and Help Promote Equal Rights for Women
Women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population, but they continue to face discrimination and disadvantages in societies all around the world. Women’s rights is a complex issue with a long history. It was only about a century ago that women obtained the right to vote in England and the United States.
My family’s involvement in this issue goes back to my great-grandmother Regina Stern founding in 1868 the first school in Europe that provided higher education for girls. See the entry “How You Can Be a Danielle and Learn by Doing,” which shares this story.
This issue has roots that go back thousands of years in terms of ideas of proper gender roles. Gender stereotypes often portray women as less capable than men in areas such as technical subjects and leadership. The recent success of women in the medical and legal fields belie these stereotypes, but they continue to persist in such areas as engineering. In many parts of the world, girls have less access to education than boys. They may be discouraged from having careers outside the home, or limited to only a few “feminine” occupations like teaching and nursing.
In some countries, women have fewer legal rights than men. Millions of girls each year are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), which the United Nations recognizes as a human rights violation. See the entry on Female Genital Mutilation in A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes) for more details on this issue. These are just a few examples of the continued discrimination and repression of women around the world.
In the novel, Danielle is a passionate advocate for equal rights for women. Not only does she act as an inspiring example—a superheroine—she becomes politically active. She fights against female genital mutilation, supports entrepreneurship, and improves girls’ access to education. Danielle understands that achieving equal rights for women requires advances in several different areas. Girls must have equal access to education and they must be safe from gender-based violence. They must have civil rights and the political freedom to shape their own destiny. And they must have the economic freedom to improve their lives through innovation and hard work. You can have a positive impact in each of those areas. Let’s take a look at opportunities for each one.
- In many countries, girls don’t get the same educational opportunities as boys. In some cases, girls are formally prohibited from going to school, or if allowed to attend school, there are strong social pressures which cause many to drop out. In sub-Saharan Africa, disease and poverty force many girls out of school because they have to work and take care of their families. Even in Europe and America, gender stereotypes often discourage girls from studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects. Here’s some further information on the problem, along with ideas on how to support or create solutions:
- A short animated video1 on the difference between the lives of girls who go to school and those who don’t.
- Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai2 on her campaign for girls’ education in Pakistan, which caused the Taliban to try to kill her.
- Powerful TED Talk by Ziauddin Yousafzai,3 Malala’s father, reflecting on his family’s efforts to improve women’s rights despite threats and danger.
- The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative4 provides country-specific information on parts of the world where girls have major barriers to education. This can guide your thinking about where your own efforts could have the greatest impact.
- The International Rescue Committee5 is one of the world’s top charities for providing education to children affected by war and poverty, factors that force many girls out of school. Last year, the IRC helped about 1.5 million children and provided training to 33,000 teachers. Donating to the IRC or one of the other organizations listed here allows them to hire more educators and purchase vital school supplies. Consider holding a fundraiser at your school, or starting a donation drive on social media. This is an outstanding cause for young people because it directly benefits people who are alike in so many ways, except where they happened to be born.
- Save the Children6 is another excellent nonprofit that supports global education. Although it is not focused specifically on girls, that isn’t a problem. Improving girls’ education isn’t about helping them win a race with boys, but rather a challenge to help everyone get the education they need. Save the Children helped educate more than 13 million children last year, and also provided teacher training, coaching for parents, and arts enrichment programs.
- It’s often good to support charities that focus on one particular country or region. This is because there are cultural factors shaping the specific reasons why girls don’t have adequate educational opportunities. Nonprofits that understand these issues better may have enhanced impact. For example, Educate Girls7 creates community-led educational programs for girls in poor parts of India, which is the world’s most populous democracy.
- CARE8 is an international nonprofit working on a wide range of humanitarian issues, many of which directly affect women. According to CARE, women’s rights depend on an interlocking set of improvements to health, education, and empowerment. On girls’ education, CARE focuses on properly understanding the many individual barriers to success, which makes it easier to overcome each one. CARE provides lots of startling facts about girls’ education, and gives you specific information about how your donations can improve girls’ lives.
