The year 2014 was one of mixed fortunes for women globally. However, behind the negative media headlines — including the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram militant group, stripping of women in public in Kenya and forced virginity tests in Egypt — there were significant gains made.
Time Magazine even described the year as the best for women since “the dawn of time.”
Overall, there have been major strides in closing the gender gap since the 1995 Beijing conference, where 189 countries agreed to take action.
On the continent, the signing 14 years ago, of the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol, was a watershed moment during which the principle of non-discrimination was enshrined.
“The African woman is better off today; there is a significant increase in literacy levels because the right to education for all children has been emphasised and has received government support,” said Gladys Kiio, a programme manager at the Nairobi-based African Gender and Media Initiative.
“The right to own and inherit property is also being recognised, and women can legally claim matrimonial property and inheritance from their fathers.”
A recent report by Afrobarometer found broad support for equality among men and women, and widespread acceptance of women’s leadership capabilities.
In a survey across 34 countries where Afrobarometer has polled more than 50,000 people on gender equality since 2002, support for equality increased from 68 per cent to 73 per cent in 2012.
But while many Africans acknowledge that there have been positive changes towards gender equality over the past few years, the education gap remains wide, and people also report that women face discrimination in the workplace, in the courts and from traditional leaders in their communities, according to the authors of the report.
The Afrobarometer report notes that across the 34 countries polled, 26 per cent of women reported never having any formal education, compared with 19 per cent of men interviewed.
Lesotho is the only country where women are more likely to have at least some education when compared with men. The report finds that 16 per cent of men have at least some post-secondary education, compared with just 11 per cent of African women.
When it comes to political representation, Africa, like the majority of countries in the world, fares badly. But Rwanda (63.8 per cent in the Lower House and 38.5 per cent in Senate), Seychelles (43.8 per cent), Mozambique (39.6 per cent), South Africa (41.5 per cent in the Lower House and 35.2 per cent in Upper House), Namibia (41.3 per cent and 23.1 per cent respectively) and Angola (36.8 per cent), are global leaders in having the highest number of women parliamentarians.
In North Africa, a significant majority do not support female equality and believe women should not be leaders; but more than 70 per cent in East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa agree that women should be allowed to be leaders.
However, even though there is growing support for women leadership across the continent, African women are less likely to vote or engage in any other political activity than men.
“They [women] are both less likely to be registered to vote compared with men (8 per cent for women and 5 per cent for men) and less likely to vote (68 per cent for women and 73 per cent for men),” says the report.
Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia have the lowest support for women leadership, and reported the highest frequencies of discrimination.
“Wide gaps exist between men and women on many issues, including the ability of women to serve as president or prime minister of a Muslim country… and support for equal rights for women in initiating a divorce,” notes the report.
Afrobarometer also found that one in three women had once or on several occasions received unfair treatment from the police, the courts and from employers. The problem is severe in North Africa, particularly in Tunisia.
A new report by the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dubbed No Ceilings also supports the view that significant gains have been made with regard to gender equality since 1995.
“Advances have been made in legal rights — through international agreements, groundbreaking UN resolutions, and constitutional and legislative change,” says the report. “Health and education for women and girls have improved significantly.”
According to the report, there has never been a better time to be born female in the world because women and girls today have a much greater chance to live healthy and secure lives, and their fundamental human rights are now protected by law in many countries throughout the world.
Today, 25 women run Fortune 500 companies compared with only one in 1998, and the percentage of women in politics has nearly doubled to 22 per cent.
In Germany, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been tipped as a potential successor to the country’s first woman chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose term expires in 2017.
In the US, two women are already said to be eyeing the top seat in the 2016 presidential elections — the Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Republican Party and former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and are seen as strong contenders.
Data from the World Bank and the UN also shows that more than 130 countries have legislation protecting gender equality; about 140 grant men and women equal rights in property ownership and 129 have outlawed the sacking of women for being pregnant.
In the majority of countries, women have access to maternity leave, with the US being among only nine countries that do not offer paid maternity leave.
However, amid these gains, there still remain major gaps.
For example, women still work more hours a day than men; one in three women suffers physical or sexual violence; four million die from unsafe cooking conditions each year. Other areas where significant gaps remain in achieving equality are in education where child marriages cut short the schooling of millions of young girls. Women also account for over 60 per cent of the world’s 774 million illiterate people.
In 2001, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to increase women’s participation in peace talks. But from 1992 to 2012 only 9 per cent of negotiators at peace tables were women.
While women’s presence as news subjects in print, radio and television has only increased from 17 per cent in 1995 to 24 per cent in 2011; 46 per cent of the stories reinforce gender stereotypes, according to the UN.