Gender equality: So close yet still far from being a reality

Wednesday March 18 2020

Kwale Woman Representative Zuleikha Hassan (in red) and fellow women MPs address the media outside Parliament buildings on August 7, 2019. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting, which has taken place regularly since 1985, is being held in Nairobi. It aims at taking stock of the current status of gender equality and to share perspectives and experience of how progress on this important Commonwealth priority can be achieved more swiftly.


Recommendations and decisions made by ministers responsible for women’s affairs and gender will go forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Rwanda next year.

The past century has witnessed the greatest advances for gender equality in human history. From New Zealand becoming the first self-governing country in 1893 to allow women to vote in parliamentary elections to Sri Lanka electing the world’s first female Prime Minister in 1960, the gender gap has never narrowed so quickly. But there is still much ground to cover.

Multilateral organisations are making considerable efforts to measure progress against indicators linked to gender equality and women’s empowerment. For instance, in the Commonwealth, a girl is as likely to attend primary school as a boy, and in some countries more so. In 13 Commonwealth countries, 30 per cent or more of MPs are women. And women can now expect to outlive men.

Yet against this progress, underlying systemic inequality remains persistent and widespread. In politics, only one in five MPs is a woman. In education, of every 10 girls, only seven attend secondary school. In the workplace, the law in 32 countries does not mandate equal pay for work of equal value. In social life, 19 countries do not legally prohibit early marriage.


Research for the Nairobi meeting offers a snapshot of progress towards gender equality within and across the Commonwealth in four priority areas: Women in leadership, women’s economic empowerment, ending violence against women and girls, and gender and climate change.

Commonwealth countries have declared to ensure 30 per cent of the political sphere is made up of women. Rwanda is one of only three countries to have achieved gender parity with over 55 per cent of seats occupied by women in both Houses.

In 13 Commonwealth countries, 30 per cent or more of the MPs are women. Countries in the Caribbean and Americas region have an average of almost 25 per cent female MPs, relatively higher than other Commonwealth regions.

Some 10 countries have achieved the target of 30 per cent or more women ministers, and Canada leads with over 50 per cent.

Although gender gaps in education have narrowed, this has not yet translated satisfactorily into women’s equal participation in the formal labour force, or elimination of the gender pay gap in the workforce.


The pan-Commonwealth average for female labour force participation is 56.30 per cent — just over one in two women in the formal sector. Rwanda, at 86 per cent, has the highest rate.

There is a disjunction in the transition from primary to secondary schools for girls, largely due to factors such as the cost of education, child marriage or labour, and violence against girls. With 100 per cent, Canada leads in enrolment of girls in secondary school.

While 20 members do not have legislation on sexual harassment at workplaces, 23 do not have criminal penalties or civil remedies for the rights violation.

Prevalence of violence against women and girls is high throughout the world despite advances in women’s economic status, leadership and agency. Of 53 Commonwealth members, 47 have laws against domestic violence; 20 explicitly criminalise marital rape; 40 have sexual harassment laws, and nine give broad protections for LGBTI people.

Despite being high on the international agenda since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, gender and climate change have still not achieved due recognition.


Studies show more women are in employment that is vulnerable to climate change and 80 per cent of green jobs are expected to be in the secondary sectors, where women are underrepresented. But member countries continue to put in place laws, policies, plans and programmes to address gender inequality and women’s empowerment.

For gender equality to become a reality, responsibility for action has to be mainstreamed across the political sphere, public and private sectors and civil society. This is a key tenet of the Beijing Platform for Action, whose 25th anniversary is approaching.

To realise the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, let us continue working together multilaterally and invest resources and effort against gender inequalities.

Baroness Scotland is the Commonwealth Secretary-General. [email protected] @PScotlandCSG