As of earlier this week, only 500 days remain before the millennium development goals (MDGs) expire. This final phase of a 15-year campaign, which aimed to achieve eight key targets ranging from gender equality to ending extreme poverty, gives us an opportunity to reflect on progress to date and identify what major challenges continue to exist.
Equality Now works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls so the goal relating to gender equality is of most direct relevance to our work. However, we recognize too that gender inequality is a key component of most – if not all – of the other targets.
Ensuring that a fair and supportive legislative framework is in place is the first step towards making gender equality a reality, yet many countries, such as Liberia and Mali, have no laws in place banning female genital mutilation (FGM), a severe form of violence that will affect 30 million girls over the coming decade.
Meanwhile, if you are born in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, you still have no legislative protection against child marriage. Other countries have laws against such abuses, but fail to implement them.
Since the MDGs were introduced in 2000, some countries have revoked laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. Suriname is the latest to do so by allowing mothers to pass nationality to their children. Other countries such as Jordan and the Bahamas have also made some tentative moves in the right direction. However, many others have yet to do anything to address this inherent discrimination, which causes significant harm to women and girls in particular.
Sexual violence continues to be an epidemic in every country in the world. Awareness has increased over the past fifteen years but enforcing the rule of law continues to be a problem for most governments. One example is Kenya, which has struggled with the issue, but may be finally turning a corner. As part of our campaign to ensure justice for Liz, the sixteen-year old Kenyan girl who was raped in Busia County, we forwarded dozens of similar cases to the director of public prosecutions. The following day, a senior ranking police officer in one of the cases was fired and the local criminal investigations department now intends to carry out arrests.
At times, there have been contradictions too between efforts that are aimed at tackling gender inequality and other goals such as combating HIV/AIDS. The United Nations is seemingly confused by its own policies under the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. UNAIDS recently backed reports calling for the decriminalization of pimping and brothel keeping – something which is a clear affront to gender equality and contributes to creating an enabling environment for sex traffickers. However, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé later confirmed that the organisation is in fact “not advocating for the decriminalization of pimping or brothel ownership.”
It is vital that we do not pit human rights protections against each other and eliminating HIV/AIDS is better achieved when understanding the reality of the commercial sex industry and how the demand for sex fuels the exploitation of [primarily] women and girls. The experiences of survivors of sex trafficking should always be listened to and considered when recommending policy. Ensuring lasting gender equality is achieved only through understanding how efforts to tackle the different facets of other inequalities relate to each other.
It is also essential to know how different forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls interact and how nothing occurs or is solved in a vacuum. In many instances, the girl who undergoes FGM is the same girl who is married off early, denied an education and subjected to domestic violence. Amplifying the voices of adolescent girls is particularly vital when considering how to best move forward both for the coming 500 days but also as part of the post 2015 policy framework.
Ensuring that women and girls have access to and can enjoy their rights means that they have future choices and are allowed to contribute as equal and valued members of the community. This means addressing all forms of discrimination against women and girls to remove obstacles that restrict their full participation in public life and society generally.
If every girl is valued and given the same opportunities as boys; if she is free from all forms of violence and discrimination, amazing things can happen – not only for the girl whose life is changed forever but for her the community and the whole world which becomes safer, happier and more balanced.
Shelby Quast is the Policy Director at Equality Now.