As citizens of the world we see it every day; our time has been marked by the rise of women. Experts from different research centres report the predominance of women in classrooms, their successful incursion into professional fields that for decades were men’s exclusive territory, their increasing presence in management positions and in productive spaces as well as their participation in government. There is no way of avoiding it; the 21st century is the women’s century.
A quick look at the phenomenon produces surprising results. Switzerland didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1971 while in Saudi Arabia this right was only granted in 2015 and then only for local elections. When we compare this with the case of New Zealand, which became the first country to grant women the right to vote, in 1893, we can see that while progress has been remarkable it has also been irregular and variable across countries.
In the reports that I have had the opportunity to read which analyse the results of policies to support entrepreneurship, especially in developing countries, the same conclusion is reached: the most productive enterprises are mostly headed by women as are those that are first to break even. Their dropout rate is always lower too, by up to 80%. This is not only repeated in almost all Latin American countries, but also in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and in the new projects that are being carried out in Africa. Another notable fact in these troubled times is that women are less prone to corruption than men and they make more rational use of the resources they manage. These statements are supported by statistics.
However, there are still more opportunities and possibilities to work on policies of economic empowerment for women, particularly in Latin America and the underdeveloped world in general. World Bank studies show that in many of these countries the number of marginalized women in the productive system, as well as girls excluded from education is still very high. The explanation has, of course, cultural roots. But economists agree that an aggressive investment in policies of educational inclusion and women’s economic empowerment (among other formulas, through micro-entrepreneurship) could as much as double the rates of economic growth in these countries while contributing to the reduction of inequality. It’s no secret that, for example, Latin America would have to sustain levels of economic growth of more than 7 and 8 per cent a year for two or three decades in order to significantly reduce poverty and achieve levels of development comparable to those of the OECD nations with which historically and culturally we would like to compare ourselves.
One of the painful and poignant signs of this problem in Latin American are the millions of women who live alone with their children and who make the admirable effort to educate them, to work to feed them and lead them to a condition of progress and well-being. To understand the scale of the problem, it is good to remember that in Latin America 30% of women are mothers before the age of 20 and only 46% have their children in the framework of a legally established marriage and this phenomenon mainly occurs in poor homes. The struggle of these women is one of the highest forms of everyday heroism and does not always receive the recognition it deserves; it’s a loving feminine stubbornness capable of meeting and overcoming difficulties.
According to figures produced by CEPAL, by the end of 2016 Latin America had the enormous figure of 625 million inhabitants, with a clear majority being women, 323 million as opposed 302 million men. Of the total number of women, about 70% are over 18, approximately 200 million. According to estimates produced by a number of specialist bodies, one in three of these women suffers some type of mistreatment by their partner whether it be verbal, psychological, sexual or physical. Worse still, according to the World Health Organization, 38% of women murdered are victims of their partners or ex-partners. The question is unavoidable: how can this possibly continue to occur? A similar situation prevails among the Latino population of the United States with physical aggression against women continuing to occur.
And then there is the question of wage inequality. Although there are more than 80 countries with explicit laws in this regard, that is, that establish criteria for wage equality between men and women, the truth is that the gap still exists even in posts of the highest responsibility, with the wage gap sometimes being as much as 30 or 35%. The definitive eradication of this inequality will not only be beneficial in terms of justice, it will also bring economic benefits. According to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, if women receive the same pay for the same work as men, competition will increase, raising innovation and productivity to new heights.
We have briefly reviewed some of the most complex aspects of one of the great issues of our time, full of complexity and differing visions. There are cultural, religious and family traditions in play, as well as economic interests and businesses that operate outside the law or take advantage of incomplete legislation. The arguments of the diverse and contested perspectives of feminist groups can be heard, which even argue whether their demands must be won on the streets or in the parliaments (in fact, there is an increasing number of groups that oppose laws that impose female representation quotas on institutions). And there are also those who focus on the remuneration of domestic work, those who argue that quotas must be imposed on men, that promote economic independence, that argue that the great objective is that men and women share, with equal responsibilities, the demands of domestic life and those who point out that poverty affects women more than men.
In the last five years or so, some voices have begun to appear that ask about the role of men in the struggle for women’s rights. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, has been emphatic in this regard: in the fight for gender equality, male participation is indispensable. If anything can help to accelerate a trend that in any case cannot be reversed, it is that men in all places and at all levels take a step forward and help clear the way for women’s rights. We men have an immense responsibility in our hands: to help make women’s rights become realities, not just ink on paper.
Leopoldo Martínez tweets at @lecumberry