Women are making gains globally in several areas, but 25 years after demanding action at a landmark conference in Beijing, the United Nations says progress has been slow and uneven and could even be reversed.
In a report released ahead of International Women’s Day, which is Sunday, the U.N. says men still overwhelmingly hold elected positions, make more money and have access to better jobs and education.
In addition, women in many parts of the world are still trying to overcome societal obstacles, including child marriage, illiteracy, domestic violence and lack of access to family planning. Rural and indigenous women face even more hurdles, in addition to discrimination and deeper poverty.
Seize the chances
“We see still, even within these conditions, the possibility to change and the possibility to move forward,” U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said at the launch of the report Thursday. “We want to seize those opportunities.”
Some countries already have.
The report found that Latin America is one of the few regions where women’s participation in the labor force has increased over the past 20 years.
“Countries like Chile and Uruguay have boosted child care coverage because they have recognized that women’s economic empowerment will not become a reality if families are lacking that kind of support,” said Silke Staab, research and data specialist for U.N. Women. “This has allowed them to catch up or even leapfrog some developed countries where child care coverage has stagnated.”
While much of sub-Saharan Africa struggles to provide access to family planning, two countries — Ethiopia and Rwanda — have made it a priority. In the last 20 years, access to contraception has grown by 40%, and the gaps between urban and rural access also have narrowed.
Investment in infrastructure, staff
The U.N. says it is because these governments have invested in health infrastructure, trained staff and improved both the quality of and access to health services.
While there have been advances in keeping more girls in school, getting laws on the books to help and protect women and nearly halving the rate of maternal mortality, work must be accelerated on closing and narrowing the remaining gender gaps, the U.N. said.
“What is needed now is a concerted drive to scale up, expand and deepen policies and programs that can move the needle on women’s rights to the benefit of all,” said U.N. Women’s Staab.