Women must truly have equal rights

Published: Thursday | February 21, 2013, GLEANER

By Jaevion Nelson

The plight of women and girls must be addressed as the Government courts our support for the new tax measures and woos the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is crucial because sustainable development hinges on investments in their economic potential.

Women are disproportionately affected by the austere economic times we have been experiencing over the years. They are more likely to be poor and unemployed. While women are outperforming men at every level of education, their academic prowess is not an indicator of their position in all spheres of life.

Inequality, patriarchy and the myopic way that we understand the role and importance of females in our society is the cause of this. Despite the strides made in recognising and challenging sexism, many still believe women's primary duties are to provide sexual gratification to men and to procreate.

The Church, in part, must be blamed, as well as the entertainment, political, education and justice systems. They have failed in recognising that human capabilities, contentment and performance are severely constrained by gender inequality.

It is disheartening that feminists and women's-rights organisations aren't frustrated and militant enough to aggressively tackle this issue.

For far too long we have used educational achievement to conclude that females are at an advantage in the society. It has even been suggested that they are being empowered at the expense of males. Supposedly, the presence of idle men in our communities is the fault of women. Yes! Blame women, just like we did when Adam ate that 'forbidden fruit'.

Somehow, the marginalisation of males is a consequence of our appreciation and respect for females and not our warped-misguided gender expectations and stereotypes which constrain their understanding of self and purpose. If only there was an injection lethal enough to eradicate the sexist ideologies that frame conversations about gender, then social and economic justice for women might be possible.

'Development as Freedoms'

Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, argues that development is about having more choice and opportunity to participate in society. As such, "what people can positively achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and enabling conditions [...] which are influenced by the exercise of people's freedoms, through the liberty to participate in social choice and in the making of public decisions". How do women fare using this concept of "development as freedoms"?

A Women's Media Watch (WMW) compilation of studies conducted by the Government and Women's Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) answers this important question. Forty-six per cent of households are headed by females and only 26 per cent of them have a partner. They are larger and spend less per person for annual consumption compared to male-headed households ($125,000 vs $155,000).

In addition, the labour force comprises more males than females (58 per cent vs 42 per cent). The situation is even worse when you look at the percentage of working-age females who participate in the labour force - only 58 per cent as opposed to 74 per cent males.

The female unemployment rate (14.5 per cent) is nearly two times that of males. It's even higher when disaggregated among youth (32 per cent females vs 17 per cent males). The inequality is more glaring if we consider that unqualified males who make up 60 per cent of the labour force are more likely to be employed than similarly situated females.

The status of women in positions of leadership/management is similar. Only 29 per cent of women are in leadership and senior levels of governance in the public sector. Less than 20 per cent are on private-sector boards. And we are convinced women have elevated? Perhaps in our music videos and commercials.

We shouldn't be too quick to think that patriarchy doesn't exist because of the women we see in government. There are only five female senators and eight members of parliament, including four ministers. In fact, an examination of their contribution to women's rights might be embarrassing.

However, I must commend those, including Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith for her recent efforts, and Olivia Grange as minister with responsibility for gender affairs, who have made attempts.

We are prisoners to the system of injustice against women and girls because too many of us are comfortable with patriarchy, which is not perpetrated solely by men but women as well.

If only we would recognise that "the dominant ideology in society always favours beliefs, conceptions and interpretations of reality which justify the system of social organisation and the position of the privileged". (Daniel Dorling)

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, human rights and HIV advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jaevionn.