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Gender equality, also known as sex equality, gender egalitarianism, 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. 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.
An early advocate for gender equality was Christine de Pizan, who in her 1405 book The Book of the City of Ladies wrote that the oppression of women is founded on irrational prejudice, pointing out numerous advances in society probably created by women.
As a group, the Shakers, an evangelical group which practiced segregation of the sexes and strict celibacy, were early practitioners of gender equality. They branched off from a Quaker community in the north-west of England before emigrating to America in 1774. In America, 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 by working together with other women's rights advocates. 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:
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.
In the wider society, the movement towards gender equality began with the suffrage movement in Western cultures in the late-19th century, which sought to allow women to vote and hold elected office. This period also witnessed significant changes to women's property rights, particularly in relation to their marital status. (See for example, Married Women's Property Act 1882.)
The United Nations and other international agencies have adopted several conventions, toward the promotion of gender equality. Prominent international instruments include:
Such legislation and affirmative action policies have been critical to bringing about changes in societal attitudes. Most occupations are now 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 role of Parenting or child rearing is more commonly shared or not as widely considered to be an exclusively female role, so that women may be free to pursue a career after childbirth. For further information, see Shared earning/shared parenting marriage.
Another manifestation of the change in social attitudes is the non-automatic taking by a woman of her husband's surname on marriage.
Many people consider that the objective of gender equality has not been fully achieved, especially in non-Western countries. In addition, there has also been criticism from some feminists towards the political discourse and policies employed in order to achieve gender equality, with critics arguing that these gender equality strategies are superficial, in that they do not seek to challenge social structures of male domination, and only aim at improving the situation of women within the societal framework of subordination of women to men. Sheila Jeffreys writes, "When women are encouraged to 'empower' themselves while leaving gendered power structures in place, the idea of empowerment could lead to blaming the women for their lack of progress".
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 Rethe 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.
Not all ideas for gender equality have been popularly adopted. For example: 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.
The above picture of Western progress on gender equality can be seen as severely oversimplified. Namely, the text below aims to describe and analyze the gender biases underlying at least some of our human cultures.
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. Identical treatment is the claim that equality means the deployment of generalizing, abstract, content-less reason, unaffected with regard to the gender it addresses. 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).
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". Furthermore, theorists like Catharine MacKinnon claim that all circulating articulations of this fictitious "universal human" actually reflect socially male biases. 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". On such a view, then, addressing equality must take on more than formal equality, and become "fair treatment". 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. 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.
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World bodies have defined gender equality in terms of human rights, especially women's rights, and economic development. 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."
The United Nations Population Fund has declared that men and women have a right to equality. "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."
Thus, promoting gender equality is seen as an encouragement to greater economic prosperity. 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. 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.
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 (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:
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).
In some parts of the world, various forms of VAW are tolerated and accepted as parts of everyday life; according to UNFPA:
In most countries, it is only in recent decades that VAW (in particular when committed in the family) has received significant legal attention. The Istanbul Convention acknowledges the long tradition of European countries of ignoring, de jure or de facto, this form of violence. In its explanatory report at para 219, it states:
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.
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. Maternal mortality is considered today not just an issue of development, but also an issue of human rights. According to UNFPA:
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 (e.g. 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." 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:
Adolescent girls are at the highest risk of sexual coercion, sexual ill health, and negative reproductive outcomes. The risks they face are higher than those of boys and men; this increased risk is partly due to gender inequity (different socialization of boys and girls, gender based violence, child marriage) and partly due to biological factors (females' risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections during unprotected sexual relations is two to four times that of males').
Socialization within rigid gender constructs often creates an environment where sexual violence is common; according to the WHO: "Sexual violence is also more likely to occur where beliefs in male sexual entitlement are strong, where gender roles are more rigid, and in countries experiencing high rates of other types of violence." The sexual health of women is often poor in societies where a woman's right to control her sexuality is not recognized. Richard A. Posner writes that "Traditionally, rape was the offense of depriving a father or husband of a valuable asset — his wife's chastity or his daughter's virginity". Historically, rape was seen in many cultures (and is still seen today in some societies) as a crime against the honor of the family, rather than against the self-determination of the woman. As a result, victims of rape may face violence, in extreme cases even honor killings, at the hands of their family members.
Women's freedom of movement continues to be legally restricted in some parts of the world. This restriction is often due to marriage laws. For instance, in Yemen, marriage regulations stipulate that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission. In some countries, women must legally be accompanied by their male guardians (such as the husband or male relative) when they leave home.
