Friday, November 14, 2008

UNFPA's annual report describes global gender inequality

By Chloe Angyal

UNFPA, The United Nations Population Fund, has just released Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, its report on the state of the world population (and you thought writing a JP involved extensive research).

Here are some fascinating and disturbing excerpts from the chapter on Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women:

Deep-rooted cultural beliefs sustain gender inequality. In Latin America, for example, feminist movements against domestic violence have found that cultural traditions that support patriarchal violence are among the major impediments to change.
French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies followed the Code Napoleon, under which the father or husband had total power over the family and could treat them as he saw fit.

The tradition continued essentially unchallenged after independence and until recent times, as the struggle to enforce the Maria da Penha law in Brazil illustrates.
Gender-based violence “is perpetuated through social and cultural norms and traditions, reinforcing male-dominated power structures”.(11)

From early infancy, women are taught “that they are inferior to men and often to blame for the violence inflicted upon them. As wives or partners, they must hold the family together, at any cost. Women and men both learn to turn a blind eye to, or accept, gender-based violence”. Under these circumstances, domestic violence becomes “naturalized” and invisible.

Reports from Uganda demonstrate the ways in which cultures sustain unequal gender relations. Many men were adamant that their women are not supposed to have money: “After selling the maize, the husband may buy a dress or lesu for the wife. If women are allowed to own property, they will be on top of men.” Women themselves provided a number of examples of the problems that occur when they were “allowed” to own property, particularly the difficulty of “sustaining a husband and economic independence; one has to be foregone”.

While beliefs may be changing among younger women, some older women retain and try to enforce them
. In one area, the Uganda study found, women are forbidden from entering the lake. One younger woman asserted that there was nothing wrong with swimming in the lake.

However, the older women objected. Women, they said, “should not go to the lake at all because they are always dirty”. The “god” who was responsible for the site dictated this. Since the young women had failed to observe this instruction, the “god” would no longer bless the site.

Reports also show that domestic violence is widespread. “Husbands turn to battling their wives even on minor issues like failure to work hard in the garden or when his clothes are not washed (even if soap was not there).” It was reported that frustrated men were “beating their wives almost to death”.

American culture is not without its inequalities, and our government's policies are not without their deficiencies when it comes to gender, but parts of this report made me feel damn lucky to live here.


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