The Best Place To Be a Woman: A Conversation With Monique Villa

Canada is the best place to be a woman, and India is the worst according to a new poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The legal news service launched a global poll of

Monique Villa CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation. Image Credit: TRF

experts this week ranking countries for women in the G20, putting the US, which “polarised opinion due to issues surrounding reproductive rights and affordable healthcare,” in sixth place.

Access to healthcare and policies that advocate gender equality are amongst the factors that places Canada at the top of the poll, while issues such as child marriage and female infanticide drag India down to the very bottom. Germany, Britain, Australia and France joined Canada in the top five. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico led by India rounded up nations at the bottom of the list. Released on the heals of the G20 Summit in Mexico on June 18, the survey analyzes how women are faring in G20 countries, the largest economies in the world.

TrustLaw surveyed 370 aid professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, journalists and development specialists with expertise in gender issues. Respondents came from 63 countries on five continents and included experts from United Nations Women, the International Rescue Committee, Plan International, Amnesty USA and Oxfam International, as well as prominent academic institutions and campaigning organisations.

So what exactly determines where in the world is the best, or the worst, to be a woman? Monique Villa, CEO of the Thompson Reuters Foundation, spoke with me about how one goes finding that out, and why we should care.

Aside from this poll only looking at the worst and best countries for women in G20 countries, how else does it differ from the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report?

The Gender Gap  Index looks at national statistics for gender gaps in the areas of economic, political, education, and health-based criteria. However, many important dimensions are difficult or impossible to get data for, such as discrimination, harassment, gender-based violence and the extra burdens of care giving. This is why we consulted 370 gender experts from all over the world to help us assess the general welfare of women in the G20 based on 7 key criteria – Workplace opportunities, Access to resources, Participation in politics, Quality of health, Freedom from violence, Freedom from trafficking and slavery, and an Overall category. Countries were ranked based on their scores in each category.

 A lot of groups want to get G20 leaders’ attention to their causes especially ahead of the G20 Summit. What is your principal aim by releasing this poll now?

The G20 represents over 80% of the world’s economic growth and 2/3 of the world’s population, wielding incredible power over the global economy. Still, the fact that half of the world’s population, in rich industrialized countries as well as in poor countries, is still held back by gender-based violence, discriminatory laws, harmful cultural practices, unequal pay and access to resources, has routinely been left off the table. The poll focuses attention on the importance of seeing women’s wellbeing as a key economic driver and an issue worthy of the G20’s attention. Don’t you think that India and Saudi Arabia, the countries ranked worst for women by the poll, would achieve a lot more if the potential of women were equal to men?

What would you say has been one of the most shocking findings of this survey?

Perhaps the fact that India was ranked worse than Saudi Arabia. Virtually, every aspect of a women’s life in Saudi Arabia is controlled by men. They cannot drive or enter the Olympics. They’re generally forbidden from leaving home, travelling outside the country, working, studying, marrying, filing a court case or seeking medical care without being accompanied by or receiving the written consent of a male guardian. In India, women, to a great extent, have many of these freedoms and some people may be surprised by the fact it polled worse than Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia’s wealth means schooling and healthcare for women are of a good quality, while practices like infanticide, child marriage, wife-beating and trafficking are commonplace in India and maternal mortality rates are extremely high.

Canada ranks at the very top while India is ranked at the bottom. What do countries, not only in the G20, but around the world have to learn about what Canada is doing right in terms of women’s empowerment?

To be clear, this poll does not say that everything is perfect in Canada and the specialists we spoke to pointed out a number of problems that exist there. However, it’s a combination of factors that put Canada in a good light in the eyes of the experts. The country places a premium on women’s education, which is evident from university statistics and it has universal health coverage (as in Europe), something its southern neighbour lacks. Like many countries, Canada has adopted national laws and international treaties to protect women’s rights, but it seems they are enforced more effectively than in some of its G20 counterparts while women are free to access reproductive services like contraception and abortion. Canada, though, still has a high gender pay gap and the ratio of women in parliament is lower than South Africa or Germany.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and India rank so low on the list but still remain key players in the international community. What does that reflect about the rights of half the world’s population, women?

We think it’s a pity that the appalling treatment of women in some of the G20 countries won’t be discussed at the G20 summit in Mexico next week.  Countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and India, whose leaders will meet at Los Cabos, have international clout because of their economic potential but women are being left behind. These countries need to realise they can’t develop effectively if they continue to marginalise their female populations. We hear a lot of rhetoric about women’s rights, and many countries have adopted laws and conventions, but the reality on the ground is, unfortunately, very different in many of these countries. It’s time the rhetoric was turned into good law enforcement, education and shifts in chauvinistic attitudes.

In 2010, you founded TrustLaw to “connect lawyers willing to work at no cost with NGOs and social entrepreneurs in need of legal assistance.” A lot of people often think that the answer to remove many barriers between and their rights is to get them legal assistance. How would this work in a country such as Bangladesh where relatively strong laws exist for women, but remain largely inaccessible, unimplemented and meaningless?

In a way, what we do is precisely that. First, we put NGOs and social enterprises in touch with lawyers so that they can utilise the existing law to the greatest extent possible. We also work with them and our law firms to look at laws that are inaccessible, meaningless or even non-existent, and think about ways that such laws or policies can be changed. This often involves looking at best practices around the world to learn from experiences in other countries.

Many young people in the United States today think that the feminist movement is meaningless, and the fight for women’s rights has largely been won. The poll ranks the US at #6, stating that in the US “women have good access to education but suffer disproportionately from a lack of universal healthcare. Reproductive services are being rolled back.” What do you have to say about the “war on women’s health” that is playing out in American politics?

American women born after 1980 or so have grown up enjoying a number of rights, particularly in the workplace and in terms of reproductive health, won through the struggles of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  As a result, the feminist movement is less meaningful in the daily lives of young Americans. However, the US is the only G20 country not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  On the so-called “war on women’s health,” playing out across the US in the form of laws and provisions designed to reduce access to reproductive health services, contraception and abortion, it would appear to be far more political than popular, and is full part of the Republican campaign in the run-up to the November presidential election. Poll after poll indicate most Americans favour preserving women’s reproductive rights and access to health services.

Lastly, why should people pay attention to this poll? Why is it important?

The poll is important because women are important. Any conversation on economic growth and development has to address the welfare of women, not just as a secondary concern, but as a key to economic stability and growth. The poll puts women in the spotlight, propelling debate and encouraging G20 leaders to take gender questions seriously.

Cross posted from Anushay’s Point

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