On the eve of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Pope John Paul II sent a letter to the “women of the world”. While the letter called for equal pay and an end to injustices, including Church-sanctioned injustices, against women, the letter steadfastly protected the Church’s position against divorce, ordination of women priests, and reproductive health and rights.
The agenda for the Fourth World Conference on Women boldly proposed address gender equality and the prevention of discrimination against women. The conference produced the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in the areas of health, violence, armed conflict, economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment, and the girl child. These are considered stepping-stones to reaching Generation Equality (fittingly, the United Nations theme of this year’s International Women’s Day). While progress has been made for women in some of the areas of the Beijing Declaration, there is still a long way to go to reach equality.
25 years on, we are on the eve of another highly anticipated, if not significantly scaled back United Nations 64th Commission on the Status of Women. A focus of the meeting will be to review and appraise the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Now is the opportune time to take a hard look at the realities of what is happening in some of the most contentious parts of the equality debate. The most pressing is the positioning of women and femmes in the context of peacemakers, mediators and nurturers.
When the Pope published his letter to women in 1995, this positioning of women was at its core. The “genius of women” as the Pope called it, lies in our ability to place ourselves at the service of others, for “in giving (ourselves) to others each day women fulfill their deepest vocation.”
This characterisation of women and femmes as existing for the service of others is highly problematic. It dictates our role even before we have started our lives. To typecast women and femmes in this way makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible to question, challenge and break rigid gender roles that are not only blockers to equality, but also sources of discrimination and great harm toward women, non-binary and trans people.
As we approach International Women’s Day, it is time for us to take an honest look at how this stereotyping is holding us back from reaching Generation Equality at each stage in our lives.
Gender stereotyping has a profound impact on children, particularly femininity. The Beijing Declaration acknowledged that from the earliest stages of life, girls face a number of discriminating forces. From forced marriage to everyday sexism that develops into deeply disempowering ingrained social attitudes, these early experiences of discrimination are profound and impacts can be lifelong. Take for instance the assumption of femininity in terms of subjugation and sexuality that impacts on how girls are valued. This stereotyping results in:
- 31 million girls of school age are still not in school and more than half of these girls are unlikely to ever go to school
- An estimated 15 million adolescent girls worldwide have experience sexual assault
- 12 million girls worldwide married before the age of 18 each year
Forced marriage is relatively rare in Australia, and we have made great progress in gender equity in education. Yet rigid stereotyping is still a barrier to gender equality and a threat to the safety of girls and young women.
In Australia, Aboriginal children and young people experience intersectional aspects of colonisation and oppression:
- Racism is a determinant of social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, associated with anxiety, depression, mental health and suicide risk
- Child mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are twice the rate of mortality for non-Indigenous children
- 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students have experienced discrimination from their teachers
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child removals continue to be a reflection of systemic discrimination rooted in the ongoing effects of colonisation
For the general population of all girls in Australia:
- Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 make up the greatest proportion of victim/survivors of sexual violence in Australia
- Girls between the ages of 15 and 24 years make up the second highest proportion of victim/survivors of sexual violence in Australia
- Girls with disability continue to experience limited access to relationships and sexuality education and reduced agency in decision making within their own health care
- While girls and young women fare well in terms of vocation and tertiary education, there is still strong gender inequality in career choice and development, particularly in the areas of engineering and trades
Gender stereotyping influences the way children grow and develop. It is one of the most pervasive and predictive drivers of violence against women in society so it should be a significant focus when it comes to securing gender equality.
Women of Reproductive Age
We regularly use language and stereotypes that tie together the ideas of women and motherhood, but rarely acknowledge that not all women will choose to be mothers and not all women who would choose motherhood are able to be pregnant. So when a woman is pregnant, it is one of the most powerful examples of placing herself in the service of others. If a woman chooses to avoid pregnancy, she is breaking from the traditional motherhood role. And should she choose to discontinue her pregnancy, she is not only breaking from this role, but also going against social expectations of maternity. If a woman wants to mother a child yet cannot be pregnant herself, her femininity and right to parent is questioned.
Over the past generation we have seen a conservative shift that has, in many parts of the world, limited access to sexual and reproductive rights — particularly contraceptive and abortion access for women.
The Beijing Declaration clearly set out the rights of women to have access to adequate services and to have control over their sexual and reproductive health, free from force and coercion. Even so, reproductive health and rights has always been, and continues to be, a key battleground in the fight for gender equality. This has resulted in:
- The death of 500 women in emergency settings during pregnancy and childbirth every day
- An estimated 25 million unsafe abortions each year
- In countries where there are restrictive abortion laws, 25% of abortions are unsafe
- More than half of all women in low-income countries face an unmet demand for contraception.
Beyond sexual and reproductive health, gender inequality has also resulted in:
- 35% of women globally experiencing violence from an intimate partner
- Adult women accounting for 49% of human trafficked victims each year (women and girls together make up 72%)
- Women being paid 63% of what men are paid
- A gender pay gap that will take an estimated 202 years to close
In Australia, we still have a long way to go:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised due to family violence
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ+ Sistergirl and Brotherboy people continue to experience systemic barriers to healthcare
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia with incarceration linked to systemic discrimination
- Women with disability are at high risk of reproductive coercion
- Women are nearly 3 times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner and 4 times more likely to be hospitalised from intimate partner assault
- Sexually transmitted infections are increasing for heterosexual women over 45 years of age
- There continues to be issues in access and equity to all contraceptive options and abortion care
- Only 72% of pregnant women who chose to birth received antenatal care in their first trimester
- Half of all mothers experience discrimination at work as a result of their pregnancy
- A 14% gender pay gap (fulltime work) between men and women that will take an estimated 50 years to close
- Women performing 62 days of unpaid work each year and 64% of their working week doing unpaid care work
The Beijing Declaration highlighted key areas of inequality for ‘older women’. Specifically, access to appropriate sexual and reproductive healthcare, broader health needs and economic (including workforce) participation.
From a health perspective, gender inequality hampers efforts to effectively diagnose and treat diseases and conditions:
- More aging women than men are blind because of lack of access to appropriate diagnosis and treatment
- While globally women live longer than men, they suffer more years of poor health
Aside from health, aging women are:
- More likely to face the effects of ageism and sexism in the workplace
- At greater risk of poverty and social exclusion than men
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aging women continue to have lower life expectancy rates than the overall population of aging women in Australia
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and their descendants experience chronic health issues, disability, and significant economic and social disadvantage
- Older women are the fastest growing segment of homeless people
- Older women face significant barriers when it comes to employment, accumulation of wealth and access to health information
- Those who suffer a serious heart attack are significantly less likely to receive appropriate treatment but twice as likely than men to die six months after discharge from hospital
- Women are less likely than men to have a formal Advance Health Directive
It has been 25 years since the Beijing Declaration, and while we have made progress towards gender equality, there is still a long way to go. In Australia, gender equity for all women requires critically confronting intersecting aspects of colonisation, racism, ableism, diet culture, body shaming, ageism and heteronormativity.
#GenerationEquality must be more than a theme for the year, or an aspirational catchcry. It must be a firm commitment. We owe it to the girls, women, femme, non-binary and trans people of the future to ensure that when we look back, 25 years from now, we can genuinely say we are Generation Equality.