Gender equality

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One of generic symbols for gender equality

Gender equality, also known as sex equality, sexual equality or equality of the genders, refers to the view that men and women should receive equal treatment, and should not be discriminated against based on gender, unless there is a sound biological reason for different treatment.[1] This is the objective of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which seeks to create equality in law and in social situations, such as in democratic activities and securing equal pay for equal work.


In her 1405 book The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan wrote that the oppression of women is founded on irrational prejudice; pointing out numerous advances in society created by women.[2]

The Shakers, a celibate evangelical group founded in America in 1774, practiced equality of the sexes soon after they began organizing into their own separatist enclaves. The head of the Shakers' central ministry in 1788, Joseph Meacham, had a revelation that the sexes should be equal, so he brought Lucy Wright into the ministry as his female counterpart, and together they restructured society to balance the rights of the sexes. Meacham and Wright established leadership teams where each elder, who dealt with the men's spiritual welfare, was partnered with an eldress, who did the same for women. Each deacon was partnered with a deaconess. Men had oversight of men; women had oversight of women. Women lived with women; men lived with men. In Shaker society, a woman did not have to be controlled or otherwise owned by any man. After Meacham's death in 1796, Wright was the head of the Shaker ministry until her own death in 1821. Going forward, Shakers maintained the same pattern of gender-balanced leadership for more than 200 years. They also promoted equality with women's rights advocates. In 1853, Shaker brother William Leonard wrote that Shakerism brought an end to the “degradation and oppression of WOMAN,” and suggested that the public discussion of woman’s rights, as well as other reforms, originated with Shakers and was due to their recognition of God as both male and female. In 1859, Shaker Elder Frederick Evans stated their beliefs forcefully, writing that Shakers were “the first to disenthrall woman from the condition of vassalage to which all other religious systems (more or less) consign her, and to secure to her those just and equal rights with man that, by her similarity to him in organization and faculties, both God and nature would seem to demand." Evans and his counterpart, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, joined women's rights advocates on speakers' platforms throughout the northeastern U.S. in the 1870s. A visitor to the Shakers wrote in 1875:

“Each sex works in its own appropriate sphere of action, there being a proper subordination, deference and respect of the female to the male in his order, and of the male to the female in her order [emphasis added], so that in any of these communities the zealous advocates of ‘women’s rights’ may here find a practical realization of their ideal.”[3]

The Shakers were more than a radical religious sect on the fringes of American society; they put equality of the sexes into practice. They showed that equality could be achieved and how to do it.[4]

Modern equality movements[edit]

In the wider society, the movement towards gender equality, especially in Western countries, began with the suffragette movement of the late-19th century, which sought to allow women to vote and hold elected office.

There have been substantial changes to women's property rights, particularly in relation to their marital status. (See for example, Married Women's Property Act 1882.)

In the 1960s, a more general movement for gender equality developed based on women's liberation and feminism. The central issue was that the rights of women should be the same as men.

Changes to attitudes to equality in education opportunities for boys and girls have also undergone a cultural shift.

Over time, there have been significant changes in attitudes which have resulted in more legislation.

Some changes came about by adopting affirmative action policies. There was also a change in social views, including "equal pay for equal work" as well as most occupations being equally available to men and women, in many countries. For example, many countries now permit women to serve in the armed forces, the police forces and to be fire fighters – occupations traditionally reserved for men. Although these continue to be male dominated occupations an increasing number of women are now active, especially in directive fields such as politics and occupy high positions in business.

Similarly, men are increasingly working in occupations which in previous generations had been considered women's work, such as nursing, cleaning and child care. In domestic situations, the biological differences between men and women in relation to activities related to child bearing are more commonly shared where possible, and the role of child rearing is not as widely considered to be an exclusively female role, so that women may be free to pursue a career after childbirth.

Another manifestation of the change in social attitudes is the non-automatic taking by a woman of her husband's surname on marriage or combining names as in the Spanish naming customs.

