Women Around the World Continue to Struggle for Their Rights
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I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember with Explorations in VOA Special English. Today we tell about efforts women are making around the world to gain equality.
In the past few months, women have been elected the leaders of Germany, Liberia and Chile. Throughout the world, women are taking steps to improve their rights and increase their freedom. Yet, they have also suffered problems in their struggle for equality.
In many parts of the world, women have almost no voice in politics and government. Their human rights are also denied. Sexual attack, violence in the home, even murder are crimes that women in many parts of the world face daily.
The international community has taken steps to protect and enforce the rights of women. More than twenty-five years ago, the United Nations approved a treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The nineteen seventy-nine treaty is considered a bill of rights for women.
To date, one hundred eighty nations have approved the treaty. But, women in many of these countries are still treated as unequal citizens. The U.N. estimates half a million women die every year while having babies. The number of women and girls in the world infected with H.I.V. and AIDS is growing. Often this is the result of a sexual attack. And, violence against women, forced labor and human trafficking of young females continue.
Janet Walsh is an official of the organization Human Rights Watch. She says many nations that approved the treaty accept mistreatment of women as normal. These governments, she says, see human rights violations against women as private family or cultural issues.
Experts point to Russia as one example. A report by the human rights group Amnesty International says about nine thousand women in Russia are killed each year by a husband, partner or other family member.
Amnesty International worker Friederike Behr says Russian officials are doing little to solve the problem. She says they do not recognize violence in the family as a serious crime. Mizz Behr says that Russia needs to pass criminal laws that recognize violence against women as a violation of human rights.
Experts say violence against women in their homes is a serious problem in Pakistan as well. Such domestic violence is considered culturally acceptable and a personal issue. Human Rights Watch says that Pakistani women struggle in other ways as well. Girls are forced into marriages, young women are kept out of school, and men have complete control over their families.
Experts say hundreds of Pakistani women are murdered every year by their families. They are victims of so-called honor killings. They are suspected of doing something to dishonor their families, such as having a sexual relationship. The women are either killed or injured so severely that they are forced to leave their families.
The Pakistani government has declared honor killings a crime punishable by death. It has also taken steps to protect women who marry against their parents' wishes.
Human rights activists in Pakistan have also launched a campaign against a severe Islamic law known as the Hudood Ordinance. Under this law, women who fail to prove that they have been raped face criminal charges. Women's rights activists say the law protects rapists and punishes victims.
They say the law has sent more than twenty thousand mostly innocent women to prison. However, religious groups in Pakistan oppose any changes to the law. They say it protects traditional Islamic values.
Islamic traditions have influenced women's rights in the Middle East as well. For example, Sheikha Yousef Hasan Al Gerifi was campaigning for city council in Qatar. Her family refused to let her put pictures of herself in campaign information. Most Qatari women cover themselves, including their faces, when they appear in public. But she won her election anyway.
However, most women in Arab nations have a very hard time getting elected. In Bahrain, for example, thirty-nine women ran for local and national office in two thousand two. Not a single woman was elected.
Political scientist Hala Mustafa at the Al-Ahram Foundation in Egypt says few Arab countries have a sizeable number of women in government. But, small changes are beginning. In Egyptian parliamentary elections last year, only four female candidates were elected. President Hosni Mubarak increased the total number of women in parliament by giving them five of the ten appointed seats after the election.
In Kuwait, women were given the right to vote for the first time in May. Their first election will be next year. Women's rights activists say they are excited that women's voices will finally be heard through their votes. Yet, they say they do not expect much to come of it.
Change is also starting to happen in Jordan. Two years ago, the government approved a measure to guarantee that at least six women were elected to parliament. Morocco and Algeria have high numbers of women in parliament compared to other countries in the area.
The fight for a political voice and equal rights for women in Africa is also gaining strength. In January, Liberia swore in its first elected female leader. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf says one of her goals is to guarantee that men who sexually attack women are punished. Liberia's temporary parliament took steps in this direction recently by passing a rape law. It calls for sentences of between seven years and life in jail depending on the seriousness of the crime.
Rape is also a serious problem in refugee camps in other countries, including Ivory Coast. Women's rights activists there say the camps are not secure. So women become victims of sexual crimes in the one place they are seeking safety.
In Kenya and Uganda, the lives of women are linked to their husbands. Laws in these countries give women the right to own and control land and property. Yet, tradition and custom often prevent them from receiving what is rightfully theirs.
When a women's husband dies, his relatives often seize the land and possessions. The woman is forced to leave her home. In cases when a marriage ends, joint property is not evenly divided. Often, the man claims everything.
Women's activists in Africa are trying to change this.
Women in the United States have an easier time owning property. They also have more educational, professional and political choices than in the past. Yet, they still face struggles in the fight for equality.
Susan Scanlan heads the National Council of Women's Organizations. She says the average American woman has a high school education but did not go to college. She owns a house with her husband and has a job to help support her family. In addition to working away from her home, she is also the main caregiver of children at home.
The average woman in the United States often cannot pay for health insurance. She is also concerned about having enough money to live after she retires. American women are generally paid less than men.
Sociology Professor Robert Jackson of New York University has written on women's issues. He says that American women have more legal rights and a better chance to succeed now than in the late nineteenth century. Considerable progress was made during the women's movement in the nineteen sixties. At that time, more and more females entered college and started jobs. Professor Jackson believes that pressure from increasingly educated and skilled women now will lead to more equality in the United States.
But around the world, the struggle for women's rights and equality is progressing slowly. Women are about half the population in the world. But experts wonder if they will ever have social, financial, legal, political and professional equality with men.
This program was written by Jill Moss. It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.