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The world of women

"The good news is that feminist organising is stronger, more diverse, more skilled and more global t

International Women’s Day may not seem to hold much meaning for the average New Yorker or Londoner, but as a once-a-year excuse to be curious about the state of women around the world, it’s a pretty good prompt.

We might start our annual tour with some of the gender-sensitive indices of country rankings that have been developed recently by various international agencies trying to differentiate women’s status within a framework of overall “development”. Chief among these is the relatively well-known Gender Development Index (GDI), developed by the United Nations Development Programme, which offers a gender-weighted index of country-level development defined by literacy, life expectancy and income.

Rankings such as this offer important glimpses into the world of women, even if they often seem fairly clunky and affirm what we think we already know – that women are better off in Costa Rica (GDI rank of 48) than Chad which is rated 170 or that Norway, which comes second, beats the UK which manages only 16th place.

Everyone wants to know where things are “better” or “worse,” and these rankings give a quick snapshot of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom. Especially the bottom. Perusing the most recent GDI list from the bottom up, for example, reveals a shocking monopoly of misery: among the lowest-ranked 40 countries, 35 are in Africa, in sad company with Haiti, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Nepal.

But this kind of ranking can feed too easily into a kind of "geography is destiny" complacency. We might start with the rankings lists, but we shouldn’t end there. What’s going on for women in those countries at the low end of the GDI rankings, for example, demands much sharper explanation than simply saying that they’re poor and at the bottom of development lists. For starters, the majority of the bottom - 40 countries are currently or have been recently embroiled in wars and armed conflicts: Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Chad, Eritrea, Timor-Leste, and Zimbabwe chief among them.

These are men’s wars, all of them fuelled by ferocious levels of rape and other violence against women and featuring astounding levels of male appropriation of resources. It is a well worn feminist truism that women are the shock absorbers of crises. Nowhere more than in war zones does women’s labour substitute for social infrastructure; the extent to which civil society and households are sustained in crisis zones during such times is largely down to the role of women. Out of such ashes women often rise – Rwanda and Liberia are in the forefront here – but the toll is high.

The good news is that there is some good news. In the past twenty or thirty years there have been some remarkable improvements in the state of women. Women have won voting rights and the right to hold public office in all but a recalcitrant handful of countries. Advances in women’s and girls’ literacy and education top the list of global success stories. Worldwide, only 22 per cent of women are now illiterate compared with 30 per cent just twenty years ago. On global average more than 75 per cent of girls are now enrolled in primary school. These results point to the importance of intentional gender commitments and the powerful fusion of feminist activism translated into the clout of legislation – advances in girls’ schooling have only been achieved through international efforts and local women’s organising to pressure national governments to legislate such education and to educate parents about the importance of educating girls.

However, it is still the case that fewer girls are enrolled in school than boys, that fewer complete primary education, and that girls are the first to be pulled from school in the face of economic hardship or civil crisis. The take-away lesson is that women’s rights, everywhere, are fragile, vulnerable, and under pressure. Gains for gender equity are easily reversed, and usually the first to be traded away. Women do not automatically share in broad social advances; a rising tide does not necessarily raise all boats unless there is a commitment to do so.

Feminist organising has always been the most reliable bulwark for women’s rights. Certainly, men in power haven’t been. From Pakistan to the USA, from Uzbekistan to Fiji, the halls and hallmarks of power remain remarkably unperturbed by the oppression of women. The good news is that feminist organising is stronger, more diverse, more skilled and more global than ever. International feminist networks are breaking the isolation of women from one another. Lesbian organising has come out of the closet. Global feminist organising is successfully redefining “human rights” to incorporate a broad agenda of women’s rights -- although, frankly, it is still a surprise when one has to argue that “human” must include “women”.

Joni Seager is the author of The Atlas of Women in the World (Earthscan); she is Professor and Chair of the Geography Department at Hunter College in New York City

International Women's Day 2009 takes place on Sunday 8th March