“There has never been a better time in history to be born female,” declared Rachel Vogelstein, opening the recent IWHC Leadership Council luncheon on a high note. Ms. Vogelstein, Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted progress the world has made in improving the health and well-being of women and girls over the last two decades.
In 1995, 189 governments committed to the Beijing Platform for Action, which set forth a progressive plan for achieving women’s rights. To mark the 20th anniversary of this landmark agreement, the Council on Foreign Relations conducted a review of advancements in gender equality. They found that not only is progress possible, but that it can be achieved in a relatively short time.
“There’s a whole new cohort of women and girls who are growing up with legal rights—at least on paper—that their mothers didn’t enjoy.” Vogelstein pointed out that there is now a record number of countries whose laws prohibit discrimination and violence against women. Women’s health and education have also advanced around the world, with maternal mortality dropping by nearly 50 percent and the gender gap in primary schools virtually gone.
Yet, Vogelstein noted, there is still much to be achieved. The wage gap between men and women persists, and women remain highly underrepresented in the halls of power. And women and girls continue to experience epidemic levels of violence: “This remains one of the most common abuses of women’s human rights around the world.” She cited a study showing that over 35 percent of women worldwide experience violence by their intimate partners.
Vogelstein then focused on the particular challenges that women and girls in refugee situations confront. They do not have access to maternal and reproductive health care, and face high levels of sexual violence. Shelters in refugee camps still often lack adequate lighting or separate and safe spaces for women and girls. Vogelstein noted that world leaders have failed to fully address the needs of displaced women and girls in responding to humanitarian crises. “Unless we prioritize these issues—from the head-of-state level down—and unless we restructure the ways in which we provide humanitarian assistance—to make sure these issues are front and center and not ancillary—we will continue to see poorer health outcomes not only for women but also for children.”
In conversation with IWHC’s President Françoise Girard, Vogelstein discussed the significant risks and challenges for refugee girls, most of whom are out of school. “We have a generation of girls that will not have access to education.” Many of these girls and young women are also forced into early marriages. She cited alarming figures of child marriage among Syrian girls in refugee camps: rates have gone from 12 percent to as high as 30 percent.
Though statistics like these dominate the headlines, Vogelstein expressed hope that change is possible. “Too often these issues are seen as cultural and intractable. People drop their hands and say ‘well, that’s happening over there, what can I do about it?’” When asked about how to galvanize the women’s movement and keep momentum going, she encouraged feminist groups to make the case of why the U.S. government and other donors should invest in them. World leaders will be more likely to take up these issues if they see evidence of progress: “If we tell the story that these problems are deeply rooted and impossible to address, we’re not going to see much change.”
The audience left armed with information on advancements that women and girls have made in recent years, and how to push decision-makers to tackle the many challenges still remaining.