There have also been legal policies at an international level. For instance, in the European Union, sexual harassment is subject to a directive. The Directive 2002/73/EC - equal treatment of 23 September 2002 amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions states that: "Harassment and sexual harassment within the meaning of this Directive shall be deemed to be discrimination on the grounds of sex and therefore prohibited."[5]

Many people consider that the objective of gender equality has not been fully achieved, especially in non-Western countries. A highly contentious issue relating to gender equality is the role of women in religiously orientated societies. For example, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam declared that women have equal dignity, but not equal rights, and this was accepted by many predominantly Muslim countries. In some Christian churches the practice of churching of women may still have elements of ritual purification and the Ordination of women to the priesthood may be restricted or forbidden. Some Christians or Muslims believe in Complementarianism, a view that holds that men and women have different, but complementing roles. This view may be in opposition to the views and goals of gender equality.

In addition, there are also non-Western countries of low religiosity where the contention surrounding gender equality remains. In China, cultural preference for a male child has resulted in a shortfall of women in the population. The feminist movement in Japan has made many strides and has resulted in in the Gender Equality Bureau, but Japan still remains low in gender equality compared to other industrialized nations.

There are also countries that have a history of a high level of gender equality in certain areas of life, but not in other areas. An example is Finland, which has offered very high opportunities to women in public/professional life, but has had a weak legal approach to the issue of violence against women, with the situation in this country having been called a paradox.[6][7][8]

Not all ideas for gender equality have been popularly adopted. For example: despite topfreedom, the right to be bare breasted in public, frequently applies only to males and has remained a marginal issue. Breastfeeding in public is more commonly tolerated, especially in semi-private places such as restaurants.[9]

However, this picture of Western progress with regards to gender equality can be seen as severely oversimplified. Indeed, it is the contentious meaning of the term "equality" itself that makes measuring gender equality "progress" inherently problematic. Newman and White suggest that equality can be understood in three distinct ways: identical treatment, differential treatment, and fair treatment.[10] Identical treatment is the claim that equality means the deployment of generalizing, abstract, content-less reason, unaffected with regards to the gender it addresses.[10] This view assumes that gender differences are entirely socially constructed concepts, and that an underlying, gender-neutral human should be the target of equality. Next, the differential treatment notion of equality is the claim that biological ("sex") differences do, in fact, exist as tangible and real, and that structuring treatment around these differences is not unequal, so long as these biological differences are accurately defined (that is to say, so long as differential treatment is not random).[10]

The third view, that equality is fair treatment, is in a sense a reaction to both of the previous two claims. Equality as identical treatment assumes that the criteria we use to define human nature is itself objective, neutral, and fair for each human, and differential treatment assumes that there are inherent, empirical, tangible, biological differences that the binary categories of male-female derive from. Theorists like Judith Lorber, Michel Foucualt, Judith Butler, and many more attack both of these essentialist stances, articulating that any claim to an underlying human nature is absurd. In short, this is because what it is to be a human is at bottom a product of constructive discursive discourses. As Judith Lorber puts the point: "the paradox of 'human nature' is that it is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics".[11] Furthermore, theorists like Catharine MacKinnon claim that all circulating articulations of this fictitious "universal human" actually reflect socially male biases.[11] That is to say, unadulterated, objective, pure reason is merely a tacit disguise for patriarchal reinforcement. It is clear, then, how the identical treatment model fails on this view. Similarly, by this logic, the differential treatment is shown to merely use male rationality to define and construct the gender difference - as a result, true equality is precluded.

