March 29, 2021
New Orleans Near the top of the list of fundamental social changes over the last fifty years has been the improved role of women in society. The gains in the workplace, though still inadequate, have been sweeping, as wage gaps continue to narrow and barriers to jobs from soldier to science continue to fall. The gains in public life have also been huge as leaders in New Zealand and Germany are often setting the standard. The list could go and on, but it always seems to come up too short and too slow.
This is nowhere truer than when we look at the rough road that women are still facing around the world when it comes to safety in their own homes. Domestic violence continues to a constant concern for many women. The papers noted recently that Turkey pulled out of the Istanbul treaty around domestic abuse, ten years after being the first country to sign the international treaty, named after its largest city where it was negotiated. Countries where violence is a norm, like Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador, are also areas where murdering women is common. Amazingly, domestic violence is not only usual in many countries, but even supported by significant numbers of women. The Economist noted recently that “In sub-Saharan African countries about 45% of women on average say [wife-beating] is sometimes justified.” Countries like the United States saw a sharp decline after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, as, surprisingly, did Nicaragua for a period after its revolution. Outreach in Ghana offering awareness, counseling, and support has reduced domestic abuse there by 55%.
Stopping violence against women in public spaces has also been tragically slow and uneven. France only recently changed its statutes around rape and child abuse. It took a fourteen-year campaign in Nigeria to a win a 2015 law expanding the definition of rape. In Uganda, 15,000 men are in prison for violence against women with 7000 awaiting trial. National protests and an aggressive reckoning on the lack of public safety for women has erupted in Britain following the rape and murder of a young woman in London walking home at night.
The #MeToo movement seemed to force the reckoning on the exploitation of women in the workplace when it erupted in the US, but it is hard to tell how deep change has gone. Other countries have sometimes seemed to have their #MeToo moments as well, but it has been sporadic. A report of an awakening in China around the long prison sentence for a young woman compared to the hand slaps against the public officials that had exploited her, also noted that the powerful Chinese Politburo has never had a woman sine the 1949 revolution.
The road still seems way too rough and way too long for women. It’s hard to be proud of how far we have come, when we measure how far we all still have to go, even when women’s very lives depend on all of us making progress.