The story of women is often told through numbers. Reports and studies tell us how much less money women make than men, how much more unusual it is for girls to go to school than for boys, or how much less likely women are to hold elected office or run companies than men.
Those analyses are important, but they can sometimes obscure the deeper truths of women’s experience.
We know 62 million girls are not in school. Why is that the case, and how can we do better? We are told one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. How accurate are those numbers, and what can they really tell us about safety? We have heard women outlive men, often by a decade or more. What does life look like after a partner dies?
Here are some of the stories behind those numbers.
Bans – and growing disapproval – are not stopping female genital mutilation
For millions of girls, one of the first serious threats they will encounter in their lives is female genital mutilation (FGM). Typically carried out by community leaders or midwives, the practice is often seen as a rite of passage for young girls and is most prevalent in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But it can be deadly, or lead to serious health complications, including chronic kidney infections, painful sex and difficulties in childbirth.
The World Health Organization defines FGM as any procedure that involves the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. Despite having no medical benefits, the practice has been inflicted upon at least 200 million women and girls.
Momentum has grown to ban FGM, which also violates a number of United Nations human-rights conventions, and some countries have passed laws making it illegal. Such laws have the potential to be effective – if cases lead to prosecution. But in many places where FGM is banned, it is still pervasive because of the lack of accountability and inadequate outreach in rural areas where the practice is most common.
Burkina Faso, for instance, banned FGM in 1996 and threatened those found guilty of performing it with up to three years in prison. While data organised by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) shows that the rates of FGM decreased after the ban, girls there are still at risk. In September, about 50 girls were hospitalised in the country’s northeast after their procedures went badly.
In Kenya, where FGM was banned in 2011, many women and girls have been subjected to the practice. In some areas where the ban has been effective, it has led to the introduction of alternative coming-of-age ceremonies, including dances and other celebrations.
The government initially seemed committed to investigating cases of FGM, prosecuting dozens of cases after the law was passed. But in the country’s northeast, the practice is still widespread. Many people there live in rural or pastoralist communities where centuries of tradition, and unofficial legal structures, still trump national law. Activists worry that FGM remains normalised and that certain community leaders are unwilling to report cases.
Earlier this year, a Kenyan doctor even petitioned a court to legalise FGM for adults, claiming women should be able to decide for themselves if they want to go through with it, alarming those who see the medicalisation of the procedure as an effort to normalise it.
The fight to get girls into school is stalling in some regions
Over the past couple of years, there has been some good news in the global fight to give women access to education. Girls and women have traditionally been kept out of school at much higher rates than their male counterparts. But that gap has slowly been closing, and it has virtually disappeared as of 2016 for children older than 11, according to statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
But the worldwide numbers do not tell the whole story. In some regions, there is still a gender imbalance in who is kept out of school, and it is still women and girls who suffer the most from exclusion.
There are any number of reasons, including wars and poverty, for this but perhaps the most important factors are cultural. The expectation that women should be mothers and wives, not students, remains the largest obstacle to getting girls into school.
The problem is particularly acute across Sub-Saharan Africa. There, according to Unesco, girls of every age group are more likely to be excluded from learning than boys. For every 100 boys who are kept out of primary school, the organisation says, “there are 123 girls who are denied the right to education”.
Girls are often kept out of school with the expectation they should get married and have children. In more than a dozen sub-Saharan countries, at least 30 per cent of girls give birth before the age of 18, according to the UN Population Fund.
And young women in school are sometimes forced out when they get pregnant. In 2017, Human Rights Watch found that in Tanzania and Sierra Leone, school policies kept young mothers and pregnant women out of the classroom. In Tanzania, officials conducted pregnancy tests in schools and kicked out those with positive results.
Other countries, including Cameroon and South Africa, have enacted policies that allow young mothers to return to school after giving birth. But cultural stigmas remain; Human Rights Watch found school officials sometimes refuse to welcome such students back.
Some societies may see girls as better wives and mothers than students, but studies show if countries invest in girls’ education, they will reap the benefits. The World Bank estimates that girls who receive an education can lift their households, communities and countries out of poverty. Indeed, the countries where education is the worst for girls – such as South Sudan or the Central African Republic – are often those where poverty is the most extreme.
Even a slight increase in enrolment can cause immense change. In 2014, the United States Agency for International Development said that if 1 per cent more girls were enrolled in secondary school in India, the country’s GDP would rise by US$5.5 billion. And if all girls were enrolled in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region’s agricultural output would increase by 25 per cent. It has even been suggested that promoting girls’ education can help fight climate change.
Low rates of sexual violence are masking serious dangers to women
By the numbers, Japan is one of the safest places to be a woman. It has low rates of reported domestic and sexual violence, according to UN data. But those numbers do not tell the whole story. Take it from Shiori Ito.
Ito was an aspiring journalist in her 20s when one of Japan’s best-known television journalists, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, invited her out for a drink. While out with him, she began to feel dizzy and fainted in the bathroom of a restaurant. When she woke up, she was naked. Yamaguchi was on top of her, she said, and had raped her while she was unconscious.
Ito waited five days to go to the police. She was too ashamed to go right away, she said, but she eventually reported the assault. “I know if I didn’t talk about it, this horrible climate of sexual assault will never change,” she told The New York Times.
The police did not want to pursue the case, but Ito pushed them to investigate. Even after they gathered security footage and eyewitness testimony that helped her case, they declined to make an arrest.
Ito’s story demonstrates one of the major challenges in understanding the global landscape of sexual violence: scholars believe there is a significant gap between the number of crimes committed and the number reported to authorities – and another gap between the number of allegations and actual prosecutions.
