Creating gender equality platforms to move forward
On the occasion of the International Women's Day, 2023, observed on March 8, several interesting and significant denominators have emerged throughout the world. Analysts and leaders came forward to underline the need for positive action at a time when gaining fundamental rights for women was still proving difficult in many parts of our planet.
António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General has correctly underlined the need for us to take certain courses of action that are essential. In this context he has significantly drawn attention to certain basic courses of action. They are- (a) strengthening protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, (b) accelerating women's full participation and leadership, (c) stressing the need for technology and innovation to advance gender equality, and (d) using technology to expand pathways to education and opportunities for women and girls.
He has also drawn attention to the fact that in the contemporary scenario women make up around a third of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and maths. This factor has been highlighted because there are complaints from certain sectors of the civil society that women are under-represented in developing new technologies and that requires common effort to close the digital divide and increase the representation of women and girls in science and technology. Guterres feels that exclusion of women from the digital world has trimmed an estimated US Dollar 1 trillion from the GDP of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade - a loss that could eventually increase to nearly US Dollar1.5 trillion by 2025 in the absence of required action in all countries by governments, the private sector and civil society -all working together "to build a more inclusive, just, and prosperous world for women, girls, men, and boys everywhere".
Analysts Giulia Ribeiro Barao and Bosen Lily Liu have made some interesting references pertaining to the participation of women and girls in the domain of innovation and higher education. In this regard attention has been drawn to the multidimensional gaps that were created because of the social consequences of COVID-19. In 2021, UNESCO projected that 11 million girls were at risk of not returning to school after the education interruptions caused by the pandemic. Even though the educational disruption accelerated the way into innovative learning practices, including distance and online education, it was not an equal reality for all social groups, since those already marginalised were also overrepresented in the offline population, including girls and women, and especially those living in poverty and rural communities.
It also may be noted that in 2020, worldwide, 57 per cent of women used the internet, compared with 62 per cent of men (ECOSOC, 2021). In the least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs), Africa, and the Arab States, the gender gap in internet use was more significant and it still remains like that. Barao and Liu have remarked in this regard that in LDCs, only 19 per cent of women are using the internet, which is 12 percentage points lower than men. Similarly, in Africa, 24 per cent of women use the internet compared to 35 per cent of men, while in the Arab States, the internet usage rate is 56 per cent, compared to 68 per cent of men.
It is the evolving international dimension that has also urged Mercy Erhi Makpor to correctly suggest that people need to leverage digital technology to scale up activities to impact their private and public lives. Citizens should in this context access various digital services such as registrations, voting, conducting business and making online transactions, amongst others. At present there is a great gap in women's and girls' adoption of digital technology compared to men's and boys'. It has been reported that more than 50 per cent of women are offline globally.
In the Global South, this is apparently more pronounced as the internet penetration rate for women is 41per cent, compared to 53 per cent for men. In 2020, it was found that 393 million women in developing regions do not own mobile phones when compared to 8 per cent globally. There are also substantial regional differences, especially in the sub-Saharan and South Asia regions, with gender gaps in ownership of digital devices falling as low as 13 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. Invariably, this leads women more than men to share or borrow digital devices from friends and family members. Such a scenario is affecting social and cultural growth.
One has to note that the UNESCO within its paradigm has been taking some innovative steps. One such measure has been the creation of the UNESCO Young People on Transforming Education Project (YPTEP) to further explore the field of innovation in education and innovative learning practices related to technological or non-technological tools and techniques. This effort addresses the potential of supporting gender-responsive practices from girls and women related to innovation. It is generally agreed that it is helping in advancing all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
On the other hand, there is the other side of the coin that has been referred to in a critical manner by Simone Galimberti with regard to how the United Nations has been failing to promote proactively issues related to volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people's lives. It has been pointed out that the United Nations has not really been able to pursue in a strident manner the human rights accountability mechanisms and improve the gender equality status scenario because of their lack of a much stronger synergy and coordination. It has also been suggested by Galimberti that a reform of a stronger UN System that is better positioned to truly achieve SDG 5, should acknowledge an existing deep gulf between promotion and defense of human rights focusing on women (as well other human rights issues) and, on the other end, actions on ground at legislative, judiciary and economic and social levels to change the status quo. There is also the need "to include the entire spectrum of areas that would ensure achieving SDG 5- from gender violence to economic justice, to bodily autonomy and sexual reproductive rights, to climate justice to technology and innovation and to leadership". After that there is also criticism that unfortunately the UN system has really not been able to master this matrix.
Analyst Katja Iversen known for observations on gender issues has also clearly underlined certain factors that need to be carefully monitored and rectified wherever necessary. In this context, it has been observed that female empowerment denotes the creation of more gender equality and more women in economic and political power. However, it has also been remarked that "many girls and women do not articulate their own needs and what they themselves want, but - consciously or unconsciously - live a life in service for others, whether it is the children, the partner, the parents or the workplace". It has been pointed out that "this is not only an individual problem, but very much also a systemic problem, which is underscored by the statistics, documenting that women shoulder by far the largest share of the unpaid care work at home, as well as the largest part of the unpaid voluntary work at work".
Such a scenario exists most unfortunately in different parts of the world and needs to be rectified. We have seen in the recent past how different aspects of life -for women and girl children- have been unraveling in countries like Afghanistan. It is affecting their right to education, their involvement in the digital paradigm, their healthcare rights and also their efforts aimed at greater connectivity with the rest of the world. Such situations are also evident in certain parts of Africa. This is definitely casting a shadow on their role within their socio-economic structure.
One needs at this point to also refer to certain observations made on March 8 by Canada's first Indigenous Governor General Mary Simon pertaining to how women - particularly in leadership positions, those with indigenous background and with high profiles -- are subjected to harassment through the social media during their daily lives. She has correctly remarked that such disrespectful behaviour must stop.
It gives one great pleasure when one compares such existing fiascos with the evolving paradigm for the female population in Bangladesh. We have seen the leadership at the top tier of our government being headed by a lady Prime Minister, the Deputy Leader being another lady and the Leader of the Opposition in the Jatiyo Sangshad being a lady. We also have a lady as Speaker of our Jatiyo Sangshad.
Over the last decade we have noticed how governance by the current administration in Bangladesh has encouraged girls to pursue education- including medical care, engineering, banking, business administration and architecture. Their involvement with medicine, surgery and nursing made them first line soldiers after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. This continued commitment and constructive role helped us to contain and control not only the spread of the Pandemic but also in providing treatment for dengue affected children.
Government educational institutions are not only providing boys and girls free school education but also free books. They are also being encouraged to participate in sports activities. We have also seen how skilled women are joining the workforce- be it the garment sector or the police force or the armed forces of UN Peacekeeping operations. We have also seen them being recognised and supported not only in the cultural horizon and the political horizon but also within the different dimensions associated with the electronic and print media. It would also be pertinent at this point to note that there are on-going efforts to ensure women empowerment in the remote rural areas. The media has drawn attention to an important observation made by "Friendship" founder that "Char girls, who previously used to stay at home and do household chores, are now taking the lead in many sectors." They are "now going to Universities and contributing to the welfare of the society."
One needs to conclude by observing that women and girls as well as men and boys are two sides of the same coin. None of them can be neglected.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.