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Women’s Issues Transcend the Globe: Are We Making Progress?

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Women’s Issues Transcend the Globe: Are We Making Progress?

Interview by Kristen Walsh

Professor of Global Studies Joni Seager is a global policy expert and consultant to the U.N. on gender and environmental policy. Her latest book, "The Women’s Atlas," provides comprehensive global data on key issues facing women today including equality, motherhood, feminism, the culture of beauty, women at work, women in the global economy, changing households, domestic violence, lesbian rights and women in government. The book was recently featured by Oprah Magazine, which described it as "informative, insightful, and impactful." 

Here, Seager shares highlights about the issues facing women, progress and gaps in gender equality, and misconceptions about women’s issues.

What did you find as the most prominent change toward gender equality?
A global improvement in girls’ and women's access to education and in literacy. Most data that show this improvement, however, only report on educational participation up to grade three and four, so this doesn't necessarily mean that it extends throughout the education system. Typically, if a family experiences hardship or there's a national crisis of war or famine or drought, for example, girls are the first pulled out of school. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that by 2030, girls and boys worldwide will have equal access to education at least at that primary level.

What are the key issues facing women today?
The extraordinary pandemic of violence and the credible threat of violence against women and girls, which is both global and ubiquitous. Everywhere in the world, violence is used as a way of keeping women in their place. And the scale is extraordinary when you start to look at domestic violence, murders of women, femicide, sexual assaults and sex trafficking.

Have the statistics on violence against women been consistent?
Violence has been a constant in women's lives, but what has changed is that we know more about it. Thanks to feminist activism there is greater emphasis on making information available and public; in many circumstances, women are feeling more able to speak out about the violence or the threat of violence that they face.

Do acts of violence against women vary by region?
The particular forms that violence takes can vary from place to place. In Canada and Australia, for example, there are high rates of violence against indigenous women, and governments are less interested in pursuing justice for indigenous women than for non-indigenous women. In parts of Mexico there have been femicide clusters; in other parts of the world there are “honor” killings and dowry deaths. But overall the underlying structure of violence is much the same.

Were there any statistics that surprised you?
The rate of violence is shocking. For example, official reports in the U.S., South Korea and Netherlands reveal that about 20 percent of women are raped at least once in their lifetime – and those are just official reports. In South Africa, human rights organizations estimate that 40 percent of women will be raped. In France and Japan, every three days a woman is killed by her intimate partner; in Argentina, it’s every 30 hours. The data are staggering. But the flip side is that the organizing by women is also extraordinary. In some measure that is thanks to social media, but also because women’s organizing is more transnational and more public. Women are learning from each other.

What are some misconceptions about the issues that women face?
In rich industrial countries, many people think that they’ve solved a lot of problems; that women are equal and there aren’t discrimination problems. That denial -- coupled with the fact that patriarchal privilege is still a dominant force in today's society -- is completely wrong and is one of the big impediments to moving forward.

America tends to think that it is ahead of the curve when it comes to gender equality. Is this true?
In some ways the United States is further ahead than other countries; in other ways it is further behind. Iceland and Canada, for example, have just made the gender pay gap illegal by putting the onus on employers to prove that they are not discriminating on a gender basis in their pay structure. We are miles from that in the U.S. because a dominant characteristic of corporate life is that salary information is tightly guarded; so it’s very hard to prove discrimination. Child marriage is legal in most of the U.S.; between 2000 to 2015, 210,000 minors – mostly girl-children -- were married. The U.S. also has increasing rates of maternal mortality while rates are dropping almost everywhere else in the industrialized world.

Which key factors have supported women’s progress?
Women’s organizing has been a critical factor in any progress, particularly when it comes to putting pressure on policy makers and pushing to be a part of decision-making structures. From small to big scales, it is increasingly evident that women must be in the room when decisions that affect women’s lives are being made.

Which regions are leaders in gender equality?
The Scandinavian countries always turn up at the top when it comes to gender equality, with very strong policies and a genuine intent to implement the policies. Where there are explicit gender-equality policies, the entire structure of governance and policymaking are directed towards implementing equality. If you start off with equality as your guiding principle, you’re going to make progress.

This is the fifth edition of  "The Women’s Atlas." What has been your goal in publishing it throughout the years?
There's a lot to talk about when you start to look at the world through the lens of a woman’s eyes. When I first did the Atlas in 1986, the goal was "proof of concept" because people were highly skeptical. Now we are past that stage and the task is more subtle: to make issues visible. Using colorful maps and data graphics is a way to allow more people into the discussion, particularly those who might not otherwise participate in those conversations.

What are ways that people can help make changes to support gender equality?
Start local. Get involved in your town government, school system, business or workplace to find out where there are gaps and discrimination, and what kinds of changes need to be made to make women’s lives and men’s lives better.

"The Women's Atlas" has received kudos from several people who are prominent in the field of gender equality. What are some of your favorite reviews?
They are all meaningful but one in particular comes from Nobel Laureate and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee: “This one-of-a-kind book brings women’s lives out of the shadows. Every page lights up injustices and makes clear the work that remains to be done.”

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