Ask anyone what they think of “equality” as a concept, and they’ll likely tell you they support it. If I were a betting woman, I’d even guess that 100 percent of those surveyed would say equality is a basic human condition we should all enjoy. No exceptions.
But equality — the state of being equal in status, rights and opportunities — is something that still eludes us, whether it’s gender, pay, racial or social equality, or a multitude of other circumstances (and how they intersect) that keep various populations disenfranchised.
Twenty-five years ago this week, 50,000 people gathered in Beijing for the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. At the conclusion of the two-week event, participants, including representatives of 189 governments, put forth the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a commitment to advance the rights of women worldwide, focusing on 12 areas: poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, the environment, and the girl.
At a basic level, it can seem strange to have the need for a declaration to level the playing field for women. But the fact is, as much as we say we want equality, the systems in which we operate still inherently undervalue women at an alarming rate, and in almost every category. These statistics are mind-boggling: only six countries in the world give women equal legal work rights as men; 33,000 girls become child brides every day; women are 47 percent more likely to suffer severe injuries in car crashes because safety features are designed by men; and only women born more than two hundred years from now will get equal pay for equal work. Tomorrow, coincidentally, is the first International Equal Pay Day.
This is what the data tells us: gender equity is good for everyone. Countries that are most gender equal also score the highest on happiness scales. Gender equity also contributes to our economies. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, inequality is estimated to cost $95 billion a year.
But we won’t achieve gender equality unless we address what fundamentally holds women back. And that includes sexual and gender-based violence. Violence against women and girls is still a pervasive problem. UN Women found that 18 percent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have experienced violence at the hands of a current or previous partner in the previous 12 months. We’ve found, through our research on girls, that about one in four experience some form of sexual violence before the age of 18. The same is true for about one in eight boys. It’s startling. But it’s real.
Here’s what’s also real: all violence — against children, adolescents and adults — is about power. So, adjusting all our power imbalances, especially the ones relating to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, can lead us into a future that is safer for everyone. And sexual violence prevention, healing services and proper judicial support can help us further close the gaps for all, including boys. Boys are affected by sexual violence, not only because they often experience it themselves, but because the single biggest predictor of perpetrating violence against girls and women is having experienced it as a child, or having witnessed some level of violence in the home growing up.
It’s a vicious cycle, one that hurts women and girls the most, but spares very few along the way. For us to interrupt it, we need to look at our systems, the very ones that most of us agree should be — but are still not — equal.
As we look back on Beijing, let’s renew the promise by discussing the fundamentals of inequality. Now that I’ve given you a bit of my take, tell me…what’s yours?