Poverty, violence worsens for world’s women

On International Women’s Day we could be complacent and think upon the amazing advances made by women into powerful leadership roles in the world today.

Particularly here in Australia, we have had the first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and our first Governor General, her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce who is about to retire.  Recently, she presented  the Boyer Lecture and it is a powerful statement of, not only how far we have come towards equal rights with men, but also how far we have to go, particularly when we are compassionate enough to take a world view of poverty among women.

The figures Quentin Bryce gave in the Boyer Lecture deserve our attention.

“The reality continues that women do not have, nor are they acknowledged as having, equality of power and rights with men,’’ said Ms Bryce who was Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from 1988-1993.

The following facts have not altered over many years despite feminism and the powerful women who have risen to positions of world leadership.

Women produce half the world’s food and are still the primary caregivers to children and the elderly. They earn 10 per cent of the world’s income, own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property, and represent 70 per cent of the 2.5 billion people living on less than two dollars a day.

AS if that is not miserable enough news, Ms Bryce also reported that the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund in New York told him in 2013 that “violence against women is on the rise and that the progress of women and children marginalised by poverty is stalling’’.

Reading her lecture, which was her personal story of equal rights advocacy over many decades, made me realise what a remarkable woman we have had as Governor General. Behind her is a stellar community career  working on the status of women, education, health and social justice programs, as well as founding chair and CEO of the National Childcare Accreditation Council.

But she turned our attention to one major point  – that women of developing nations are decades behind us western society women in so many respects.  Not the least being power to determine an economic future for themselves, to live in safety, to gain an education and access to birth control.

Here is her list of too many stories of violence against women: “intimate partner violence, rape and sexual violence in war; trafficking, prostitution, sex tourism; sexual harassment, abuse of women prisoners, genital mutilation, honour killings; acid attacks, dowry deaths and pornography’’.

I would add the cultural practice of child brides being offered to much older men and encouraged to become pregnant as young teenagers.  This has seen Australian Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr Catherine Hamlin, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize 2014, operate on thousands of young African teenagers to repair fistulas in her Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Their young pubescent bodies have been terribly damaged by birthing and at 90 years of age, she still operates Thursday mornings.

This also introduces the matter of unhygienic birthing practices in many third world countries.  “The death rate of women in pregnancy and childbirth in developing regions is still 15 times higher than in developed regions,’” Ms Bryce stated. And let us not forget our own Aboriginal sisters who suffer domestic violence incidents at an 80 times greater rate than white women.

So the list of disadvantage, physical, emotional and financial abuse and poverty needs to ensure that no-one is complacent about the real status of millions women in the world today. Women of whole cultures and nations suffer systemic human rights abuses, one of which is the endemic practice in tribal societies of female circumcision, or cliterectomies.

In her Boyer Lecture, the Governor General pointed out that the overall aim of the UN Millennium Project set up to develop a “concrete action plan for the world to achieve the 8 Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) by 2015 is to

“reverse the grinding poverty, hunger and disease affection billions of people”.

UN Women creates projects which educate, train and support women living in poverty across the globe.

Meanwhile, in her imaginings of a better Australia, Ms Bryce notes we need to achieve a nation “where women’s contributions to civil society, the workplace, the economy, the family and home are valued equally with men’s’’.

Despite the rhetoric surrounding IWD, this is still a work in progress.