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World is getting better for women, sort of

The Aberdeen Women's Center, in Sierra Leone. (Credit: Direct Relief/flickr)

The United Nations released its annual report on women in the world and its findings are decidedly mixed. In the past 20 years there have been major gains in improved access to education, women marrying older and longer life expectancies. But there is still room for improvement in all areas for women, especially the persistence of gender-based discrimination and violence.

“Far too many women and girls continue to be discriminated against, subjected to violence, denied equal opportunities in education and employment, and excluded from positions of leadership and decisionmaking,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We cannot achieve our 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, without full and equal rights for half of the world’s population, in law and in practice.”

More than one out of every three women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence in her life. The data from 102 countries also show that women are the overwhelming targets of family-related homicides. The majority of women in 70 of the countries don’t tell authorities about attacks – making it difficult to prevent future violence and hold assailants accountable.

Women are at greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS compared to men and are still payed considerably less than their male counterparts. In some places, women make only 70 percent of what men make. And women are behind when it comes to holding power and being in decisionmaking positions. The number of women leading countries rose from 12 to 19 in two decades. Representation at the top of businesses and other parts of government are also generally low.

Despite those challenges, women have made major gains. Education and health are the two stand-outs. Nearly all children are now enrolled in primary schools. Not only are girls in school, they are performing better than boys in primary school in two-thirds of countries. A benefit of better access to education is fewer child marriages. The number of girls who married before turning 18 fell from 31 percent in 1995 to 26 percent in 2010.

Yet, women who were denied the opportunity to go to school when they were younger are at a continued disadvantage. Some two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. And the progress made at the primary school level is not necessarily translating to secondary and university studies.

More good news is found in global maternal mortality rates, which fell by 45 percent between 1990 and 2013. Overall access to health care for pregnant women is getting better, but still just half of women in sub-Saharan Africa receive adequate care during childbirth. These gaps affect both the mother and child and reinforce other existing problems.

The rest of the report follows the same pattern. Life is getting better for women across many indicators, but inequality remains a major problem.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]