The problem of Eve

RW Johnson writes on what should be done to really reduce gender inequality

The recent outburst against gender-based violence in South Africa is, in one sense, an oddity. For despite the ANC’s regular incantation about the building of a non-racist, non-sexist society, we all know perfectly well that society has been thoroughly re-racialized and that women are a long way from equality or even safety in South Africa.

Pointing to women MPs or ministers or female members of company boards does not begin to answer the question and in general there is far too much focus on this elite level. We have no reliable data about the incidence of violence within marriage but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is high, while the crime statistics about our being the “rape capital of the world” are well known.

The recent protests against gender-based violence centred on the sad case of Uyinene Mrwetyana but the truth is that her death was part of a steady pattern of violence which is a sociological phenomenon not easily affected by mass protests or political speeches. In the last analysis, of course, such violence is connected to gender equality: women are seen as suitable targets for rape, beatings or murder because they are viewed as lesser beings anyway. And such perspectives have deep historical roots in our various communities.

How exactly we stand in this regard may be seen from the Equal Measures 2030 report, an initiative funded by the Gates Foundation which charts gender equality around the world. While no country gets a 100% rating (= perfect equality), the top rated are Denmark (89.3), Finland (88.8), Sweden (88.0), Norway (87.7), Germany (86.2) and the UK (82.2). In general, there is a correlation between wealthier countries and feminine equality, but the USA, although wealthy, scores only 77.6, behind less wealthy Britain and far behind also less wealthy Canada. Indeed, Slovenia, with a GDP per capita only 62% of the USA, is the sixth best country for gender equality while the USA is the 28th. In general the higher gender equality scores in Europe and North America correlate with higher female participation in the labour market in those countries, with 79% of women there gainfully employed compared to 91% of men.

Several general factors other than wealth appear to be at work. The top countries for gender equality are in Western Europe (though Spain lags behind, performing worse than even much poorer Portugal), Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, Japan, the two Koreas and New Zealand. At the next level down we find Eastern Europe, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the USA, Thailand, Argentina and Chile. Almost certainly one would find that wealth correlates positively with greater feminine equality within, as well as between, countries. Thus one would expect higher rates of gender equality among WASP and Jewish America than among blacks or Hispanics. But there are some surprising countries in the list above – Kazakhstan is thus the highest-ranked mainly Muslim country (although it has a large Russian minority) and Mongolia ranks higher than either of its large neighbours, Russia and China.

The countries that do worst on this scale (they are rated “very weak”) are a mixture of the very poor (most of Africa, with Chad right at the bottom), Muslim states – Egypt, the Gulf states, Pakistan – and India. There is little doubt that Islam is a retarding factor for on wealth alone the Gulf states should have been up at the top with Scandinavia.

This leaves the largest group of all, where gender equality is simply “weak”. Russia, China, Indonesia, Mexico and Central America and the rest of Latin America apart from the southern cone. In Africa the countries rated at this level are Algeria, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. This would again appear to correlate roughly with wealth - for most of Africa, which is poorer, is right at the bottom - though it is striking that three of these states have had large white minorities, which may have had some cultural influence.

However, if we group together the countries that are either “weak” or “very weak” when it comes to gender equality, we realise that 80% of the world’s women live in conditions which are either bad or very bad. What is really striking is that in North Africa, Western, Central and Southern Asia only about one third of women are gainfully employed – compared to a world average of 63%. What this means, of course, is that women in these latter areas do an enormous amount of unpaid labour.

This helps explain why women are in general poorer than men, especially in South Asia and Africa. The World Bank has shown that 736 million people in the world live in extreme poverty. For every 100 boys in such a state there are 105 girls and in the 25-34 age group for every 100 men in such a condition there are 122 women. The biggest reason for this is that in over half the world’s countries there are restrictions on what jobs women may do. In Saudi Arabia a woman needs the permission of a male guardian to do any job at all. Inevitably, such extreme levels of feminine poverty lead to sexual exploitation – prostitution, human trafficking and so on.

It seems likely that gender equality in South Africa follows these general trends, viz. that women in the wealthier income brackets will enjoy greater equality than those lower down. In general this would suggest that white women will enjoy greater gender equality than African women, with Indian and Coloured women in intermediate positions. Almost certainly, it would follow that African women are the most likely to be victims of violence and white women the least likely.

While there is no doubting the power of such explanatory variables as wealth, culture, labour force participation and education, in effect these operate by placing the heaviest burden on particular groups, causing the men within those groups to shift some of that extra load onto women. Where such inequalities have become ingrained by long usage one will also frequently find these norms enforced by many women too. Even in the extreme case of sati or suttee in India (whereupon a widow sits upon her husband’s funeral pyre and is burnt with him) the culture which enjoins such practices is shared by women as well as men.

The lesson of the figures is that protests and political speeches are all very well but if one really wishes to see gender inequality decrease one should concentrate on achieving maximum economic growth, the highest possible levels of education for the largest number of people and the highest possible labour participation ratios – which, in turn, depends on there being lots of jobs. The worst thing possible for gender equality is exactly what the ANC has achieved, with record levels of unemployment and poorer and poorer education. In the face of such protean facts it is quite idle to keep mouthing the formula of non-sexism and non-racism.

RW Johnson