The CEDAW states at Article 15 (4) that:
Since the 1950s, social scientists as well as feminists have increasingly criticized gendered arrangements of work and care and the male breadwinner role. Policies are increasingly targeting men as fathers as a tool of changing gender relations.
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. UNFPA states:
Women are underrepresented in most countries' National Parliaments. The 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation called for female participation in politics, and expressed concern about the fact that "women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere". The Council of Europe states that:
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."
Gender discrimination often results in women ending in insecure, low-wage jobs, and being disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation.
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. In 2013, UNWomen stated that "While at least 115 countries recognize equal land rights for women and men, effective implementation remains a major challenge".
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. 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". 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.
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. 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: "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".
Human rights organizations have expressed concern about the legal impunity of perpetrators of crimes against women, with such crimes being often ignored by authorities. This is especially the case with murders of women in Latin America. In particular, there is impunity in regard to domestic violence. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has stated on domestic violence against women:
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".
"Harmful traditional practices" refer to forms of violence which are committed in certain communities often enough to become cultural practice, and accepted for that reason. Young women are the main victims of such acts, although men can be affected. They occur in an environment where women and girls have unequal rights and opportunities. These practices include, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
Female genital mutilation is defined as "procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". The practice is concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and it often has serious negative health consequences. It is most commonly carried out on girls between infancy and 15 years old.
Son preference refers to a cultural preference for sons over daughters, and manifests itself through practices such as sex selective abortion; female infanticide; or abandonment, neglect or abuse of girl-children.
Early marriage, child marriage or forced marriage is prevalent in parts of Asia and Africa. The majority of victims seeking advice are female and aged between 18 and 23; it can have harmful effects on a girl's education and development, and may expose girls to social isolation or abuse.
Abuses regarding nutrition are taboos in regard to certain foods, which result in poor nutrition of women, and may endanger their health, especially if pregnant.
Women's ability to control their fertility is often reduced. For instance, in northern Ghana, the payment of bride price signifies a woman's requirement to bear children, and women using birth control face threats, violence and reprisals. Births in parts of Africa are often attended by traditional birth attendants (TBAs), who sometimes perform rituals that are dangerous to the health of the mother. In many societies, a difficult labour is believed to be a divine punishment for marital infidelity, and such women face abuse and are pressured to "confess" to the infidelity.
Tribal traditions can be harmful to males; for instance, the Satere-Mawe tribe use bullet ants as an initiation rite. Men must wear gloves with hundreds of bullet ants woven in for ten minutes: the ants' stings cause severe pain and paralysis. This experience must be completed twenty times for boys to be considered "warriors".
The way women are represented in the media has been criticized as interfering with the aim of achieving gender equality by perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. The exploitation of women in mass media refers to the criticisms that are levied against the use or portrayal of women in the mass media, when such use or portrayal aims at increasing the appeal of media or a product, to the detriment of, or without regard to, the interests of the women portrayed, or women in general. Concerns include the fact that the media has the power to shape the population's perceptions and to influence ideas, and therefore the sexist portrayals of women in the media may impact on how society sees and treats women in real life. One common criticism of the way women are represented in the media is that the media reinforces stereotypical societal views of "what women are for", by portraying women either as submissive housewives or as sex objects.
Social constructs of gender (that is, cultural ideals of socially acceptable masculinity and femininity) often have a negative effect on health. The WHO cites the example of women not being allowed to travel alone outside the home (to go to the hospital), and women being prevented by cultural norms to ask their husbands to use a condom, in cultures which simultaneously encourage male promiscuity, as social norms that harm women's health. Teenage boys suffering accidents due to social expectations of impressing their peers through risk taking, and men dying at much higher rate from lung cancer due to smoking, in cultures which link smoking to masculinity, are cited by the WHO as examples of gender norms negatively affecting men's health. The WHO has also stated that there is a strong connection between gender socialization and transmission and lack of adequate management of HIV/AIDS.
Gender mainstreaming is the public policy of assessing the different implications for women and men of any planned policy action, including legislation and programmes, in all areas and levels, with the aim of achieving gender equality. The concept of gender mainstreaming was first proposed at the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. The idea has been developed in the United Nations development community. Gender mainstreaming "involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities".
According to the Council of Europe definition: "Gender mainstreaming is the (re)organisation, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and at all stages, by the actors normally involved in policy-making."
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