The long road to equality

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

For Alaa Murabit, founder of a Libyan women’s NGO, the desire to make Libya a place Libyans can be proud of is slowly disappearing “in the midst of corruption, lawlessness and a lack of ownership over decisions made in a post-revolution Libya”. But Alaa believes that the citizens of Libya will defend the democracy for which they fought and ensure that their opinions are heard. Challenging the patriarchal norms that have dominated these societies and restricted women’s political participation will take time; these were not revolutions for gender equality. Women across the region need and deserve our solidarity and support in their pursuit of human dignity.

In an address to the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit last year, Hillary Clinton said that “barriers and restrictions, some formal, some informal, erode women’s abilities to participate fully in their economies and to support their families whether as employees or entrepreneurs”. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index stated that one of the most persistent gender gaps is unequal access to economic opportunities. In the developing world women bear the overwhelming burden of extreme poverty and deprivation, accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s poorest.

There are deep-seated gender differences in time use, rights of ownership and control over land and assets, access to productive assets and credit, and access to training and education. As Secretary Clinton stated: “When everyone has a chance to participate in the economic life of a nation, we can all be richer.”

The motto of The Irish Citizen newspaper, published by the Irish Women’s Franchise League from 1912 to 1920, encapsulates not only the ideals of the campaign for female suffrage in Ireland but the longing of women the world over to be equal and active citizens in their societies: “For men and women equally the rights of citizenship; from men and women equally the duties of citizenship.”

Grassroots women’s organisations are emerging in countries across the world as women recognise the potential of co-ordinated action to bring about change, and the need to fill the vacuum left by political leaders who have failed in their duty to protect and defend the rights of men and women equally.

In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, the Norwegian Nobel Committee expressed the hope that it would help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realise the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.

Inspired by the recognition of three powerful women leaders, the struggle to unleash the full strength of that potential continues apace. Irish women’s organisations will continue to address the needs of Irish women but they must also look to champion the rights of women beyond our borders who are disempowered and oppressed, and support the courageous leadership of women such as Alaa Murabit who have such barriers to cross.

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