By Kathleen Richter
Professor Nancy Gilson gave a talk at UCSD regarding the status of women’s rights across the world. Gilson has been teaching at UCSD since 1993, is a full member of the Dimensions of Culture program, and also teaches upper-division Political Science, International Studies, and Critical Gender studies classes. One of the topics Gilson discussed was the difficulty in assessing gender equality, especially cross-culturally; “de jure” measures of equality do not necessarily always translate into “de facto” forms of equality, and in many cases, it is a collection of various factors that contribute to women’s inequality rather than one specific, identifiable obstacle.
Education, Gilson mentioned, provides a good example of this complication. According to a World Bank study published by Lawrence Summers, investment in girls’ education in the developing world is one of the most high-return investments to alleviating poverty; however, in the USA, in spite of the fact that more women than men are going to college, only 15% percent of board positions among fortune 500 companies are held by women, and women make only approximately 77 cents per every dollar men make. Abortion politics in the US also provide an example of the contrast between de jure and de facto equality. Though abortion is legal in the US, 85% of American women live in counties with no access to an abortion provider, demonstrating that the legality of abortion masks basic lack of access to the service.
One of the main points of Gilson’s talk was to point out that in the US, there is a tendency to point fingers at other nations for their gender inequality, as if the US were a model of perfect gender equality, when in fact, there are still significant advances to be made. One stark example of this is the fact that the US has not signed the international treaty entitled the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In 1979, the UN office of high commission on human rights developed CEDAW, which required signatory countries to take all appropriate measures to ensure the advancement of women’s equality, from matters of economics, to infant and maternal mortality, to marriage and property rights. 185 countries ratified CEDAW, while only the US and 7 other countries (including Somalia, Sudan, and Iran) have refused to sign the treaty.
Another topic Gilson discussed was the concept of “missing women”—that is, the idea that due to various factors relating to discrimination, women have been systematically eliminated, skewing the overall worldwide demographic to have more men than women. There are approximately 100 million missing women today. Some of the factors contributing to this phenomenon are sex selected abortions, war, domestic abuse, sex trafficking, and the tendency of some families to provide girls with poorer nutrition than their male counterparts.
Across the globe, women are less likely to be literate, have a higher risk of poverty, have fewer opportunities for occupations outside the home, and are more likely to work part-time. Women are also, in many cases, stuck between “a glass ceiling and a sticky floor”—that is, they are often barred from high position jobs and are also stuck spending more unpaid time taking care of children. These two factors may be related—as several nations do not offer paid maternity leave, women often find themselves between the choice of having a career or having a family.
Overall, Gilson remarked that yes, women have made significant advances in gaining equality, pointing specifically at the creation of CEDAW. However, looking at current trends of female sexual objectification, and infantilization—such as emaciated images of women in fashion magazines, the growth of sex trafficking, and the banning of the hijab in France, Gilson left the audience with the note that much more work needs to be done to level the proverbial playing field.
After her talk Nancy Gilson spoke with Prospect to share her thoughts on the status of women worldwide.
PROSPECT: In the blurb about tonight’s IAG meeting, it mentions that you will be discussing the comparative state of women’s rights around the world. How would you describe the comparative state of women’s rights around the world? Would you say that the state of women’s rights in general is improving or worsening?
NG: Both. I think that there are things you can look at and say that the position of women around the world is better. Increases in education more generally, the rate at which women are going missing is declining; there’s still a gender divide, but it is declining. On the other hand, the incredible growth of the use of rape in war I think is distressing, and there doesn’t really see to be sufficient outrage over it. There is, in places like Afghanistan and Iran, a retrenchment against women’s rights, and simply as a measure against the idea that having gained rights means that they can’t be taken away. We think of these things as always progressive, but I think that what we’re seeing in the world is you can have rights and have them taken back.
Part of the point that I wanted to make tonight is that we tend to demonize the rest of the world and we have to be careful about that. Indian and Pakistan and the UK have all had women in the highest office in the land, and in spite of how close Ms. Clinton got to that, I think we’re far away from having a woman as president. Laws are being re-written all over the country that limit women’s access to health care; the fact that women are still disproportionately poor – we have to be very careful. Its easy to say “in those countries where they have genital mutilation”, “where they leave babies out in the cold,” but we have women in the US without health care, that strikes me as really awful.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg used to tell a story when she worked for the ACLU: that women should be treated as a suspect classification, and she made the argument that the court had a tendency to lag behind on issues of gender – to lead on issues of race, but lag behind on issues of gender. She thought that its very difficult for men to accept the widespread idea of gender discrimination, because it meant that they treat their own wives/sisters/family members as lower than their male friends; that’s a very difficult thing to do. There were all these men at the end of the speech who were upset: “do you mean to say that I don’t treat my women on a pedestal?”
The woman is on a pedestal but the pedestal is in a cage.
PROSPECT: I’ve heard various women’s rights movement leaders saying that “there is no such thing as local feminism, but that feminism is global.” Does this statement resonate with what you have been researching?
NG: Not sure I think that’s true. I get the point of it. Part of what I was trying to say tonight is that these are really intersecting—inequality broken into different parts that interact with each other in profound ways. That’s true globally; women are moving around the world, employment is global, if that’s what you mean that in a globalized world – all politics are really global. I still think there’s a lot of room for local politics at the state level, at the local level. Different states treat women differently; some of the things that matter most profoundly to women, for example family law and employment law, are local. I think that having law at that level that treats women more equitably is an admirable thing.
PROSPECT: What about movements that have systematically been trying to reel back the clock on women’s rights? What is driving these movements?
