While the status of women and girls around the world has been improving, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to undo years of advancements made in the fight for gender equity.
It has been 25 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing developed a roadmap to achieve gender equality. After two weeks of political conferences in September 1995, 189 countries developed the Beijing Platform for Action with 12 critical areas to address women’s and girls' rights.
The Platform for Action sought to imagine a world where every woman and girl is treated equally and her rights and protected.
Here are five ways that the world has become a safer and better place for women and girls in the past 25 years.
1. There are more women in government.
Since 1995, the percentage of women in parliament has nearly doubled, according to UN Women. Women leaders are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women and girls and pass legislation to support them.
“There is evidence to show through research that when you have more women in public decision-making, you get policies that benefit women, children, and families in general,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said in an interview in 2019.
Today, there are 13 UN member states with women in the highest position of executive power, according to Statista. Countries with women leaders have also been credited with some of the best responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. More countries are creating laws to support gender equality.
Over the past decade, reports from UN Women show that 131 countries have enacted over 274 legal and regulatory reforms in support of gender equality.
In 2018, Iceland introduced a new law that forced companies to prove that they were paying all employees equally. Any company that employs more than 25 people who are not being paid equally will face daily fines. Similarly, in Rwanda, a constitutional amendment in 2003 mandated that at least 30% of the country’s parliamentary seats be reserved for women.
Implementing laws and legislation that specifically address women’s and girls’ rights are key to achieving long-term and institutional change.
3. More girls are in school than ever before.
In the past 25 years, every developing region has, or has almost, achieved gender parity in primary education.
Today, there are 79 million more girls in school today compared to 1998.
Studies have shown that education can raise girls’ quality of life by improving their economic and social mobility and health. Educated girls are also likely to invest up to 90% of their income into their families, which can help improve the safety and health of everyone around them.
4. Giving birth is safer than ever.
Although the global maternal mortality rate is still high, it fell by 38% between 2000 and 2017.
Since maternal mortality is a preventable issue, the decrease in deaths is due to stronger and more accessible health care.
In the past 25 years, the World Health Organization has addressed large-scale inequalities in health care systems and has increased the quality of reproductive, maternal, and newborn health care services.
Lower mortality rates have a positive impact on entire communities: children whose mothers died during childbirth have a 51.5% chance of surviving to their first birthday, compared to a 94% survival rate in children whose mothers survived.
5. There are fewer child brides.
Since 1995, child marriage has declined from 1 in 4 girls to 1 in 5. Around the world, fewer girls are at risk of losing their fundamental rights to health, education, and safety to marriage.
Young brides often end up trapped in their marriages, as they are isolated from their friends, families, and social networks, which makes them susceptible to physical and sexual violence or exploitation.
Child marriages are also linked to maternal and infant mortality, as young women are forced to have babies before their bodies are ready. If the baby survives, they are also less likely to be healthy or have access to education, making the effects of child marriage generational.
While progress has been made, the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration also highlights how much work is still needed to create an equal world for women and girls. Many of the advances in gender equality are also being reversed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have made some important gains… But we have not fulfilled the ambitious vision of the Beijing Declaration,” United Nations General Secretary António Guterres said at the High-Level Meeting on the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women on Oct. 1.
After thanking those who contributed to the Platform for Action in Beijing, Guterres implored world leaders to recommit themselves to the fight for gender equality.
“Let’s finish what they started,” he said.
A report from UN Women concluded that none of the countries that agreed to the Platform for Action in 1995 are even close to delivering on their commitments.
In 2020, there is not a single country that has achieved gender equality. Here are some of the problems that women and girls still face today.
1. There are still not enough women in leadership positions.
In 2020, women only account for 25% of parliamentary roles and men still occupy the vast majority of leadership roles.
“Equality isn’t just one quarter of the seats at the tables of power,” the UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said on International Women's Day in 2020. “But that’s the current reality of women’s representation, across the board.”
Beyond politics, women are also not represented equally — out of all Fortune 500 companies in the US, for example, only 7% of CEOs are women.
2. Women are still underpaid and responsible for domestic work.
Globally, women still earn 16% less than men, making them more at risk of living in poverty.
Women aged 25 to 34 are also 25% more likely to live in extreme poverty. That’s 125 women living in extreme poverty for every 100 men.
Stereotypes about gender mean that women bear domestic, unpaid responsibilities such as child care and household chores, that keep them out of the workforce. Without opportunities for paid, fair work, women are less likely to earn their own incomes.
Women’s economic empowerment is also linked to national higher income levels and lower poverty rates, highlighting the need to create an economy that works for men and women alike.
3. Gender-based violence is still widespread.
Today, 1 in 3 women still experience physical or sexual violence and 18% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical and or sexual violence at the hand of a current partner in the past year alone.
The increased use of digital spaces, especially social media, has also led to new experiences of gender-based violence. More women and girls are reporting online harassment, such as cyber-bullying or sharing illicit images without consent.
Gender-based violence can have long-term physical and mental health consequences for the survivor and their families. According to the World Bank, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP.
The United Nations and the World Bank have even referred to the high rates of violence as a silent pandemic. Around the world, violence against women has also increased during the pandemic, as lockdowns make accessing resources much harder for women at risk.
4. Women are still more likely to be illiterate compared to men.
Almost half a billion women and girls aged 15 and older are illiterate. Although more girls are attending primary school than ever before, girls are still less likely than boys to attend secondary school.
School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are making it even harder for girls to continue with their education and get the life skills they need.
Efforts to educate young students on how to read and write have greatly increased in the past decade, but older women who missed out on education when they were younger are lacking the support they need to improve their lives.
Without the ability to read and write, women are less likely to break the cycle of poverty.
5. Women are still most affected by crises.
Women are exposed to greater levels of violence and inequality during times of war and instability compared to men.
A recent report from McKinsey Global Institute showed that women's jobs are 19% more at risk than men's during the COVID-19 crisis because women are disproportionately represented in industries most impacted.
In 2000, the UN Security Council resolution 1325 recognized that conflict and crises do impact women differently. In order to make sure women were better protected in the future, they advocated for women’s participation in peace talks and conflict resolution. However, from 1992 to 2018, only 13% of negotiators were women.