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Improving the Status of Women and Girls

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How well a society treats its women is one of the strongest indicators of the success and health of that society. Discrimination against women and girls occurs in many forms — through gender-based violence, economic discrimination, reproductive health inequities, and harmful traditional practices (such as child marriage), to name just a few. Women and girls of all ages have a right to live with dignity, free of cultural oppression. We must Speak Out in favor of gender equality. First of all, it is the right thing to do — not just for the environment and larger community, but for these individuals. Secondly, empowered women generally choose to have smaller families, contribute to the health and productivity of whole communities, and improve the prospects for both people and the environment.

Since 1995, the Beijing Platform of Action has been guiding the international community in its work to raise the status of women and girls. It aims at “removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making. This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities.

“Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace. A transformed partnership based on equality between women and men is a condition for people-centred sustainable development. A sustained and long-term commitment is essential, so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children and for society to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

Obviously, the rights of individual women and girls to enjoy equal social status with men and boys needs no further justification: population activists everywhere should support improving the status of women and girls as a stand-alone, non-negotiable ethical imperative for human development. That the coincident effect of meeting this human right also helps to slow down population growth is a win-win for people, planet, and the other species with which we share Earth.

The United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA) lists various aspects of empowerment that are central to improving the status of women and girls:

Reproductive health: The ability of women to control their own fertility is fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life. Protecting and promoting her reproductive rights — including the right to decide the number, timing and spacing of her children — is essential to ensuring her freedom to participate more fully and equally in society. For both physiological and social reasons, women are more vulnerable than men to reproductive health problems. Collectively, complications of pregnancy or childbirth are the number two killer of women of reproductive age. Failure to provide information, services, and conditions to help women protect their reproductive health constitutes gender-based discrimination and is a violation of women’s rights to health and life.

Economic empowerment: 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.

Educational empowerment: 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 children.

Political empowerment: Gender equality cannot be achieved without the backing and enforcement of institutions. But too many social and legal institutions still do not guarantee women equality in basic legal and human rights, in access to or control of resources, in employment or earnings, or in social or political participation. And men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority. Globally, only 22% of parliamentarians are women. Laws against domestic violence are often not enforced on behalf of women.

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