The universally recognised human rights, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are holistic in nature. But, the free world’s human rights campaigns in the Muslim and the Third World begin and end with individualism and gender equality. And, these relative concepts are interpreted strictly, according to Western criteria. Here, we will restrict the discussion to gender equality and female empowerment.
The euphuistically “better” half is indeed the vital half that man cannot do without. She is an invaluable asset in every role – a supporter by nature; carer by instinct; and mentor by default. No man could, justifiably, deny her due; or condone any injustice done to her.
Ironically, it is an unfortunate fact of history that, nowhere in the world, man has ever accepted a woman as his equal – voluntarily, readily, and whole-heartedly. The woman has always had to struggle to get recognition; even her minimum due. And, the man has invariably resisted and soft-pedalled; and conceded only sparingly, reluctantly, and grudgingly.
This is, by no means, meant to justify male chauvinism. It is just to see things from the right perspective and appreciate the woman’s struggle to achieve gender equality and suffrage.
Not surprisingly, female suffrage was nowhere conceded readily. Switzerland was the first modem democracy to grant universal male suffrage in 1848. Ironically, however, it was also the last country in Europe to grant the same right to its female citizens. The law, granting women the right to vote at the national level, was passed in 1971. But, it was not until 1990 that it was implemented at every level throughout the country.
France prides itself in the 1789 Revolution, which changed the course of history. The French men got the right to vote in 1848. But the women had to wait for a century to get there, in 1944. They exercised this right in the 1945 election; more than 150 years after the revolution.
In the US, the campaign for universal suffrage started in 1820. Women also joined in immediately. Their campaign “got momentum” in the 1840s. The “universal manhood suffrage” among whites was adopted in all states by 1856. But women had to agitate for another over 60 years to be enfranchised at the national level, in 1920.
Men in Spain were enfranchised in 1812. But women had to wait till 1977. Till then, they lived as domestic slaves and needed their husband’s permission to even work. In Denmark, women got the right to vote in 1915, over 65 years after men. The Belgian men got suffrage in 1893, but women in 1948. In Germany and Italy, men were enfranchised in 1871 and 1912; but their women in 1919 and 1945, respectively. The Japanese women had to wait for the end of WW II to get the right to vote, 22 years after their men.
Discrimination against women was not confined to the political sphere. They were treated as “secondary” even in social life. Till 1876, UK women could not enter the medical profession as doctors. They were considered to be good enough only for nursing and midwifery. As a classic example of institutionalised discrimination, while the Medical Registration Act (1858) did not exclude them explicitly, they were barred from enrolling in medical colleges and appearing in examinations that would allow them to practise as doctors.
The three pioneering women, registered as doctors by the General Medical Council (GMC), had to use loopholes in the system to get there. Dr Margaret Ann Bulky (1789-1865), realized that the only way of getting into medical school was to disguise as a man, which she did, as James Miranda Steuart Barry. She got admission in Edinburgh University and made history as the first woman in Britain to graduate as a medical doctor in 1812. “Dr James Barry” worked as an army medical officer for 46 years. It was only after her death in 1865 that the secret of the “boy without hair” was known to the world.
Till 1876, only women with foreign medical degrees were registered with GMC and allowed to practise in the UK. Dr Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) got a medical degree from the US and was only then registered as a doctor in the UK.
Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) was the first (undisguised) woman to qualify as a doctor in the UK, in 1865 – also through a loophole in the system. She was not eligible to attend any medical school but could study privately and take an examination as a private student, which she did. But the loophole was plugged immediately thereafter. The rules were amended; barring privately educated women from taking the examination. The ordeal continued until 1876.
Fast forward to this day; to the advanced world! Australia’s National Summit on Women’s Safety was held in Canberra on September 6, 2021. The summit was called after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins went public in February; alleging that she had been raped by a colleague inside Parliament House in 2019. Patty Kinnersly, CEO of Our Watch, a Violence Prevention Group, set the ball rolling:
“With 29 women in Australia being murdered so far this year, the gender pay gap increasing in the past six months, and women being among the first to be stood down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country clearly hasn’t advanced far enough.”
This explains wailing in public of no less a person than Julia Gillard, the 27th Prime Minister of Australia (2010-13) at the “misogynistic” attitude of her parliamentary colleagues “with blue neck-ties.”
PM Scot Morrison conceded that Australia “has a problem” with the way it treats women, describing “a culture that not only excuses and justifies gender inequality but ultimately leads to violence against women …. Some men think they own women … Right now, too many Australian women do not feel safe and too often, they are not safe …”
Luckily, despite all heavy odds, gender equality has been universally accepted as a fundamental right. But, the point to ponder is how to extend it to the Third World. Where to start from?
According to the World Bank, most people in the Third World live in abject poverty. 85 per cent of the world population lives on less than $30 per day. Two-thirds live on less than $10 per day. And, every tenth person lives in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day. 50 per cent of the poor are children.
“The poorest in the world are often hungry, have much less access to education, regularly have no light at night, and suffer from much poorer health.”
According to the latest mortality estimates, released by UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and the World Bank, “2.8 million pregnant women and newborns die every year, or one every 11 seconds, mostly of preventable causes.”
Now, where do we start – from education and enfranchisement of women; or food, shelter, medical facilities and education for all, in the same order? Shall we first enable the Third World countries to stand on their feet before they could walk; and walk before they could run? Shall we adopt a step-by-step approach, or put the cart before the horse? Certainly, the former! Once the above-mentioned four dire human needs are met, everything else will fall in place. The Third World women will be fully liberated, eventually.
All that the developed world needs to accelerate this process is to honour its undertaking to the UN to allocate at least 0.7 per cent of its Gross National Income for the development of the Third World. Ironically, however, only six members (Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and UK) of the 38-nation OECD are meeting this target. All the rest are defaulting. They need to match their deeds with words to empower the Third World woman: step by step.
The writer is a former diplomat, based in Canberra and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.