“Women’s history is women’s right” declared Gerda Lerner, considered the “mother” of Women’s History Month. “It is an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage and long-range vision.”
Thirty-eight years after President Jimmy Carter drew on Lerner’s words in his proclamation establishing the original Women’s History Week, I ask us to consider: How are we doing, on the global scale, with that long-range vision?
I do not claim that the United States has solved the challenges of creating a truly equal society, one in which women have access to the same opportunities, privileges and benefits as men. We still have a long way to go. The United States continues to struggle with gender bias, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) discrimination against women, and with different standards applied to women, as compared to standards expected of men — particularly in the public sphere.
But in celebrating Women’s History Month, let us consider why equality matters, and explore how we can work with Ghana to move forward together.
Few would dispute that education is key to creating a more prosperous and more equitable society.
Keeping girls in school is linked to improved economic outcomes, for both the individual woman and her society. Educated women are better able to influence their own — and their families’ —futures. Educated women are less likely to tolerate domestic or sexual abuse. They’re likely to have fewer babies, and those babies will likely experience lower infant mortality rates. Educated women form a significant talent pool that contributes to the quality and productivity of the workforce. An educated woman has the skills, the insight and the self-confidence to contribute to her community and her country.
The overwhelming advantages of educating women and girls are clear. Yet the lack of educational opportunities for girls and women in many places continues to enforce inequality. In places where school fees and other costs are high, many families must choose which of their children receives an education — and boys are often chosen over girls. If the distance to school is too far, girls can become physically vulnerable just through their daily commute. Male students and teachers may coerce them to engage in sex. In communities where sanitation is difficult, many girls regularly miss school when they menstruate. Girls are still expected to shoulder a disproportionate burden of domestic chores, even when they attend school and have homework to complete. In too many countries, a lack of female teachers means girls have fewer educational role models. Social norms and the threat of sexual pressure can reduce a family’s willingness for girls to be educated by male teachers.
These barriers can be overcome, and a country willing to invest in education for girls and women unlocks access to an untapped well of talent, energy, and potential. Imagine running a race where you can use only half your body to compete. Now imagine trying to develop a more robust economy, a richer culture, and a more just society using only half your talent pool. The outcomes would be equally uninspiring.
Harmful Traditional Practices
In many cultures, harmful traditional practices disproportionately affect women and children. Constitutions and laws may pay lip service to gender equality, but go largely unenforced. Ritual servitude, better known locally as “trokosi,” continues. Female genital mutilation continues. “Witch camps” endure. Women are under-represented in the political arena. The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 170 years to close the gender pay gap around the world.
Doing away with even the most backward beliefs can be daunting. Challenging the argument that “that’s just the way it’s always been done” is never simple — particularly when such beliefs are ingrained in our cultural fabric. Yet if we did not challenge ourselves, we would commit ourselves to a future with no progress. If we did not challenge our own previously accepted practices, slavery might still be legal. Technological developments would still be science fiction. Change can be difficult. But the lack of change leads to stagnation, regression, and decay.
Women in the Public Sphere
Both Ghana and the United States have significant room for improvement when it comes to the role of women in the public sphere. The challenges run the gamut, from skewed representation at the national level — Ghana’s 13 percent female representation in Parliament lags slightly behind the United States’ equally dismal 19 percent representation in Congress — to discriminatory coverage of women candidates and office holders in the press. Research showed that women receive less — and significantly different coverage — than men, even when competing for the highest offices in the land. What was she wearing? How did her hair look? How did her children behave?
Nobody would dare imply that a male candidate or male Minister had slept his way to the top; yet we have witnessed successful women being accused of using sex to attain success. Women
candidates and job applicants are still asked questions irrelevant to their achievements. Are you married? Do you have children? Why not? How will you balance your career with being a mother?
How often do we ask a man how he balances his career with being a father? For men, such questions are considered intrusive and inappropriate. For women, they are routine. For women, it is a daily struggle to be held to a different standard. Men are confident; women are “pushy.” Men have a bad day; women are “incompetent.” Men express opinions; women “talk too much.”
Moving Ahead Together
In the United States, 1 in 4 women will suffer severe violence at the hands of an intimate partner at some point during their lives. Nearly half of American women have experienced gender discrimination on the job. American teachers spend up to two-thirds of their classroom time speaking to male students. We have work to do.
As an American citizen, I support programs and policies that move us closer to gender equality in my own country. As the United States Ambassador to Ghana, I ask Ghanaians to do the same here. Ghana too has work to do.
Let’s embrace that long-range vision of unleashing the raw power, talent, and potential of women and girls. Both our societies stand to reap unimaginable benefits. Consider the challenges I have raised in these few paragraphs. Or maybe you don’t have to consider them — you live them. Imagine instead a world where women are free to contribute to science, to resolve political challenges, to develop artistic expression, to create literature, and to increase family and national income through economic activity. Imagine a world where achievement and accomplishment are the measures of social progress and societal reward, and where each member can fully cultivate the gifts with which they were born.
And then, together, let us commit to making that potential world a reality.
By Robert P. Jackson, U.S. Ambassador to Ghana