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Sweden and Yemen at the top and bottom of the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index

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Rosy Moorhead
WVoN features editor 

“It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.”

In Beijing in 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton made her now historic speech on women’s rights to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women.

There is debate as to how much progress has been made in the 16 years since then, and it is unarguably lamentable that more has not been made, but steps are certainly being taken to equate women’s rights with human rights and development.

One of them is the inclusion of the Gender Inequality Index in the Human Development Report (HDR), the 2011 edition of which was published in November.

The HDR, collated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), measures the average achievements in a country in regard to a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.

The Gender Inequality Index

It has included gender inequality in its calculations since 1995 but previous indices had limitations, so the Gender Inequality Index (GII) was introduced in 2010.

William Orme, an HDR spokesperson, told me: “It’s long been understood that if you’re going to choose one magic thing, one key thing, [that] you’re going to invest in for development, [it is] girls and women. Schooling, women’s rights, participation.

“It has dramatic, demonstrable benefits for society.”

The GII reflects the inequality in achievements between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health; empowerment; and the labour market.

‘Health’ is broken down into the maternal mortality ratio and the adolescent fertility rate. ‘Empowerment’ is measured by the share of parliamentary seats held by each sex and by secondary and higher education attainment. And the labour dimension is measured by women’s participation in the workforce.

It varies between zero – men and women fare equally – and one – men or women fare poorly when compared to the other in all dimensions.

Unsurprisingly, not one of the 146 countries there is data for has perfect gender equality, revealing the extent to which national achievements in these aspects of human development are eroded by gender inequality.

National and regional patterns of inequality

The main findings of the GII in terms of national and regional patterns of inequality make for interesting reading.

The world average is 0.492. The European and Central Asia regional average is 0.31 and sub-Saharan Africa’s 0.61.

Reproductive health is the largest contributor to gender inequality around the world, with women in sub-Saharan Africa suffering the most in this dimension.

The Arab states and South Asia are both characterised by relatively weak female empowerment.

Top and bottom: Sweden and Yemen

Of individual countries on the GII, Sweden ranked highest, with a value of 0.049, and Yemen lowest, with 0.769. But what do these numbers actually mean?

Let’s start with health. The maternal mortality ratio is the number of maternal deaths to the number of live births in a given year, and is expressed per 100,000 live births.

Sweden’s ratio in 2008 was five, Yemen’s was 210. That makes a Yemeni woman 42 times more likely to die in childbirth than a Swedish woman.

The adolescent fertility rate shows the number of births to girls and women aged 15-19 per 1000.

In 2011, it was 6.0 and 78.8 for Sweden and Yemen respectively, meaning a girl in Yemen is 13.1 times more likely than her Swedish counterpart to give birth.

Moving on to empowerment, represented by the percentage of seats in national parliament taken by women, the figures were 45% in Sweden and just 0.7% in Yemen.

In the second indicator of empowerment, percentage of the population with at least secondary education, 87.9% of Swedish women aged over 25 had achieved this in 2010, compared to 87.1% of Swedish men.

In Yemen, the figure was 7.6% for women, and 24.4% for men.

The third dimension is the proportion of a country’s working-age population that is in work or actively looking for work. The figures are 60.6% of women and 69.2% of men in Sweden, compared to 19.9% of women in Yemen and 73.5% of working-age men.

Orme offers a caveat when analysing the data. “One of the GII’s limitations is whether there’s directly comparable data for all countries. There are many countries that don’t even collect that information.”

The GII is an experimental index, one that the UNDP hopes will improve over time.

A closer look at Sweden

So what is Sweden doing that other countries aren’t? Orme puts it down to “a generation of social democracy putting legal rights on healthcare for all”.

Stina Svensson, a representative of Feministiskt Initiativ (FI), a feminist political party in Sweden, said: “Feminists have been organised and fighting for their rights for many years. We have the care and allowances for women to work, and that’s a good thing.”

But, while she agreed there were “things we do here that seem to signify equality”, she said Sweden still had a long way to go.

One of the things the GII doesn’t factor in is income levels. In July 2010, FI publicly burned 100,000 kroner ($13,000; £8,500) in a protest against unequal pay (see WVoN coverage) (pictured).

Svensson said: “Women are losing 4,400 kroner a month in lost wages compared to men. That’s 70m a year, 100,000 a minute”.

As for the labour force, she said “women don’t get the top positions, because if you say ‘leadership’ to a person they see a man, not a woman. We want to change this way of thinking.

“Women aren’t valued as highly as men – there’s the ‘glass ceiling’. Even if they’re more educated, they don’t get to the top positions [in business].”

What more could Sweden do? Quotas, Svensson says straight away. “They have that in Norway and it’s been very successful, companies have benefited from it and there’s been a positive reaction to it.

“But in Sweden they’re very afraid of this, they don’t want to be forced to do that, they want it to happen naturally.”

She believes, to redress imbalance in education and the labour market, you need to start educating children in pre-school: teach them about gender stereotypes, “talk about growing up as a free person, not as a gender”.

And that’s a lesson we could all benefit from learning.

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