Progress on women’s rights has been far slower than expected across the world as a report shows underage marriage rates have barely come down this decade, while dozens of nations still legally prioritise men. Forty-one countries recognise only a man to be the head of the household; 27 countries still require that women obey their husbands by law, and 24 countries require women to have the permission of their husband or a legal guardian (such as a brother or father) in order to work. One in six girls worldwide is still married before turning 18, despite the introduction of legislation increasing the legal age of marriage in more countries than ever, according to a new global gender index. The numbers have decreased so slowly since 2012 that global advisers warn it could take a century before child marriage is eradicated for good. Women still face legal restrictions over unwanted pregnancies in 119 countries, with only two countries having decriminalised abortion since 2012.
The Social Institutions and Gender Index (Sigi), published on Friday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) development centre, shows that some progress has been made since the rankings list was last published, in 2014. Fifteen countries have delayed the legal age of marriage; 14 have enacted legislation to criminalise intimate partner violence, and three countries have criminalised female genital mutilation (FGM). Globally, social acceptance of domestic violence has nearly halved, from 50% in 2012 to 27% today. “The glass half full is that there’s been tremendous political will across countries to implement laws that were not there before, or to actually improve them, so that women’s rights are better protected, yet social norms remain a sticky point, and one that is very difficult to address,” said Bathylle Missika, head of the gender division at the OECD’s development centre. “When it comes to domestic violence, one in three women in the world has been a victim of domestic violence, and 27% of the world’s female population think it’s acceptable to take a beating from their husband under certain circumstances. To me, this is the most shocking dimension: in some African countries, women find it justifiable to take a good beating if they burn their meals.”
The Sigi index measures how discriminatory laws, social norms and practices affect the lives of women and girls worldwide. It compares 180 countries (although only 120 of them have enough data to be included in the rankings) by evaluating four dimensions of a woman’s life: rights in the family (for instance, if she is forced into early marriage), physical integrity (her sexual and reproductive health and rights), access to productive and financial assets (such as land and workplace rights), and civil rights (political representation). Countries in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrated the highest levels of discrimination, with Yemen the worst performer for the second time running. Cameroon is among some countries in sub-Saharan Africa that were found to be highly discriminatory against women and girls, with the Philippines one of the worst offenders among several nations in south-east Asia. Cameroonian women and girls face a multitude of challenges. Girls as young as 15 can be married with their parents’ permission. Abortion is illegal. Women are not protected from spousal rape and are largely denied the chance to own land. Although FGM is criminalised, “breast ironing” – whereby a girl’s breasts are flattened using hard or heated objects, to delay puberty – is a popular method to stave off rape, teen pregnancy, or early marriage, the report claims. Global figures on child marriage have failed to decline at a faster rate for various reasons, said Missika, “In some countries, it is socially accepted and, while there might be a law [against it], you may not go to jail if you actually marry a minor.” Missika pointed to Britain, where the legal age of consent is 18 but children aged 16 can be married with parental consent. “This goes against the main convention on the elimination of discrimination against women,” she said. “What Sigi can help us do is hold these western countries to account too,” said Rachel George, a senior research officer in the gender equality and social inclusion team at the Overseas Development Institute.
“We can’t let the west – the US, the UK, Europe or even the Scandinavian countries that seem to always get all the fanfare for gender equality – think this doesn’t apply to them. Every country has some discrimination going on in some way, and some discrimination which may be pervasive, so keeping everyone on the hook is extremely important.” Missika said a multi-agency approach was needed to address the many issues raised by the most recent index. “This is not the world we want to leave to our children. Half the population in the world (47%) believes that men make better political leaders than women. Beyond some of the success stories and some of the setbacks [in the index], there are some global issues that advocacy still has a role to play,” she said. “We all know that social norms are harder to make evolve, but it’s going to take work from different angles, on laws and norms, and it’s not because you have one that you have the other. This is what people have to understand: there is no final approach that works when it comes to implementing sustainable development goal five [gender equality]. It’s a whole-of-society approach and interventions have to be targeting the whole lifecycle of women.”
Credit: Kate Hodal for The Guardian, 7 December 2018.