This tacit inequality in our sexual concept poses a particular problem, because Western Liberal Democracies are premised on descriptions of people that describe them as equal, yet this exists alongside a description of women and men that describes them in terms that makes them unequal. So the above claims of this article that "Non-Western" countries are less gender equal than Western countries must not be so quickly accepted. Since this acceptance of inequality in sexes is perceived as a natural difference between men and women, it thus permeates into society relatively undiagnosed. Disguised as objective, the subjective/biased nature of these claims for equal treatment become particularly difficult to address. This allows the state/laws to appear to be gender-neutral and universally applicable, while ignoring the backdrop of the underlying forces that have structured our legal system and personal cognition in such a way as to promote equality of opportunity for social category male at the price of inequality for social category female. As Judith Lorber says: "it is the taken-for-grantedness of such everyday gendered behaviour that gives credence to the belief that the widespread differences in what women and men do must come from biology".[11] On such a view, then, addressing equality must take on more than formal equality, and become "fair treatment".[10] That is to say, the male paradigm cannot be seen as natural and objective, thus bias and preference and affirmative action to address past discriminations to women should be seen as furthering equality. Lorber describes the "bathroom problem" to articulate the inequality of overarching, gender-neutral laws.[10] She articulates how men's bathroom norms are used as the standard by which to determine how many and how large public bathrooms should be. For various reasons, however, women make more frequent use of the bathrooms than men, and as a result there are too few bathrooms for women, and sufficient amount for men. ). This tacit structural underpinning of male dominance is particularly dangerous for it creates the space for certain instances of female oppression to be viewed and experienced as the woman’s choice. For instance, a woman might choose not to pursue a job that is not compatible with her domestic obligations, while ignoring the structure of the patriarchal family in assigning those domestic roles to her, and furthermore the structuring of workplaces that tacitly stream out women that have this domestic duty in virtue of their strict required hours or inflexibility with days off, etc. As such, the fair treatment model of equality addresses the weaknesses of purely formal/de jure equality in addressing such tacit structural and systematic inequality for women.

Efforts to fight inequality[edit]

World bodies have defined gender equality in terms of human rights, especially women's rights, and economic development.[12][13] UNICEF describes that gender equality "means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. It does not require that girls and boys, or women and men, be the same, or that they be treated exactly alike."[14]

The United Nations Population Fund has declared that men and women have a right to equality.[15] "Gender equity" is one of the goals of the United Nations Millennium Project, to end world poverty by 2015; the project claims, "Every single Goal is directly related to women's rights, and societies where women are not afforded equal rights as men can never achieve development in a sustainable manner."[13]

Thus, promoting gender equality is seen as an encouragement to greater economic prosperity.[12] For example, nations of the Arab world that deny equality of opportunity to women were warned in a 2008 United Nations-sponsored report that this disempowerment is a critical factor crippling these nations' return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture.[16] That is, Western bodies are less likely to conduct commerce with nations in the Middle East that retain culturally accepted attitudes towards the status and function of women in their society in an effort to force them to change their beliefs in the face of relatively underdeveloped economies.

In 2010, the European Union opened the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in Vilnius, Lithuania to promote gender equality and to fight sex discrimination.

Gender equality is part of the national curriculum in Great Britain and many other European countries. Personal, Social and Health Education, religious studies and Language acquisition curricula tend to address gender equality issues as a very serious topic for discussion and analysis of its effect in society.

Violence against women[edit]

Violence against women (in short VAW) is a technical term used to collectively refer to violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women. This type of violence is gender-based, meaning that the acts of violence are committed against women expressly because they are women, or as a result of patriarchal gender constructs. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines VAW as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life" and states that:[17]

"violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men"

Forms of VAW include sexual violence (including war rape, marital rape and child sexual abuse, the latter often in the context of child marriage), domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, sex trafficking, honor killings, dowry killings, acid attacks, stoning, flogging, forced sterilization, forced abortion, violence related to accusations of witchcraft, mistreatment of widows (e.g. widow inheritance). Fighting against VAW is considered a key issues for achieving gender equality. The Council of Europe adopted the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).

