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Gender Equality is a Human Rights Issue

When I was a scout, I remember celebrating Juliette Gordon Low‘s birthday annually, but I have absolutely no recollection of another annual Girl Scout observance: Thinking Day. Too bad, cause this is a really good one.

Quick history of Thinking Day: It always falls on February 22nd (tomorrow), and is the birthday of both Lord Robert Baden-Powell (founder of Boy Scouting), and his wife, Lady Olive. With the titles of Lord and Lady, you might correctly assume that they lived across the pond. And it was Mrs. Low’s extended visit with the Powells in England that enthusiastically prompted her to return to the States and engage girls in scouting, almost 100 years ago.

Scouting is worldwide, however, and Thinking Day is set aside for Girl Scouts and their international Girl Guide counterparts to pause and think about the value of international peace and friendship, particularly among girls.

This year’s theme: Promote Gender Equality. That’s an incredibly potent topic. Gender equality is a human rights issue. So let’s do a little thinking — and then let’s see what any individual can do to help out.

These statistics were pulled from the Girl Scouts of America Website:

  • Girls are twice as likely to be illiterate as boys.
  • 7 out of 10 people living in poverty in the world are women and girls.
  • Only 2% of the world’s land is owned by women.
  • Women do two-thirds of the work in the world, but earn only 10% of the income.

This is an incredibly bleak picture for women and girls worldwide–bleak enough to warrant looking for more data. Gender equality was included as one of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals, intended to substantively improve conditions for populations worldwide by 2015. The U.N.’s 2010 edition of The World’s Women reports that some improvements have been made across the world and across issues, but stupendous differences still remain as a result of poverty, culture, and other factors. A very quick look at global disparities shows us:


  • Women constitute the majority of HIV-positive adults in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.
  • Despite increasing coverage, HIV anti-retroviral drugs still reach only half of the mothers in need.
  • Most maternal deaths are from preventable or treatable causes.
  • Women from the wealthiest countries are far more likely to receive  prenatal care and assistance in childbirth.


  • Two thirds of the 774 million adult illiterates worldwide are women – the same proportion for the past 20 years and across most regions.
  • Girls in rural areas are less likely to attend school than girls in urban areas.
  • In the poorest 60 percent of households worldwide, only one in three girls attends primary school.


  • Women are mostly–and still increasingly–finding service sector jobs.
  • Wage gaps between genders continues to persist worldwide.
  • Women spend at least twice as much time as men on domestic work, and when all work – paid and unpaid – is considered, women work longer hours than men do.

Power and Decision Making

  • In just 23 countries do women comprise a critical mass – over 30 per cent – in the lower or single house of their national parliament. [NOTE: The United States is not one of them. The 112th Congress has 79 women (18 percent) in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are 17 women (17 percent) serving in the U.S. Senate.]
  • Only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have a female Chief Executive Officer.
  • Becoming the Head of State or Head of Government remains elusive for women, with only 14 women in the world currently holding either position.
  • Women are highly underrepresented in decision-making positions at local government levels.

Violence Against Women

  • Violence against women is a universal phenomenon.
  • Women are subjected to different forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological and economic – both within and outside their homes.
  • Rates of women experiencing physical violence at least once in their lifetime vary from several per cent to over 59 per cent depending on where they live.
  • Female genital mutilation – the most harmful mass perpetuation of violence against women – shows a slight decline.
  • In many regions of the world longstanding customs put considerable pressure on women to accept abuse.


  • Households of lone mothers with young children are more likely to be poor than households of lone fathers with young children.
  • Women are more likely to be poor than men when living in one-person households in many countries from both the more developed and the less developed regions.
  • Women are overrepresented among the older poor in the more developed regions.
  • Existing statutory and customary laws limit women’s access to land and other types of property in most countries in Africa and about half the countries in Asia.
  • Fewer women than men have cash income in the less developed regions, and a significant proportion of married women have no say in how their cash earnings are spent.
  • Married women from the less developed regions do not fully participate in household decision-making on spending, particularly in African countries and in poorer households.


I have no doubt that if you’re reading this, then you–like me–are privileged and lucky to be living a fundamentally safe and comfortable life. We take our lives for granted until we’re smacked upside the head with stories and data from the rest of the world. But gender equality is a human rights issue. Let’s shine some light on it.

  1. Learn more about the areas of particular interest to you, because it’s tough to take action when we’re unaware of the issue:
    1. United Nations Millennium Development Goals
    2. United Nations 2010 Report: The World’s Women
    3. International Women’s Democracy Center Fact Sheet on Women in Politics
    4. World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report
    5. Girl Scouts: Thinking Day and Gender Equality
  2. Push for opportunities to improve gender equity at home and abroad
    1. Mentor young women for leadership positions and careers “traditionally” held by men, like math and sciences.
    2. Push for greater gender equity in sports in our schools, or learn more about Title IX, it’s successes, and opportunities for improvement.
    3. Write your state and Federal legislators about gender equality issues (including equal pay, employment rights, health care, poverty). Right now, Congress and the White House are debating the budget and making incredibly difficult choices in a tough economic climate. If you feel strongly about making certain that programs that help women and children don’t end up on the chopping block, look up the contact information for your elected officials and start writing.
  3. Participate in microfinance, the movement pushed forth by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. For a modest amount, anyone can help lift a woman (or man) out of poverty by providing microcredit. It’s incredibly easy through sites like I’ve been doing this since 2007 and have personally had a 99% return rate. Here’s my own Kiva lending page for proof.
  4. Donate to the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund. The money collected supports World Thinking Day, develops and sustains girl scouting throughout the world, and supports opportunities for girl scouts to participate in international events.

One thought on “Gender Equality is a Human Rights Issue

  1. Jean, great post on a heady and important issue for all of us, particularly on a day celebrated by an organization whose slogan is “The girl comes first in Girl Scouting.” The timing is very interesting; NPR is doing a series this week about an additional facet of gender equality: women in uniform, and the implications of the combat exclusion policy for women. So far the series has discussed topics from the impact on career advancement to the realities of combat in today’s world, where there’s really no such thing as a “front line” any more; today, there’s a profile of the first female recipient of the Silver Star since World War I.

    According to the article yesterday, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which has been researching the issue and hearing testimony since 2009, is expected to recommend Congress remove the combat exlusion policy in the next month. Here’s a link to the article:

    This is an issue that has interested me for many years; I was actually recruited by the US Naval Academy, and I spent a week there on a “recruiting” trip the summer before my senior year of high school, along with 99 other girls and 500 boys. (I strongly considered seeking an appointment as well, until I realized the area that interested me so much, Systems Engineering, had a word missing….”Weapons”….and that did not sit well with my budding realization that I was a pacifist.)

    In fact, as a demonstration of solidarity with my male classmates in high school, I registered for selective service when I turned 18. I felt it was discriminatory to require men to register, but not women. Of course, there was no “gender” box on the form….

    Also, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Houston Chronicle in college about women in the military, and it was published alongside an editorial by Barbara Bush, who also supported equality of women in the military. Although I did not vote for her husband (or her son), I have always thought highly of Mrs. Bush, and felt honored to have my letter published alongside hers.

    At any rate, these many facets of gender equality are certainly sobering. I am floored by the statistics you cited. Utterly floored. I am fortunate that I work for one of the most progressive and forward looking companies; despite the fact that I work in a technical department, my manager, my second line manager, and my third line manager are all women, and women have risen in the ranks of leadership to some of the most important roles in the company. Unfortunately, I know my situation is in now way the norm, and that saddens me.

    Thanks for adding such insight to this issue. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about.

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