Equality, Equity and the Empowerment of Women
Despite many international agreements
affirming women's human rights, girls and women are still much more likely than men to be
poor, malnourished and illiterate, and to have less access than men to medical care,
property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to
be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence.
Where women are poor, uneducated and have
little participation in the wider society, family size tends to be large and the
population growth rate high. Population and development programs are more effective when
they center on improving the education, rights and status of women.
- Childbearing has been women's chief source of
security and status for centuries. This is still the case, especially where women are
denied education, reproductive health care, secure livelihoods and full equal rights. Yet
each year, 585,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Successful
population and development programs must offer women options for their lives beyond
- Women in developing nations are usually in
charge of securing water, food and fuel and of overseeing family health and diet.
Therefore they tend to put into immediate practice whatever they learn about nutrition,
preserving the environment and natural resources, and improving sanitation and health
- Of the 960 million illiterate adults in the
world, two-thirds are female. Higher levels of women's education are strongly associated
with both lower infant mortality and lower fertility. In poor countries, every additional
year of a woman's schooling is associated with a 5 to 10% decline in child deaths. (2)
- Children born to mothers below age 18 are 1.5
times more likely to die before age 5 than those born to mothers age 20-34. Yet three of
every four teenage girls in Africa are mothers, and 40 percent of births there are to
women under 17. (3)
- Programs that offer girls alternative life
choices can help them stay in school and, consequently, delay childbearing. This lengthens
the time span between generations. Such women tend also to have fewer children three or
four rather than six or more. (4)
- Laws and customs often deny women the right
to own land, inherit property, establish credit, receive training or move up in their
field of work. Laws against domestic violence are often not enforced on behalf of women.
Achieving gender equality in these areas will require the support of men who exercise most
of the power in these spheres of life.
- The involvement of men is critical to women's
rights and to population policy success. In Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal, for
example, men want between two and four more children than their wives do; in Cameroon,
Mali and Senegal, fewer than half of men approve of family planning. Birthrates in those
West African nations are higher than in most of East Africa, where with the exception of
Tanzania, more than 90% of both men and women favor family planning. (5)
- The roles that men and women play in society
are not biologically determined - they are socially determined. Often justified as
required by culture or religion, they still vary widely by locality and change constantly;
they are not immutable. Slavery, torture and racial and ethnic prejudice are also
centuries-old practices now rightly condemned worldwide when they involve people of color,
political dissidents, Jews or other ethnic groups. Violations of women's human rights must
receive the same international censure.
- Because roles are deeply embedded social
practices, programs are needed that work with young people to orient them toward gender
Sources: (1) A.
Tinker, "Safe Motherhood as an Economic and Social Investment". Presentation at
Safe Motherhood Technical Consultation in Sri Lanka, 18-23 October 1997; (2) UNFPA,
"Population Issues Briefing Kit 1998," (New York: 1998); (3) Alan Guttmacher
Institute, "Issues in Brief: Family Planning Improves Child Survival and Health"
(Washington DC: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1997), and Nafis Sadik, "Investing in
Women: The Focus of the '90s," in Laurie Ann Mazur (ed.), Beyond the Numbers: A
Reader on Population, Consumption and the Environment (Washington DC, Island Press,
1994); (4) Population Reference Bureau, A Citizen's Guide to the International
Conference on Population and Development,1993; (5) James E. Rosen and Shanti R. Conly,
Africa's Population Challenge: Accelerating Progress in Reproductive Health
(Washington DC: Population Action International, 1998).