In Japan, for example, a 2014 study by the Japanese government found two-thirds of rape victims told no one about their assaults – not even family members. Just 4 per cent went to the police.
Japan is not an anomaly. More countries recognise sexual violence as an epidemic. But few have figured out how to change their laws, legal system and culture to make women safer.
To fix this, experts say changes are needed at every level. Schools must do a better job of defining consent and teaching both women and men what constitutes rape. Police and legal professionals must investigate claims thoroughly and pursue assailants. And the legal definition of rape must be broad enough to capture sexual violence as women experience it.
Sweden, for example, appears to have much higher official rates of sexual violence. But experts say the country has simply done a better job of educating women and encouraging accountability. A new law, for example, defines rape broadly and puts the burden of proof on the defendant to show that he or she did obtain consent.
In most countries, including the US, the plaintiff must show her rights have been violated. Sweden’s investigative legal system also leads to much higher rates of conviction than in other countries.
Elsewhere, countries such as France and Germany require police to pass all rape allegations on to prosecutors. This means police officers cannot decide whether a victim can bring a legal case, as they did in Ito’s case.
Putting more women in power requires a push, but has real benefits
It is fair to say men make most political decisions. Only a handful of governments are led by women, and, according to the World Bank, fewer than a quarter of members of parliament around the world are female.
There is one country, however, where female parliamentarians easily outnumber their male counterparts: Rwanda, a small, landlocked nation in central Africa most known for the genocide that took place there in 1994.
After elections in September, 49 of the seats in Rwanda’s 80-seat Chamber of Deputies now belong to women. This means 61 per cent of the country’s most powerful legislative body is female.
For comparison, only 20 per cent of the US Congress is female – a record, incidentally. Rwanda has a higher proportion of female lawmakers than Iceland – named the world’s most gender-equal country by the World Economic Forum (WEF) – where 48 per cent of lower-house parliamentarians are female.
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So how did Rwanda get there?
The genocide, which left up to a million dead and many more displaced, is one major factor: after the mass killings, 70 per cent of the country’s remaining population was female. But many countries have more women than men. Also important is how Rwanda changed its laws in response to the genocide, to encourage female participation in politics.
Drude Dahleup, a professor at Stockholm University and the author of the book Has Democracy Failed Women? (2017), says Rwanda’s path to a female majority began after the country implemented a constitution that set a quota of 30 per cent women in “decision-making organs”.
The first election under that constitution, in 2003, was also the first since the 1994 genocide. The percentage of women in parliament jumped from just under 26 per cent to almost 49 per cent thanks to the new electoral rules. It would reach a peak of 63.8 per cent in 2013.
The idea of a gender quota in government is an increasingly popular one around the world. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance says more than half of all countries now apply some sort of gender quota to their parliaments.
Of course, not all countries have seen such a dramatic shift in representation because of quotas. Some, such as Somalia, have missed their targets in elections. The results, Dahleup says, depend heavily on how the quotas are constructed.
And even when quotas are implemented successfully, some worry female politicians can end up with little influence. In Rwanda, critics have called the high number of female parliamentarians a “smokescreen” that hides the political domination of President Paul Kagame.
Studies have shown quotas do increase the number of women in high-level elected offices. And once in office, female lawmakers tend to raise issues important to women. In Rwanda, that has certainly mattered: the WEF now ranks Rwanda fourth in the world for gender equality.
Many elderly women are finding the freedom they once lacked
In almost every country in the world, women outlive men – often by a decade or more.
That is true in both normal times – men are more likely to die of chronic diseases or suffer from illnesses related to smoking and alcohol – and emergencies. One 2017 study found women outlive men even during famines and epidemics.
As a result, there are an estimated 258.5 million widows worldwide, according to Reuters. Almost a third of them live in India and China.
Life for widows can be challenging. One in seven widows lives in extreme poverty (numbers that echo the rates of women in extreme poverty generally). In several countries, women are unable to inherit land after their husbands’ deaths. And in some places, widow “cleansing” rituals – such as the forcing of a widow to drink the water in which her husband’s dead body was cleaned – can leave women vulnerable to disease.
Widowed women are also sometimes shunned. A 2015 study commissioned by the Loomba Foundation, a charity that supports widows worldwide, found 70 per cent of Turks surveyed said widows were treated worse than other women because they were seen as a threat to other people’s marriages.
The data on widowhood also reveals something interesting: while being a widow is an immense challenge in some of the world’s poorest countries, in other places it actually offers women more freedom and opportunities. Some research suggests women are happiest in old age and after their partner has died.
Married women are “more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating”, researcher Caterina Trevisan, from Italy's University of Padvova, told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2016. Trevisan followed thousands of men and women for four years to understand how losing a partner affects happiness.
She found men typically struggled after their wives died. But women reported feeling more content and less stressed. “Since women generally have a longer lifespan than men, married women may also suffer from the effects of caregiver burden, since they often devote themselves to caring for their husband in later life,” she said.
A study from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) found something similar. The NHS surveyed nearly 8,000 people and concluded British women are more unhappy than men at nearly every stage of their lives – as teens, young adults and in middle age.
By the end of their lives, there was a shift: after 85, women say they are as happy as men and often happier. There are fewer responsibilities and less housework, researchers point out. They are also more likely to be widowed, a fact that adds to their happiness.
It is yet more evidence that the unpaid labour women do – running households, caring for partners and children, tending to parents and grandchildren – is a burden that adds up over a lifetime, both for women and society. As Brigid Schulte of the think tank New America told CNN Money, “That’s robbing women of the ability to be innovators, for economics and companies and societies to take full advantage of women’s talents.” The Washington Post