UNLOCKED Blog 10: Feminism, Young Women and Development

23 Apr 2015

 Gender Gap Index is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities. The highest possible score is 1 (equality) and the lowest possible score is 0 (inequality).

ˈfɛmɪnɪz(ə)m/

noun

the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

Feminism, in its simplest form, means promoting gender equality; it means giving men and women the same rights, and a feminist is a person who actively advocates social, political, legal and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

So why is the use of the word such a controversy?

There are a million different perspectives and several myths attached to the word that we often forget what it actually means. I’ve personally come across people, especially women, who claim that they believe in equal rights but not, ironically, in feminism. Some of them regard the whole notion as ostentatious and superficial and asserted that they were beyond it, while others associate it with man-hating and homosexuality. The first argument I’m always met with when advocating feminism is that feminism will be the death of chivalry and this is what perhaps hinders a lot of women – the idea of losing respect and devotion.

This led me to conclude that the whole concept of feminism is heavily misunderstood. We often confuse equal rights with social perceptions. Feminism is not about homogenizing gender types and treating women as men, but rather about giving women the same rights as men despite their gender differences and how they are perceived in society. Although social stereotypes and human rights go hand in hand, as one leads to the other, one must regard the two objectives exclusively at first to fully grasp the concept of feminism. As such, feminism does not mean that women should be regarded differently; it does not mean that men should start treating women like men and no longer open doors for women or feel protective of them, and instead treat them aggressively and indifferently. It means empowering women with equal and just pay, access to education and healthcare and legal rights. However, social constructs are the reason why feminism exists, and even though feminism does not intend to directly address these constructs, it’s important to analyze them to implement feminism.  

That being said, I would now like to explain why feminism is important from an Economist’s point of view. Gender gap is the discrepancy in opportunities between men and women - a greater gap would mean that the society is in the sexist end of the spectrum and a smaller gap would mean that the society is in the feminist end of the spectrum. As the above diagram shows, development and gender equality, and thus feminism, are positively correlated and feminism is an imperative for greater development. As such, one of the reasons that countries, such as Sweden, have a higher GDP per capita (US$ 29000) is because they have higher Gender Gap Index scores (0.83). Development means improving the living standards of the people in a country, so if 50% of the population has lower access to education and job opportunities, then they are unable to contribute to the country’s GDP. Total GDP will be far less than the country’s potential GDP, which will result in a lower GDP per capita and thus poorer living standards. Hence, overall wellbeing is compromised and further development cannot be achieved.

Sri Lanka’s Gender Gap Index score in 2015 is 0.690; it has been falling steeply in the World economic Forum Gender Gap Index from its ranking of 12th among 130 countries in 2008 to 79th among 142 countries in 2014. This is both alarming and disheartening, especially considering that the world’s first female Prime Minister was elected in Sri Lanka. With reference to educational attainment and health, women in Sri Lanka having been faring equally equal to their male counterparts and the GGI score lies at 0.9 in these sectors. Education is one disparity that Sri Lanka does not experience; the National Human Development Report 2014 shows that in 2012 out of the 591,087 youth at O/L were female and 49% were male. However, despite more women attainting education, especially higher studies, it does not always translate into jobs. The GGI score for economic participation and opportunity remains at a low 0.591, and the estimated earned income for female is 5,030 (PPP US$) whereas the estimated earned for male is 13,180 (PPP US$).

What are the implications of such a situation on the youth of the country, and, in particular, young women? Entering employment is hardest for young women; their participation in the labour force is less than half than that of young men. In terms of political empowerment, women’s representation in national parliament stands at 5.6%, which is amongst the lowest in South Asia. What’s worse is that young women’s representation in the parliament stands at 0%. As statistics show young women in Sri Lanka are the most vulnerable group in our society. Being a young woman myself, I personally feel marginalised and I constantly worry that I might not get a job with an adequate salary to support myself despite my level of education.

As a developing country, Sri Lanka requires greater gender equality and female empowerment to progress further. One way to advocate women’s rights, as one of my colleagues, Sharanya Sekaram, explained at a Women’s Day conference held by International Alert, was to reframe the issue. Often men feel alienated from issues related to women’s rights because it doesn’t directly affect them. By reframing women’s rights as development prerequisites and raising awareness about the impacts of women’s issues on the economy, we can get the whole of society to engage in advocating women’s rights and bring about greater change. For prolonged change it’s necessary to educate the youth - the leaders of tomorrow - about feminism and the need to empower women, especially young women, and inspire them to change the dire situation in Sri Lanka. But most importantly, we must embolden young women to be confident feminists and to teach them that it’s not only their right, but their duty to fight for themselves. 

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