50-50 — but who’s got the better half?

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Though the battle cry for International Women’s Day 2016 is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”, Poornima Koonath believes parity is still a steep climb ahead

Emma Watson, the UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, asked recently, at a public forum, “Why has the word (feminism) become such an uncomfortable one? I think it is right I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.”

What puzzles her, puzzles women all around the world…

The fight for women’s rights for better wages, better working conditions, shorter working hours began way back in 1909, and though there have been changes, they are not significant enough. The 2016 theme for International Women’s Day was “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”.

Time and time again, people in seats of power and people with common sense have reiterated that the bigger a role a woman plays in an organization, the better the outcomes are. I do not advocate that women be given a job or a position in a company because of their gender. But the sad reality is that many men land up in jobs because they are not ‘women’. And this is where the matter of gender parity comes into play. For the status of women in the society to change, we have to start from the very beginning – from when a girl child is born. It is no surprise that girl children often bear the brunt of becoming an after-thought in many families, more so among the poor.

For more than 100 years, women around the world have been working hard to impress upon the importance of gender equality in all spheres of life but unfortunately even today women continue to earn less, have fewer assets, and are largely concentrated in vulnerable and low-paying activities. Seventy-five per cent of women’s employment in developing regions is informal and unprotected. It is quite disgraceful that globally, women on average are paid 24 per cent less than men for the same job. They also spend more than twice as much time on unpaid care and domestic work as men. Though women started competing in the Olympic Games in 1900, it was not until 2012 that all competing nations had women sportspersons representing them.

In her address, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organizations, governments and in the United Nations—to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” It is not a matter that concerns women alone. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 % more likely to survive and every year of education beyond grade four that a woman receives, reduces the risks of her child dying by 10%. Whether in bustling cities or rural villages, women’s income contributes to families, communities and societies.

Women are key to economic growth and studies show that if women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as US $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025. Yet, currently women hold only 20 CEO positions in the Fortune 500 companies The percentage of women in parliaments across the globe is said to have doubled in the last 20 years, yet today it is just a shocking 22%!! The HeForShe Parity Report 2016, has brought to light some very alarming figures – men comprise 60% of the global labour force, 95% of the CEOs within the world’s largest corporations are men, and even when it comes to new hires, only 39.9 % of them are women. For a world that calls itself progressive, this is very disappointing.

The disparity of women unlike many other global issues is not isolated to developing countries. The Indian community in Sydney came together on Saturday, 5 March, to talk about issues faced by the women here. Organised by the Women’s Steering Committee of the United India Associations (UIA) chaired by Sumati Advani, this year’s committee also included Dr Nagamma Prakash, Dr Anju Agarwal, Dr Varsha Tembe, Shalini Ponnaiya, Mala Chandani, Honey Rupani and Aboorva Sundar.  UIA has been celebrating International Women’s Day for the past 9 years with the particular objective of providing Australian Indian women — particularly new migrants — with a platform to network, exchange ideas, provide and receive peer support.  This free event was sponsored by Multicultural NSW and Navitas. There was also a lot of support for the cause through online donations, gifts for fundraising activities and decorations. This year’s focus was on Mental Health and Wellbeing and all funds raised were donated to beyondblue.

Research shows that one in five Australians experience a mental illness at some time in their lives.  Incidences of mental illness are now the third highest after cancer and heart disease. Depression, anxiety and suicide does not discriminate and reports show that people from diverse backgrounds encounter difficulties when accessing mental health services and finding help. Additional barriers include stigma associated with mental health condition, lack of knowledge about available services, social isolation and differing cultural attitudes towards mental health. Many services that are available free under Medicare, are not being accessed by the community.

In her address Mrs Advani said, “A woman is the glue that keeps the whole family together and helps it prosper – her mental health and wellbeing lays the strongest foundation for the family to grow.” The other speakers included UIA President John Kennedy, Rekha Rajvanshi who recited a special poem she had penned for the event, Monica Das who represented beyondblue and shared her experiences with depression and anxiety, Nazmin Khan from Relationships Australia, Anoop Johar, the Bilingual Community Education Co-ordinator and Didarbhai Avadia, Laughter Yoga practitioner, who injected a sprinkle of laughter into the otherwise sombre proceedings. A student from Navitas spoke about the help she received with her English language and how the ability to converse in English not only boosted her confidence and self-esteem but also opened avenues for employment and financial independence.

Representatives from both sides of the Parliament also addressed the audience.  Julie Owens, Federal member for Parramatta, spoke very passionately about the place and state of women, about the existing societal norms, the range of perspectives that exist and that there has to be a collective endeavour to “find answers outside the ones we already know”. We as women have to take stock of where we are and where we have to go. Michelle Rowland, Federal MP for Greenway very rightly said that International Woman’s Day means different things to women at different stages in their lives. While the Premier’s representative, Dr Geoff Lee, acknowledged that there was a dearth of women representatives in the ruling party, Jodi McKay, the Opposition leader’s representative said that we as a society can’t be complacent when it comes to addressing the matters that affect the women in our society.

“Each year 8 March provides us with the annual occasion to reflect on the great strides that women have made, and continue to make, in the workplace and beyond. However, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the work still to be done if society’s true potential is ever to be fully realised. Equipping women with the tools to achieve their full potential in the workplace empowers us all.”  Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD.

So, why this difference? Why this disparity? Aren’t we but two peas in a pod?

Acknowledgements www.heforshe.org and www.unwomen.org. If you or someone you know needs help – please contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or Lifeline on 131114

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