- Camfed,9 the Campaign for Female Education, uses an innovative model that not only provides schooling to girls who wouldn’t get it otherwise, but also provides leadership training and assistance to become economically independent.
- A list of another 10 innovative non-governmental organizations10 working in education around the world.
- One of the major barriers to girls’ education in poor countries is that access to electricity, sanitation, and the Internet is limited. You could provide a very meaningful boost to education by coming up with new innovations in those areas. For a look at how to apply a problem-solving mindset to big problems and create new solutions, take a look at some online innovation classes.11 For example, Design Thinking for Innovation12 is a 10–20 hour course from the University of Virginia on the process of observing something you want to change, generating ideas, and experimenting with them.
- If you know computer programming, you could create a new online tool to help girls in poor countries connect to better educational resources. For example, there might be need for a service to connect non-English-speaking girls with native English speakers to boost their language skills. Or maybe a service to help people translate educational materials from English into children’s native languages. If you don’t know coding yet, take a look at the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Learn to Program Computers from a Young Age.”
- Gender-based violence. In some traditional societies, girls are targeted for diverse forms of violence. Female genital mutilation is an extremely painful procedure that causes lifelong health problems and impairment. Forced marriage robs girls of control over their lives, and may involve sexual assault. Acid attacks are a brutal form of violence that permanently disfigures women—for example, as punishment against a domestic servant who protests unfair treatment, or revenge against a woman who rejects a man’s romantic advances. Worst of all are “honor killings,” when women are murdered for acting in ways that men in their family does not approve of, such as having a romantic relationship with a man of their own choosing, or dressing in Western-style clothing. Some women are even killed for being victims of rape.
Here are some resources and ideas for action on gender-based violence:
- 5 things to know about honor killings,13 from USA Today, based on the findings of the US Department of Justice.
- The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network14 provides more information you can share about honor violence to raise awareness among your friends.
- Inspiring talk by Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi15 on how she works to combat honor killings.
- CARE provides some shocking facts about violence against women16 around the world, and how large the scale of the problem is.
- Human Rights Watch17 does crucial work monitoring gender-based violence. They keep track of honor killings, FGM, and child marriage, and produce country-specific reports18 about the violence and about progress that’s being made to stop it.
- The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation19 is an advocacy organization that calls on governments to act more aggressively to stop honor violence. The foundation also supports counseling for victims, and provides training for educators, social workers, and law enforcement officers to help them better protect girls and women.
- A more comprehensive guide20 to non-governmental organizations working to end gender-based violence and to assist victims.
- Don’t be afraid to speak out among your friends about the need for people around the world to work together to stop honor violence. Some people say that violence like FGM is just a cultural practice and that it is culturally insensitive to criticize it. But you will be standing on the side of universal human rights. Remember: the girls and women who suffer gender-based violence cannot safely speak up for themselves, so you—whether you are male or female—can be an important voice for their rights.
- If you know coding, think of ways you could create an online platform for helping people in danger of gender-based violence. For example, an app could give people an easy way to report suspected abuse, or spread awareness about how women can discreetly signal for help from other females in their community. For more ideas, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Help Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation.”
- Political and civil rights. The core question of women’s rights is whether women and girls have equal political and civil rights to those of men and boys. These are the rights to act as a free and independent member of society—for example, to leave the house by yourself, to drive a car, to choose your spouse, to vote in elections, and to run for office. When women have these rights, they can participate directly in decisions about how their communities will be run. Once women have political power, it is much easier for them to keep their other rights safe, and to expand opportunities for the next generation of young girls. Look over these links and suggestions—you can support the nonprofits below by fundraising, sharing their message with your friends, and volunteering to participate.
- Short video of women from Burundi21 explaining the need for them to have greater political rights to facilitate peace and stability.
- Consider joining the Association for Women’s Rights in Development,22 which advocates internationally for women to have full political equality. AWID releases an ongoing series of reports on the global state of women’s rights, and provides resources to help women fight abuse and oppression.
