Two recent United Nations reports on the condition of women around the world contain the standard mix of good and bad news: Women and girls have made progress or at least held steady in many of the policy areas examined — including work, education, poverty and life expectancy — but they continue to lag behind men in almost every one of those categories. And sexual violence against women and girls is a universal phenomenon.
But the reports are remarkable on two fronts. First, they are more comprehensive than previous studies, because most countries now keep sex-disaggregated data on, among other things, population, school enrollment, employment, child labor and the number of women serving in government. This allows researchers to present increasingly accurate snapshots of women's lives, particularly in developing nations. Second, the reports suggest a way forward. In almost every instance of progress or advancement for women, whether in the work world or attaining political power, there is a correlation with education.
In the last 10 years, girls have moved toward parity with boys in elementary school enrollment, with especially large gains made in Africa and southern Central Asia. In Kenya, for example, 1.2 million children flooded primary schools in January 2003 when the government abolished school fees. Girls in particular had been disadvantaged by the fees because poor families, forced to choose which child to educate, had given preference to boys. Globally, enrollment of women in universities has also increased dramatically.
Where girls have the greatest access to education, they marry later, have fewer children and more economic opportunity. In Europe, women are on average age 30 or older when they first marry, according to the report, whereas in some developing countries, such as Mali and Niger, they do so before age 20.
Sexual violence against women, particularly during war, causes long-term trauma. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, rape victims are still suffering physically and psychologically 15 years after the war ended. That bodes ill for places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women are being systematically assaulted.
In developed countries, women face fewer obstacles to education but bump against a thick glass ceiling. They continue to be underrepresented among legislators and senior managers, and overrepresented among clerks and service workers. And they still earn less than men. In the home, women spend about five hours a day on childcare and chores, while men average two hours. Except in a few places: In the United States, for instance, men have reached parity with women in hours spent on chores and housework. Now that's progress.