Reproductive and sexual health and rights[edit]

The importance of women having the right and possibility to have control over their body, reproduction decisions and sexuality, and the need for gender equality in order to achieve these goals are recognized as crucial by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the UN International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that promotion of gender equality is crucial in the fight against HIV/AIDS.[18]

Maternal mortality is a major problem in many parts of the world. UNFPA states that countries have an obligation to protect women's right to health, but many countries do not do that.[19] Maternal mortality is considered today not just an issue of development, but also an issue of human rights.[20] According to UNFPA:[21]

"Preventable maternal mortality occurs where there is a failure to give effect to the rights of women to health, equality and non-discrimination. Preventable maternal mortality also often represents a violation of a woman’s right to life."

The right to reproductive and sexual autonomy is denied to women in many parts of the world, through practices such as forced sterilization, forced/coerced sexual partnering (eg forced marriage, child marriage), criminalization of consensual sexual acts (such as sex outside marriage), lack of criminalization of marital rape, violence in regard to the choice of partner (honor killings as punishment for 'inappropriate' relations). Amnesty International’s Secretary General has stated that: "It is unbelievable that in the twenty-first century some countries are condoning child marriage and marital rape while others are outlawing abortion, sex outside marriage and same-sex sexual activity – even punishable by death."[22] All these practices infringe on the right of achieving reproductive and sexual health. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for full respect and recognition of women's autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights, stating: [23]

"Violations of women's human rights are often linked to their sexuality and reproductive role. Women are frequently treated as property, they are sold into marriage, into trafficking, into sexual slavery. Violence against women frequently takes the form of sexual violence. Victims of such violence are often accused of promiscuity and held responsible for their fate, while infertile women are rejected by husbands, families and communities. In many countries, married women may not refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands, and often have no say in whether they use contraception."

Girls' access to education[edit]

In many parts of the world, girls' access to education is very restricted. Girls face many obstacles which prevent them to take part in education, including: early and forced marriages; early pregnancy; prejudice based on gender stereotypes at home, at school and in the community; violence on the way to school, or in and around schools; long distances to schools; vulnerability to the HIV epidemic; school fees, which often lead to parents sending only their sons to school; lack of gender sensitive approaches and materials in classrooms.[24][25][26] UNFPA states:[27]

"Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to other opportunities, but also because the educational achievements of women can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty."

Economic empowerment of women[edit]

Female economic activity is a common measure of gender equality in an economy. UN Women states that: "Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth."[28]

Gender discrimination often results in women ending in insecure, low-wage jobs, and being disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation.[29]

Marriage, divorce and property laws and regulations[edit]

Equal rights for women in marriage, divorce, and property/land ownership and inheritance are essential for gender equality. CEDAW has called for the end of discriminatory family laws.[30] In 2013, UNWomen stated that "While at least 115 countries recognize equal land rights for women and men, effective implementation remains a major challenge".[31]

Laws regulating marriage and divorce continue to discriminate against women in many countries. For example, in Yemen, marriage regulations state that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission.[32] In Iraq husbands have a legal right to "punish" their wives. The criminal code states at Paragraph 41 that there is no crime if an act is committed while exercising a legal right; examples of legal rights include: "The punishment of a wife by her husband, the disciplining by parents and teachers of children under their authority within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom".[33] In the 1990s and the 21st century there has been progress in many countries in Africa: for instance in Namibia the marital power of the husband was abolished in 1996 by the Married Persons Equality Act; in Botswana it was abolished in 2004 by the Abolition of Marital Power Act; and in Lesotho it was abolished in 2006 by the Married Persons Equality Act.[34]

