We’ve heard it for decades. Women’s empowerment and gender equity are key components in fighting poverty, realizing human rights, building stable societies, sustaining peace and promoting health. Arguably, both directly and indirectly, women’s empowerment is a contributing piece to all 17 sustainable development goals. And yet, this is an aspect of sustainable development that we continue to struggle with globally.
In many fields, women continue to feel that they have to outdo themselves in order to prove that they “deserve” the spot that should be given to a man: guilty of being a “woman” until proven otherwise. At home and in their partnerships, women are often expected to do more and their time is valued less, something highlighted in Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter this year. The need to #sharetheload was further raised in a surprisingly poignant laundry detergent commercial that made me tear up in public. Awkward.
In the public sphere, women are openly judged and consumed as playthings while their insecurities are abused for profit at the expense of many things, including their education, their health, and even the environment. The latter may sound a bit of a stretch, but just consider how much of our collective consumption is rooted in achieving some level of stereotypical desirability as articulated by external forces.
Even in the very personal space of their own bodies, women are at war, be it with themselves, their partners, or others. Young girls grow up learning that they are worth less if they look a certain way, that attracting attention for the series of genetic accidents that make up their physical appearance is more important than earning attention for being someone wonderful, powerful, strong, present. Justice in gender-based violence and sexual assault is a game of semantics and victim-blaming – so much so that some women assume responsibility for the missteps of others, not only after a crime has occurred, but even before, as they choose an outfit or as they decide whether to stand up for themselves in a domestic dispute. (I need to interject here because my friend JUST turned around and asked me if she looked like a prostitute and whether she needed to change to avoid being leered at. I rest my case).
And then there is the reproductive space – a beautiful and powerful privilege sometimes turned into another means of controlling and undermining the rights of women. Be it archaic and absurd laws, religious condemnation, societal disgrace or medical risk, women often undergo nearly insurmountable challenges to maintain their right to choose what happens to them in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. Where pregnancy does come to term, disrespect and abuse in health facilities are potential challenges faced by women as well as lack of support in their home environments.
Conversation and media coverage around the spread of the Zika virus in Latin America highlight some of the problems around unequal shares of responsibility in reproductive health. Here is an example of governmental mitigation measures as voiced by the Economist:
“It started after a handful of governments advised women to delay getting pregnant. Colombia, which has the second-highest number of infections after Brazil, advised women to wait six to eight months. Jamaica issued a similar recommendation, even though no cases of Zika have yet been reported there. El Salvador’s government suggested that women should delay pregnancy until 2018. Panama warned women from indigenous communities, in which infection rates are high, not to conceive.”
It’s as if we’ve forgotten that it takes two to tango. Laying the burden entirely on women makes little sense, not to mention that unwanted sex and sexual violence leading to pregnancy run rampant. Women are traditionally held accountable for repercussions of lust and desire, and yet they’re not given the right to their own femininity and sexuality. A double edged sword if you will. Female sexuality is often merely a tool for someone else, superseded by male desire. This is an ingrained message that insidiously filters in through upbringing, education, media, peers, etc. And it’s harmful. It’s harmful to self-worth, equitable partnerships and sexual health.
Women’s empowerment goes beyond filling in quotas of female members of parliament or increasing the number of girls who have access to an education. All of these are of course important, but empowerment should also include, in parallel, efforts to build confidence while removing systemic barriers and entrenched ideologies that undermine self-worth. To encourage girls to exist unapologetically, to speak their minds, to lead, to take a stand when there’s inequity, to own their bodies and their minds, and to value the feminine. Confidence-building is a public health intervention and to create an enabling environment for it, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to break with status quos and perverse incentives that rely on our collective disenfranchisement. Empowered people in general are not only healthier themselves but also contribute to healthier families and communities, healthier economies and a healthier planet. Undermining this in half the world’s population is just bad math.
Disclaimer: The lack of mention of men in this piece is not because they don’t face some of the same stressors (they do) nor is it because they don’t play a role in women’s empowerment (they do, #heforshe), it’s merely because the focus of the piece is women.