Commentators and activists who predicted that 2018 would be a landmark year for gender equality have in many ways been proved right.
We’ve seen serious progress for women in political representation, legal rights and economic empowerment. Rwanda elected a majority-female legislature. A landmark ruling in Iceland outlawed the gender pay gap. Legal protections against sexual discrimination were pushed through in Chad, Cameroon, Egypt and Guinea. The United States saw a ‘pink wave’ of female candidates in its midterm elections. Globally, the #MeToo movement snowballed.
Here are some of the biggest gains – and some actions we can take that will help break down the barriers that are still holding women back.
Major strides in women's political representation
In October 2018 Ethiopia’s cabinet reached a national record of 50% female representation. Meanwhile Rwanda holds the highest percentage globally of women in its national legislature, with more women than men (64%) in its lower house.
Despite this, both countries continue to raise concern about gender issues – among them, sex-based discrimination and violence. UN Women data also suggests that after years of growth in women’s political representation across the world, it is now beginning to stagnate.
But political representation alone cannot address the discriminatory social and gender norms which hold women back. Although a key step in amplifying women’s voices and challenging discriminatory gender norms, it must be supported by reforms across education, legal rights, and economic systems.
Women's legal rights increased worldwide
Momentum to reform unequal inheritance laws in Morocco and Tunisia was a particularly positive sign of progress in women’s legal rights in this region. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the ban on women driving this year was met with global applause – although experts have called the move ‘cosmetic’ as the country continues to clamp down on women’s and human rights.
Nevertheless, the World Bank reported that some 86% of countries have now outlawed sexual harassment, compared to about 83% in 2014. Regulations outlawing child marriage also grew, as nine countries revised their laws by removing exceptions that allow for parental and judicial consent.
Yet close to 100 million girls are still not legally protected against child marriage. Given that girls who give birth before age 18 face particular health risks, this remains a critical issue for women’s movements to push up the agenda.*
Glimmers of hope for women's economic empowerment
Overall, economic gender gaps persisted in 2018 with little improvement. The World Bank reported that women account for only 38% of human capital wealth, or less than 33% in low- and middle-income countries. It may take another 217 years at current rates for this gap to close.
Only Rwanda – the sole African country to make the World Economic Forum’s top ten list for the lowest gender gaps – may be poised to address this inequality quicker than others. This is due to a recent increase in female labour force participation and high female political representation. Still, there were glimmers of hope. In January 2018, Iceland enacted some of the world’s strongest regulations outlawing the gender pay gap. Many countries followed suit by enforcing or expanding protections and strategies to wipe out gender-unequal pay.
While legal action is important, it must be supported by other reforms. Education in particular is a key route for challenging discriminatory norms, but this, too, must be complemented by wider initiatives to ensure lasting change. In the Arab region for example, girls outperform boys in schools – but educational attainment doesn’t necessarily translate into economic empowerment.
Moving forward in 2019
2018 saw significant strides for women and girls around the world. But it also exposed challenges and, in some cases, instances or warnings of the backsliding of women’s rights.
How can we start 2019 on the right foot?
Development actors and policymakers should focus on tackling pervasive discriminatory gender norms that limit opportunities and undermine the basic safety and wellbeing of women and girls. They can start by recognising and addressing gender discrimination in their own offices and boardrooms.
Governments should encourage more equitable representation on the political stage. A good place to start would be to respond to calls to include women and girls in future peace negotiations in Yemen, which will set an important precedent for more gender-inclusive politics while ensuring more lasting peace.
As UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said, ‘The #MeToo movement is opening new conversations, establishing new shared understandings…and shedding new light on the pervasive nature of gender equality.’ This year’s momentum is tangible and signals an important shift. 2019 must follow with even more comprehensive and evidence-informed solutions to ensure meaningful and lasting change.
*This text was updated on 17 December 2018 to remove an outdated statistic on maternal mortality.