Violence and mistreatment of women in relation to marriage has come to international attention during the past decades. This includes both violence committed inside marriage (domestic violence) as well as violence related to marriage customs and traditions (such as dowry, bride price, forced marriage and child marriage). Violence against a wife continues to be seen as legally acceptable in some countries; for instance in 2010, the United Arab Emirates's Supreme Court ruled that a man has the right to physically discipline his wife and children as long as he does not leave physical marks.[35] The criminalization of adultery has been criticized as being a prohibition, which, in law or in practice, is used primarily against women; and incites violence against women (crimes of passion, honor killings). A Joint Statement by the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice in 2012 stated:[36] "the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice is deeply concerned at the criminalization and penalization of adultery whose enforcement leads to discrimination and violence against women." UN Women also stated that "Drafters should repeal any criminal offenses related to adultery or extramarital sex between consenting adults".[37]

Investigation and prosecution of crimes against women and girls[edit]

Human rights organizations have expressed concern about the legal impunity of perpetrators of crimes against women, with such crimes being often ignored by authorities.[38] This is especially the case with murders of women in Latin America.[39][40][41] In particular, there is impunity in regard to domestic violence. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has stated on domestic violence against women:[42]

"The reality for most victims, including victims of honor killings, is that state institutions fail them and that most perpetrators of domestic violence can rely on a culture of impunity for the acts they commit – acts which would often be considered as crimes, and be punished as such, if they were committed against strangers."

Women are often, in law or in practice, unable to access legal institutions. UNWomen has said that, "Too often, justice institutions, including the police and the courts, deny women justice".[43]

See also[edit]

General issues[edit]

Specific issues[edit]


Organizations and ministries[edit]

Historical anecdotal reports[edit]

Other related topics[edit]


  1. ^ United Nations. Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997. A/52/3.18 September 1997, at 28: "Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality."
  2. ^ Riane Eisler (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. p. 72. 
  3. ^ Glendyne R. Wergland, Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
  4. ^ Wendy R. Benningfield, Appeal of the Sisterhood: The Shakers and the Woman’s Rights Movement (University of Kentucky Lexington doctoral dissertation, 2004), p. 73.
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  8. ^ According to a report by Amnesty International: "Finland is repeatedly reminded of its widespread problem of violence against women and recommended to take more efficient measures to deal with the situation. International criticism concentrates on the lack of measures to combat violence against women in general and in particular on the lack of a national action plan to combat such violence and on the lack of legislation on domestic violence. (...) Compared with Sweden, Finland has been slower to reform legislation on violence against women. In Sweden, domestic violence was already illegal in 1864, while in Finland such violence was not outlawed until 1970, over a hundred years later. In Sweden the punishment of victims of incest was abolished in 1937, but not until 1971 in Finland. Rape within marriage was criminalised in Sweden in 1962, but the equivalent Finnish legislation only came into force in 1994 – making Finland one of the last European countries to criminalise marital rape. In addition, assaults taking place on private property did not become impeachable offences in Finland until 1995. Only in 1997 did victims of sexual offences and domestic violence in Finland become entitled to government-funded counselling and support services for the duration of their court cases." (pp. 89–91) – Case Closed – Rape and human rights in the Nordic countries [1]
  9. ^ Jordan, Tim (2002). Social Change (Sociology and society). Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-23311-3. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Newman, Jacquetta A., and Linda A. White. Women, Politics, and Public Policy: The Political Struggles of Canadian Women. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2012. 14-15. Print.
  11. ^ a b c Kimmel, Michael S., and Amy Aronson. The Gendered Society Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 14–17. Print.
  12. ^ a b World Bank (September 2006). Gender Equality as Smart Economics: A World Bank Group Gender Action Plan (Fiscal years 2007–10). 
  13. ^ a b United Nations Millennium Campaign (2008). "Goal #3 Gender Equity". United Nations Millennium Campaign. Retrieved 2008-06-01. 
  14. ^ UNICEF. "Promoting Gender Equality: An Equity-based Approach to Programming". UNICEF. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  15. ^ UNFPA (February 2006). "Gender Equality: An End in Itself and a Cornerstone of Development". United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 2008-06-01. 
  16. ^ Gender equality in Arab world critical for progress and prosperity, UN report warns, E-joussour (21 October 2008)
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