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May 16, 2016

The battle for equality


May 16, 2016

Today is the opening day of the largest global conference ever on girls and women’s rights and health – the ‘Women Deliver Conference 2016’ – in Copenhagen, Denmark being held from May 16 to May 19.

The focus of the conference will be on how to ensure that the needs and rights of girls and women are fully taken into account in the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This will require special attention to health issues – in particular maternal, sexual, and reproductive health – but also to rights as well as gender equality, women’s rights, education, environment, and economic empowerment.

Girls and women constitute more than half of the world’s population and they contribute greatly to the world economy as consumers, employees, entrepreneurs and by delivering a large amount of unpaid work inside and outside their homes. At the same time, girls and women constitute the majority of the world’s poor, earn far less than men, work longer and are often much worse off when it comes to access to land, natural resources, education and health.

In order for the world to experience progress, we need to give girls and women the equal opportunities to which they are entitled. This will not only benefit girls and women but societies at large.

Research shows that investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do, but also the most effective investment in development – reaching far beyond the individual women. For example, women spend 90 percent of their salary on their children and the health, education and well-being of their family, while men only spend 30 to 40 percent.

When an additional 10 percent of girls go to school, a country’s gross GDP increases by three percent. Removing the barriers that prevent women from entering the labour market can increase productivity by up to 25 percent. Investing in women’s economical participation is a direct way to gender equality, poverty reduction and inclusive economic growth.

Denmark is a country where gender equality ranks high on the agenda. The ideal of treating women and men equal and giving girls and boys equal opportunities has greatly influenced the development of our society and driven it to where we are today.

More than 200 years ago, in 1814, all Danish children – rich and poor, rural and urban, girls and boys – were given the right to free education. Last year, Denmark celebrated the 100th anniversary of the right of Danish women to vote in parliamentary elections. The latter was the culmination of a long and persistent struggle for women to have a formal voice in society equal to that of men. Step by step, women’s influence and opportunities has increased. In 1976, equal pay for equal work became a requirement by law, and in 2011, Denmark had its first female prime minister.

But the battle for gender equality is not over yet. Denmark continues to face challenges. A de facto pay gap between women and men persists, women are disproportionally exposed to domestic violence, and the existence of gender stereotypes occasionally constitute a barrier to gender equality. The struggle to eliminate these patterns must and will continue.

Despite recent gains for girls and women’s rights in Pakistan – including pro-women legislation – social and gender equality remains a challenge in Pakistan as well. Many women, especially in the rural areas of the country, often cannot access education and jobs due to deep-rooted cultural and institutional constraints.

The participation of women in the labour force in Pakistan remains the lowest in South Asia, as women are constrained from leaving home due to cultural norms, mobility restrictions and safety and security concerns. The lack of safe, reliable transport may also prevent women from joining the labour force or to work as much as they would like, as is the case in many Pakistani villages. While women’s share in employment has increased from 22.3 percent in 2002 to 38.7 percent in 2013, the majority of them are engaged in the low-productivity agricultural sector or as unpaid family workers, earning less than their male counterparts.

The government of Pakistan has achieved major milestones in the struggle for gender equality. Women are now better protected from sexual harassment in the workplace, since laws on these issues were passed in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Sindh and Balochistan passed domestic violence bills in 2014 and Punjab is following suit. In May 2014, the Sindh Assembly became the first in the nation to pass a bill prohibiting early marriage, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Bill. Balochistan is about to present a similar bill in the cabinet.

These are indeed positive steps towards gender equality in Pakistan. But we need to do a lot more for girls and women around the world, including in Denmark and Pakistan.

The international framework on women’s rights and gender equality has been and indeed is important instruments on the road to gender equality. For Denmark, it has always been a core element in our international work to promote these decisions.

Nine months ago, the heads of state and government adopted 17 goals for poverty reduction and sustainable development – the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The goals deliver promises for young girls who desperately want an education, for the millions of women without access to family planning and proper health care, and for women who wants to own the land they farming and have access to financial services. Crucial for the success of these goals is consistent investment in girls and women.

Denmark is firmly committed to use the UN’s 2030 Agenda to push for sustainable societies with growth, where everybody irrespective of gender will have the opportunity to determine their own destinies, make their own choices and live the life they want.

The Women Deliver Conference 2016 presents a unique opportunity for a wide range of actors to exchange ideas and solutions and to develop partnerships that will deliver for girls and women around the world.

Together we are sending this message not only to world leaders but also to all citizens, companies, civil society organisations, research institutions and more: Invest in girls and women – and everybody wins.

The writer is the chargé d’affaires of the embassy of Denmark.