Tomorrow, in Kuala Lumpur, thousands from around the world will gather for the third global Women Deliver conference (May 28-30). Participants include government leaders, policy-makers, healthcare professionals, reporters, and non-profit leaders. Their goal, as urgent as it is worthy, is to promote the health, rights, and empowerment of girls and women.
Most participants will be women. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Who knows better the far-reaching benefits of empowering girls and women than women? But it is disappointing and reflects how far there is to go to achieve gender equality in most parts of the world.
In Canada and other developed parts of the globe women are delivering…in every conceivable way. In addition to delivering children, they are doing more than their fair share to make the world a better place. And in some cases they ‘deliver’ despite physical abuse and tough odds. In the less developed world too many girls and women do not and cannot have a fair chance to succeed until they are better protected from sexual violence and coercion.
This week in Malaysia, where the conference takes place, a 40-year old man, recently charged with raping a 13-year old girl, told the court that he is now willing to marry the girl. Despite this, the Malaysian Attorney General and Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development are urging that he be convicted of statutory rape. It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will proceed with the case.
As shocking as this incident may sound, marriage by rape or abduction is prevalent in many developing countries, particularly in rural areas of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The defendant in the Malaysian case argued in his own defence that: “There are many cases of men marrying under-age girls. I don’t see why my case should be any different.”
His comment reflects a deeper societal problem. In many regions of the world the idea that a woman should be subservient to a man remains deeply engrained in culture, tradition… and practice.
The high-profile raping of girls in India has generated virulent protests that may force Indian prosecutors to take rape more seriously. However, it does not address the fact that child marriage is prevalent in many parts of India or that Indian girls typically do not receive the same level of schooling as boys. New Delhi recently passed more stringent laws to guard women against sexual violence but, until more is done to elevate the status of girls, females will continue to suffer from inequitable treatment and associated high levels of sexual violence.
In the past decade the developing world made significant progress enrolling more girls in primary schools, but their enrolment in higher education continues to lag. This, in part, is because child marriage is still widely prevalent. In male-dominated societies, where child marriage has been common for centuries, leaders often see no need to enforce laws against under-age marriage. Until this changes girls will be deprived of schooling and women denied their reproductive rights, including whether to have or to space their children.
Gender equality is a moral imperative. It is also an economic and social imperative. No country, no society, however industrious or blessed with resources, will ever reach its full potential as long as women are denied gender equity.
It’s no coincidence that countries where respect for girls and women is lowest invariably have the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and disease. When girls are denied schooling and women denied access to family planning and reproductive health services, their families and their communities invariably suffer.
Empower girls and women and they will deliver. That’s the message that the world will hear from Kuala Lumpur. We have to hope that the powers that be – often men – be listening.