of signatories to peace agreements are women. Every minute, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth and another 20-30 women suffer serious injury or disability. Women face a barrage of difficulties, just because of their sex.
Education can play a pivotal role in empowering women to fight this glaring injustice. Study after study has shown that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and social prejudice. Yet girls’ education is still not valued as highly as boys’, despite evidence of the huge benefits it brings to individuals and to communities.
Indeed, women’s education has what the head of the UN Development Programme calls a “multiplier effect”. Educating women improves their rights in all areas, including property and work. Financial independence, born out of better education, brings prosperity to local communities. Education improves health – girls with post-primary education are five times more likely to be knowledgeable about HIV and Aids. Figures consistently show that mothers who have been educated are more likely to give birth in health facilities.
Despite all these benefits, 30 million more girls than boys are out of school. The UK government uses aid to promote low-fee providers, but evidence shows that very low income families often have to choose whose fees to pay, and boys regularly squeeze girls out. Removing school fees altogether and providing financial incentives for girls to attend schools is what works – as Brazil has shown through its Bolsa Familia scheme – and that should be prioritised instead.
And while the Department for International Development’s focus on getting girls into school is commendable, its Girls Education Challenge Fund must complement and support the domestic government’s own plans, not operate as a separate and parallel fund. DfID should always seek to help developing countries build their own universal school systems.
Education is a basic human right, and denying it to women and girls is unacceptable. Empowering women and achieving gender equality is a difficult and slow process that entails shifting attitudes, traditions and practices. We must commit to a long-term plan.
The first 100 years of International Women’s Day brought us so much, but as the UK government’s spending cuts impact so negatively on women that leading equality charities have declared them illegal, we know how far we still have to go.
• Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead is honorary co-president of the Labour Campaign for International Development.
• Jo Cox is chair of Labour Women’s Network