September 30, 2016

Growth, not platitudes for women

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”. This year, “International Day for Women” looked forward to achieving full equality for women within 15 years under the theme, “Planet 50-50 by 2030”. Back in 1995, under the auspices of the United Nations, the “most comprehensive analytical and normative report” on women had been crafted. It is only fair we consider what progress was actually made, since history has shown us that all too often in confronting challenges to the status quo, those in positions of power all too frequently form commissions, issue reports and calls for action and that is where the matter ends.
There were 12 areas identified for specific actions: Women and Poverty; Education and Training of Women; Women and Health; Violence against Women; Women and Armed Conflict; Women and the Economy; Women in Power and Decision-making; Institutional Mechanism for the Advancement of Women; Human Rights of Women; Women and the Media; Women and the Environment and The Girl-child. We would all agree that this is a very exhaustive list.
Last year, after receiving reports of action taken from 166 countries, including Guyana, during the previous two decades, the UN concluded: “Twenty years on from the commitments made in Beijing, no country has achieved gender equality. The analysis of these reports shows that progress has been unacceptably slow, with stagnation and even regression in some cases. Progress has been particularly slow for women and girls who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.”
The finding that “violence against women and girls persists in all countries and in many forms” would certainly resonate in Guyana. Here, violence against women and girls has not only “persisted”, but, going by both anecdotal and investigative evidence, has actually increased. While there has been heightened publicity on the issue creating enhanced awareness of the challenges, it is clear that violence against females emanates from deeply-ingrained structural factors rooted in our historically patriarchal society.
Change will only come when the last vestiges of viewing females as the “property” of males are extirpated from our society. The elimination of violence against women, then, is not only a matter of passing laws – it demands changing economic and other structures that “keep women in their place”. The UN evaluation report agrees: “There is a need to change discriminatory social norms, stereotypes and practices that are holding back progress. This requires an investment in long-term interventions and campaigns to change attitudes and behaviours, including on male responsibility for unpaid care work and for challenging discrimination and violence.”
Changing societal views on the value of “care work” in and out of the home, which is usually performed by women, may be helped by men taking more responsibility for it, but ultimately will depend on women achieving equality in the work place. “Care work” should come down to being a matter of “opportunity costs” – when the female or male may or may not decide to forego the lesser salary to perform it. Women then must be empowered by the State, which should insist on not only equal access to training and education but equal pay for equal work.
This goal in turn will depend on the overall economy growing and being structured to accommodate this necessary influx of women. The UN programme for action advises: “Macroeconomic policy should be reoriented to increase State investments in infrastructure, social services and social protection measures to ensure that women and girls can live a life with dignity. Macroeconomic policies should also support the generation of decent work for women and men and ensure women can enjoy their full range of rights at work.”
Much of what is needed to create a society where women are equal to men depends on the growth of the economy. In Guyana, a decade of continuous growth under the PPP has ground to a halt: this must be reversed instead of issuing platitudes.

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