Overton Blog

International Women's Day: Systemic Gender Inequality in Policy

International Women’s Day is observed every year on March 8th. The day is meant to mark the achievements of women, but also to highlight the need to advocate for women’s rights and for further progress in the struggle for gender equality. An important part of making that progress a reality is developing policy that will support it and bring it to fruition. 

In this blog we'll explore the global struggle for equality within public policy. We also analyse the data in the Overton app to see how different countries approach issues relating to gender, and how intersectional these approaches are. 

The shifting sands of equality

Gender inequality has been a longstanding policy issue. Even after winning the right to vote, women faced a decades-long battle for parity in other areas. Many rights now taken for granted were not given until very recently — in the UK, it was still legal to sack a woman for being pregnant until 1975. A woman couldn’t apply for a loan or credit card in her own name until 1980. It took until 1994 for rape in marriage to be considered a crime. 

Even now, many countries around the world continue to deny female citizens their basic human rights. Afghanistan, for example, has banned women from working in most industries and limited their access to education. Their freedom to travel has been restricted, and they’re no longer allowed to use certain public facilities like parks or communal baths. Countries like Syria, Yemen and Pakistan also score very badly in the Women Peace and Security Index from Georgetown’s Institute for Women Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute Oslo. 

When we see this level of overt oppression it’s easy for those of us in other countries to conclude that gender discrimination isn’t a problem where we are, especially when much of the inequality in the examples above can be attributed to conflict and lack of geopolitical stability in those regions. However, a recent report from the World Bank on Women, Business and the Law 2022 paints a more complicated picture. This publication shows that only twelve countries worldwide have full, equal rights for women. Even in advanced economies such as the United Kingdom and the USA legal gender equality is still far from being achieved.

This data shows how legal equality is not a fixed concept. Pakistan – one of the lowest ranked places to be a woman, per the Peace and Security Index – has in recent years passed several reforms aimed at giving women more rights and economic freedoms. Meanwhile some countries often seen to have a high standard of gender equality have gone in the other direction. An example of this is in the United States where the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, removing an important constitutional protection of abortion rights. Shortly afterwards, several US states introduced abortion bans. Similarly, Poland also passed a law in 2020 that limits access to abortion. It's clear that we shouldn’t assume gender equality to be a permanent fixture, if policy can change .

De-centering Advanced Economies

Though political representation and economics dominate the discussion of gender equality, there needs to be an understanding that many policies that have implications for reducing gender inequality do not always seem to relate to gender at first look. For example, environmental damage and climate change disproportionately affect women and children. According to UN Women “women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety. They are more likely to be displaced and face gender violence in the wake of natural disasters. As the ‘homemakers’, who are primarily responsible for feeding the household, they’re often required to travel great distances through dangerous terrain to source food and water during an emergency. 

Tracking these intersections is not always easy. For example, when looking at policy related to SDG on the Overton policy database using the search query ‘gender’ shows a stark decrease between ‘traditional’ gender related goals such as SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and goals such as SDG 13: Climate Action or SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

SDGs related to gender in the Overton app

Part of the reason for this could be that the majority of policy — both in terms of creation and focus — is made in and by high human development countries, where according to the World Economic Forum “mainstream approaches to policy creation instruct us to categorize issues and then neatly box them into policy solutions. While this approach keeps things simple, it also comes with a cost… The interplay of gender equity and climate change is a fitting example of this phenomenon.” 

Source regions in the Overton database

Medium and low human development countries are more often affected by these issues, as climate change is hitting hardest there. For example, in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, nine of the top ten at risk countries are middle or low human development countries, and in many there are also lower levels of gender equality. However, environmental policies from all countries will impact these women. Therefore when considering how legislation or regulation might advance or threaten gender equality, we should look beyond the issues explicitly related to women’s rights and take a more intersectional, cross-cutting view.

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