- Women for Women23 is a nonprofit that focuses on social empowerment for women, especially in countries that have been affected by war and terrorism. It offers job training, life skills education, and help developing business skills.
- Adeso Development Solutions24 is a highly respected aid organi-zation that works to expand women’s political rights across Africa. In many cases, women have full political rights according to the law, but cultural factors discourage them from participating in politics. Here’s a video25 about Adeso’s project26 on behalf of the European Union to encourage women’s political participation in Somalia.
- UN Women27 is the United Nations entity responsible for encouraging women’s empowerment around the world. It provides training for women on how to run for political office, and supports efforts in individual countries to pass laws that give women more freedom. UN Women also works to educate men about how gender equality benefits them as well.
- USAID28 is the US Agency for International Development, which does similar work to UN Women as part of its broader mission of helping people in poor or violent countries. It works to make it easier for women to enter fields like politics, journalism, and law. USAID also focuses on ensuring that women get equal access to their countries’ court systems so they can defend their rights, and so people who abuse them can be punished.
- Here’s a list of more organizations working for women’s rights worldwide.29 This includes both international charities and groups working in specific countries or regions.
- One of the obstacles to women becoming more active in politics, is that in some societies, they are discouraged from having large public meetings like political parties do. You might be able to create an online platform to make it easier for women to organize politically. Talk to women who have lived in repressive societies, and listen to their suggestions about what tools they wish they would have had.
- When deciding where to travel or spend your money, try to be conscious of which governments seriously violate women’s rights. For example, women in Saudi Arabia were, up until very recently, prohibited from driving (this was reversed just as this book was being written!) and are denied many of the rights that men have.
- For more ideas, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Promote Racial and Gender Equality.”
- Economic security. Saving money and building wealth is a very important part of equal rights. Women with no money are totally dependent on the men around them, and don’t have the freedom to leave abusive or unhappy living situations. In societies where women can’t inherit property or start their own businesses, enormous amounts of human potential are lost. Women who might otherwise have cured cancer or achieved breakthroughs in artificial intelligence are instead so focused on survival that they cannot be innovators. As the American science writer Stephen Jay Gould put it: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” On the other hand, improving women’s economic rights has been shown to be one of the most important factors in making countries healthier, richer, and better educated. Microfinance—small loans to poor people to help them climb out of poverty—is a powerful tool for building up women’s economic security. Here are some suggestions for organizations worth supporting, and areas where you could have a strong impact with innovations of your own:
- Some important statistics on women’s equality and economic participation from the World Bank30 and the International Monetary Fund.31
- A short video on how microfinance works,32 and how it improves economic opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the money they need to start businesses or get job training.
- Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus33 on the history of microfinance, and the positive impact it has had.
- CARE34 does extensive work in poor countries to improve economic development for women. It publishes interesting and useful stats and facts about microfinance and the economics of poverty.
- FINCA35 is one of the world’s top microfinance nonprofits, and is active all over the world. FINCA is known for doing good research into how to improve the social impact of its lending, and on its advocacy around issues of economic justice.
- The Women’s Microfinance Initiative36 is a relatively new microfinance organization that focuses on setting up village-level lending hubs in East Africa. This helps communities become self-sufficient, and reduces reliance on external aid. WMI also works with women to transition them into the regular banking system.
- Even in wealthy countries, women’s economic security is often limited by insufficient paid maternity leave. UN Women works to advocate better parental leave policies,37 as explained in this speech38 at the United Nations by actress Anne Hathaway.
- You could create an app to help connect women who are interested in entrepreneurship, so they could more easily share ideas, collaborate, and give each other advice.
- Many people around the world want to support businesses created by women, but there isn’t a single directory that people can use to make that easier. If you build one, more money could flow to these businesses from people who want to support them.
- If you know a language spoken by many women in the developing world, you could create videos teaching them business skills in their native language. Otherwise, you could find someone in your community who knows one of these languages and work with them to create this educational content.
- For more ideas, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Encourage Women in the Workplace and Girls to Pursue STEM Careers.”
For more information, please see the following entries in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): National Organization for Women, Terry O’Neill.