World Population Day 2023: Focus on elimination of harmful and unequal practices and access to free and compulsory education and reproductive health information and services can lead to gender equality
The theme of this year’s World Population Day, Unleashing the power of gender equality: Uplifting the voices of women and girls to unlock our world’s infinite possibilities, says it all.
If we have to realise the full potential of the world population, we have to overcome the challenge of gender inequality. Women and girls have been historically victims of inequality and deprived of opportunities. They have faced gender-based violence and maternal challenges. And the way forward is gender equality.
Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, says, in her statement on the occasion, “Realising sexual and reproductive health and rights for all is the foundation for gender equality, dignity and opportunity. Nevertheless, over 40 per cent of women around the world cannot exercise their right to make decisions as fundamental as whether or not to have children.”
While India has made some progress on closing the gender gap, more needs to be done. The Global Gender Gap Report by World Economic Forum states, “India has closed 64.3 per cent of the overall gender gap, ranking 127th on the global index.”
Saying that the country has achieved equality on all levels of education in terms of enrolment, the report points out, “However, it has reached only 36.7% parity on Economic Participation and Opportunity. On the one hand, there are upticks in parity in wages and income; on the other hand, the shares of women in senior positions and technical roles have dropped slightly since the last edition.” After a decade of slowly increasing parity, the improvement in the sex ratio at birth by 1.9 percentage points to 92.7% has boosted parity on the Health and Survival index (95%).
Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology, University of Maryland, and centre director at NCAER, adds, “India has made tremendous strides in some areas such as closing gender gap in education. However, much needs to be done to improve women’s participation in wage employment and access to agricultural land.”
Inequality in income has the potential to stifle overall growth. The first estimates of gender disparity in worldwide incomes are presented in the World Inequality Report 2022 which states women's labour income as a percentage of all incomes was close to 30 per cent in 1990 and is currently less than 35 per cent. Women would make up 50 per cent of total labour income in a world where gender equality existed, but gender earnings discrepancy still exists today. Global growth has been fairly sluggish over the past 30 years, and country-by-country dynamics have varied, with some nations registering increases and others witnessing decreases in the earnings share of women.
The existence of inequality leads to a vicious circle of women and girls having limited access to education, the prevalent glass-ceiling, and taking away their agency of making decisions related to their health including sexual and reproductive health.
Sharp focus on gender equality is also needed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in addition to SDG 5 on Gender Equality, for its cross cutting nature.
Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Principal, Miranda House, says, “Potential triggers for initiating action on achieving the SDGs need us to recognize that gender cuts across all the goals. Action is necessitated to enhance awareness on the concerned issues of gender, advocacy for policy reforms and framework and creating a global consensus for upholding the international commitments towards a rights-based approach to gender equality.”
A report, Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, The Gender Snapshot 2022, states that gender equality must advance as momentum builds toward 2030. This is very important because the most recent SDG 5 data says that gender equality will not be achieved by 2030. The SDGs' endpoint of 2030 is halfway through, making it necessary to take action and make investments in women and girls.
The global health, climate, and humanitarian crises have further affected gender equality by raising the danger of violence, particularly for the most vulnerable women and girls, and making women feel more frightened now than they did prior to the pandemic. Violence against women is still at an all-time high. Women also continue to be underrepresented in positions of authority and decision-making.
Shireen Jejeebhoy, Director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing, says, “Overturning centuries and generations of gender discrimination and patriarchal structures that deny women’s wellbeing and rights cannot be resolved without significant investment in empowering women. India needs to work at multiple levels, but two in particular.”
She adds, “The first is the need to ensure opportunities to women and girls that are responsive to their situation and enable them to overcome traditional biases against their education, work and exercise of voice and choice. The second are strategies that reverse, at the family and society levels, these traditional patriarchal norms and biases persisting even today.”
United Nations Global Sustainable Development Report 2023 Advance (Unedited Version) takes into account five trends that have “their own slow and persistent dynamics and can lead to disruptions.” Rising inequality and demographic change are two of them, and governments, multilateral institutions and regional organisations needs to act and shape them. To ensure gender equality exists, it suggests four intervention areas: Legislation, Elimination of harmful practices, Education, Reproductive health.
Legislation should lead to elimination of unequal practices like gender pay gaps and low representations in leadership roles. Laws should be implemented to eliminate harmful practices like gender-based violence, discrimination, female genital mutilation and child marriages. Women and girls should have information and access to reproductive health services. Free and compulsory education of 12 years should empower girls. The Gender Snapshot 2022 also notes, “Each additional year of schooling can boost a girl’s earnings as an adult by up to 20 per cent.”
Ishanee Sharma, an advocate working on development issues, reiterates, “Education is the key. And as far as girls are concerned it is an imperative that girls get access to education through all levels of school and college; and they also need job-assured education. This will automatically improve all development indices including nutrition, and break the vicious cycle of early marriage leading to poor maternal and child health.”
Focus on education offers interesting lesson for not only for achieving gender equality, but also advancing global development.