Societal norms, the world over, since the dawn of time, have placed more undisputed power at the hands of men (and boys) than have been placed with women (and girls).
The narrative of the day reflecting this factual reality changes from context to context. In the UK, for example, we are currently questioning when it is we are going to feel able not to celebrate today’s International Women’s Day (#IWD2017) – when will UK society accept we don’t need a national day to keep reminding everybody about gender equality?
In contrast, here in Vietnam, the entrenchment of gender norms runs deeper. Educated, decent, working husbands and fathers in Vietnam may ‘feel’ a connection to the relatively new concept that women are equal to men (across any indicator) however there is still too strong a cultural leaning away from equality, which has been silently and often subconsciously drummed into that husband/father, for him to really feel 100% behind gender equality.
Another generation and yet one more still, and the softening of these values will happen.
External factors will help with this – for one, the rising number of young Vietnamese citizens connected as they now are in their millions to social media, are exposed to more “news” and information than the ruling party could have ever imagined possible 20 years back. This will help. But the “interventions” of INGOs such as CARE, and others, is vital in keeping change at a decent pace and guiding and showing the way.
So, yes, the statistics with which we are all becoming familiar (those 8 richest men in the world owning half the world’s wealth, for example) are an important aspect to grounding us, and giving us a baseline. The stats around women doing “2/3’s of the world’s work but earning just 10% of the world’s income” probably needs to be double checked – however, if we take them on face value, and assume their inference is accurate enough (I am clearly not a trustworthy analyst in this field) then this is a good starting point…
Women – according to these same facts (choose to believe them or not) – also own just 1% of the world’s land, and what is fact in many countries is that the issues related to ownership are a root cause for gender inequality and for driving up poverty for women. These are hard issues to understand and get under the skin of. We’d laugh in the UK if a woman had to have her husband’s signature on a form to enable her to open a bank account. In parts of South Asia, such practice is commonplace.
In summary, when addressing poverty and social injustice, the economic “cards” are all stacked against women having as many opportunities to earn money as men. They are stacked against them being the main decision makers in the household, and stacked against them making choices about finances. In the most extreme cases, in contexts where women aren’t allowed to leave their houses on their own (let alone drive a car, or attend a public meeting) what we are witnessing is a modern day form of slavery, hidden behind the veil of cultural norms, and generations of patriarchal dominance.
The vision many have around “empowerment” is just that – visionary, aspirational, and awfully difficult to achieve, to prove and to sustain.
In the global north we struggle, in 2017, with the simple enough challenge of guaranteeing equal pay for women. As global south countries edge towards more liberal and capitalist values (which have the combined potential to address market inequalities for women) over in Europe, far right political values are growing daily, and with that the potential to undo many generations of movement towards equality more generally.
Today’s reality is that world’s conflicted contexts are still governed by male figures. In South Asia, child marriage is yet to be suppressed by “modern” thinking. The world’s social, economic and political tectonic plates are shifting so randomly this century already that the window for gender trans-formative approaches (in business and commerce, as well as at the grass-roots level) risks being lost among all the changes and flux in the world.
And yet, CARE and many others over the years have proven the case for a focus around women and girls in our work, and we are now able to make the case today, not just couched in the language of NGOs and using “project indicators”, but we are making that case firmly in step with an increasing number of governments and businesses.
The financial service sector is more aware than ever before of the risk they face if they don’t find ways to reach the 2 billion people cut off from the financial services grid – the majority of whom are women. The world’s largest retail companies understand better than ever before that they will only commercially survive over the next 50 years if they address not just health and safety in the workplace, but also how to tap into the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ marketplace – and within this, how to engage female consumers. The agriculture industry cannot afford not to design better ways for subsistence farmers to earn a respectable living, and women’s equal inclusion in supply chains is at the forefront of supporting this industry. The list goes on.
For these examples, as with other industry ones, it is women who provide the most economically viable and long-term solution to whichever the issues are on which you choose to focus on.
Over the next 20 years, more women than men will make purchasing decisions and choices about healthcare, education and nutritional household items. More women than ever before will join political decision making circles. More women will head up multi-national corporations. More women will design technological solutions to societal problems. More women will graduate from higher education.
More women will make choices about their lives – and these choices will have a more positive global impact on the planet than we have ever seen before.
If there was ever a time to turn societal norms around, to channel opportunities for women, then it is surely now.