2020 is a big year. A fresh start. A new decade. It is the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States, and the 20th anniversary of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution that increased the participation of women and the inclusion of gender perspectives in peace and security efforts.
But as we reflect on progress and look to the possibilities of the future, the realities of the present should remain front of mind. Gender-based violence persists as one of the most widespread challenges of our time. Women and girls -- in this country and around the world -- still face significant yet avoidable health risks due to lack of access to services and skilled care.
Every two seconds, child marriage obstructs the hopes and dreams of a young girl. Period poverty (lack of access to water, adequate facilities, and feminine hygiene products) restricts millions of women and girls from attending school and work. Unemployment rates are higher for women than men in every region of the world. This is often due to lack of education and skills-training opportunities, unequal social and gender norms, and the burden of domestic work and dependent care.
The most pressing consideration is that these and so many other gender-related injustices are largely preventable. Over the next decade, we need to challenge ourselves to do more.
First, our society’s respect for and protection of personal agency are imperative. An individual’s choice and ability to influence their life matters immensely. As the World Bank points out, “it is a key dimension of wellbeing.”
Too often, however, the beliefs and biases of others subjugate women and girls. Gender gaps have narrowed across a variety of factors, but women and girls everywhere still lack the capacity of men and boys to consider choices and transform them into desired outcomes. British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in 1914: "Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs." Over a century later we still contend with this imbalance. This must change.
Second, access is vital. Notable gains, especially in recent decades, have aimed to ensure access for women and girls to education, healthcare, and economic and political participation. But access does not always ensure adequacy. Quality and continuity are fundamental influences on long-term change.
For example, more than 130 million girls around the world do not have access to quality secondary schooling. As the Global Partnership for Education notes, “if every girl worldwide received 12 years of quality education, lifetime earnings for women could increase by $15 trillion to $30 trillion, globally.” As a society, we need to double down -- ensuring sustainable access to opportunities that bolster not only the wellbeing of women and girls, but of communities and countries at large.
Third, we must do a better job to encourage and ensure the active participation of women and girls in decision-making processes at every level of society. Women and girls account for more than half of the global population but many times are excluded from discussions that have a long-term impact on their lives, their families, and their future. This is a concerning and outdated reality, especially when you consider that women and girls shore up the majority of domestic (and unpaid) responsibilities in every country in the world.
From corporate boards to elected and appointed offices, women remain woefully underrepresented among public- and private-sector leadership. As CNN Business examined in November, of “the 1,056 companies combined between the S&P 500 and the Fortune 1000…a total of 26 companies have boards that have reached gender parity”.
What’s more, women hold just over 24% of parliamentary seats worldwide and just under 24% of seats in the U.S. Congress. Not a single country has achieved equity in political representation. At current rates of change, it will take another 95 years to do so globally, a daunting reality.
A more peaceful and prosperous world depends on gender equality. Agency, access, and active participation are essential to this aim. In 2020, it is time we resolve to do better.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the Director of the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative. The views expressed are the author's own.