NG: I think that the biggest factor [driving these movements] is the fact of rewards. As I said: you get stuff when you’re in a position of power. There is a possessive investment in power. There’s an advantage to being male in certain circumstances. There are the same amount of women in college, they have more aggressive coursework, they do better in graduate school—but they still get paid less. The challenge is making people realize that the persistence of inequality isn’t free, that it has all of these other components to it, and that doesn’t even get at the moral question about why inequality is problematic. But it’s the same thing that comes up in discussions about race: there are advantages to having institutions in which some people are privileged over others – if you’re one of the privileged people.
One thing to be very clear on in these examples [that is, the examples of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda] is that this is not a consequence of Islam; it is a complicated religion, and there are very different ideas on what the Koran says. It is not a consequence of Islam, it is a consequence of other circumstances. People tend to dress it up in Religion when there are other factors in place – the only real explanation is a belief that women are fundamentally and biologically unequal. Golda Meir, while she was prime minister of Israel, went to some place where they were trying to impress her about the status of women. They said, this is a place where women don’t have to worry about their safety during the day. They had a curfew: she told them that they are sending the wrong people home at night, because the women weren’t doing crimes. The arguments are that they do things to protect women—from whom? Who are the ones that are making women unsafe? I would rather not be sent home at sundown, I would prefer to have freedom. There must be enjoyment in the position, there is no other way to explain it.
PROSPECT: I heard that the US government recently passed IVAWA, plus Senators Boxer and Maloney passed a law to help women in Afghanistan. Do you think these demonstrate a step in the right direction, a real solution, or represent “band-aids” that don’t quite get at the root of the problem?
NG: I think the USA needs to follow Canada’s lead in seeing women as a social group and seeing gender violence as the equivalent of ethnic violence, particularly when we’re seeing the systematic use of violence against women and rape in certain settings.
Women need to have an ability to exit, because the ability to exit legally in a sense has a long-term possibility of increasing their standard; they have a right not to be treated that way, they have a mechanism that allows them to get out.
PROSPECT: What do you mean by exit?
NG: Exit the country, exit the community, exit marriages. I think it is very interesting, its one of the issues that we talk on both sides. In Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the one that narrowed the decision about Roe, one of the things that Pennsylvania wanted to do was to get spousal approval—that was one the ones they struck down as unconstitutional entirely on the basis on the basis of the risk of domestic violence for women. [Yet in some states] you have to have parental notification, though you have to note that there are many cases of teen pregnancies have to do with abuse and incest. So on one hand we recognize the incredible prevalence of domestic violence in the US, but on the other hand we don’t want to recognize it as a gender issue. I think we have contradictory ideas about it.
PROSPECT: So, for example, the argument that it is unfair that we pay attention to domestic violence against women, men get beat up to?
NG: Its hard to pay attention to that, because it varies state-by state how we deal with domestic violence….I think regulations that protect women against violence of all kinds is important, I wouldn’t consider it infantilizing.
PROSPECT: The major international institutions agree that gender equality is the single most important variable in creating economic stability. In what ways does gender equality assist development?
>NG: They’re just the simple ways—if you educate women and they’re employed and productive, then they’re generating income; if you educate them then they have ideas and they’re creative, they’re increasing the vitality of society; the two heads are better than one idea; the idea of women holding up half the sky. But its also the case that there’s fairly good evidence that the way that women change the agenda for social and political debate are ways that overall lead to positive results; they have different ideas, a different agenda about society.
PROSPECT: What are measures that have been taken to foster gender equality specifically with the intention of improving a nation’s economic stability?
NG: The building of schools is one of the most important things. But also the provision of health care, microlending that focuses on women and the kinds of small businesses that women tend to get into, job training, and providing them with skills.
PROSPECT: What about Human trafficking?
NG: We know that the numbers of human trafficking have gone up. In places of the world where there is economic instability and few opportunities of employment for women and girls the number of girls that are being sold into slavery and into sex trafficking, those are not necessarily the same thing, increases. We know that those numbers have gone up, so we know that economic instability in particular bears very heavily on women and girls, and in some cases young boys, but the overwhelming proportion is girls and young women. It has become a lucrative business, much more organized than it used to be. There are sex tours—those have been around a long time. I first traveled to Asia in 1979, to Thailand and Malaysia, and in those days there were sex tours, coming into the capitals on organized sex tours.
We know that its grown in the United States as well. There’s a premium: as I understand it, there’s a premium on younger girls. They’re much less likely to have AIDS. The interest in young girls means there’s a higher price—[meaning there is a high incentive to kidnap or otherwise coerce young girls into the sex trade]. It is connected to some extent to economics; not just the benefit to the person who’s doing the trafficking, but also as a consequence of the growing and deep poverty in the United States just as in the rest of the world. We know that the issues of the growth and availability of pornography and changes in attitudes on sexuality bear directly on the trade.
PROSPECT: What do you think are some of the most salient issues regarding gender equality in the world?
NG: I think they’re connected to domestic issues, domestic in the sense of household issues. [Take for example] Healthcare: if you look at mortality rates of women in childbirth and the lack of good pre-natal and delivery care, long-term health care, just access to health care, child care, [and] protection from violence. In the old days we used to talk about the idea that “personal is political.” I think that in lots of ways these are some of the most fundamental issues around the equality of women. These are things that are directly connected to economic stability. Women shouldn’t have to choose between having children and having a job. You shouldn’t have to choose between paying your rent and having health insurance. You should be able to have a family and be able to go to school at the same time. For example, in this economy if you want to go back and re-tool, you should be able to do these kinds of things.