Global Update on Gender Issues: Signs of Change

Women in different parts of the world have both similar and different experiences. Here are some updates from South Korea, Nigeria, Spain, France, and Saudi Arabia on workplace barriers, the #MeToo movement, and domestic violence.

South Korean Entrepreneurs

Women in South Korea, frustrated by a lack of opportunity in male-dominated corporations, are starting their own businesses at a record pace. Michael Schuman, writing for the New York Times, cites Park Hee-eun, principal at Altos Ventures, as saying, “In education we are equal to men, but after we enter into the traditional companies, they underestimate and undervalue women.” Schuman adds that only 10 percent of managers in South Korean companies are women and, in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the pay gap between men and women is the widest among countries studied.

Schuman reports that women in South Korea are taking matters into their own hands. A Mastercard report on fifty-seven global economies found that South Korea shows the most progress in advancing women entrepreneurs and that more women than men are engaged in start-ups. Despite slow changes in societal attitudes about gender roles, difficulties in being taken seriously by male bankers, investors, executives, and employees, and constant discrimination and sexual harassment, more than 12 percent of working-age women in South Korea in 2018 were involved in starting or managing new companies. Go, women of South Korea!

Nigeria and the #MeToo Movement

Julie Turkewitz of the New York Times reports that the #MeToo movement came to Nigeria in February 2019, when a young pharmacist in the north took to Twitter to describe a sexual assault by her boyfriend. “Stories of abuse soon flew around the internet, many of them tagged ‘#ArewaMeToo,'” or #MeToo in the north. A few months later, after years of silence, Busola Dakolo came forward to accuse her pastor, a famous and powerful religious leader, of raping her when she was a teenager. Many more women came forward to accuse this same pastor, government officials, other church leaders, and university professors of abusing their power to solicit sex or commit sexual assault.

As in Europe and the United States, the backlash has been strong against the #MeToo women of Nigeria, who receive death threats and threats of criminal charges. Breaking their silence is particularly hard for Nigerian women, who fear shaming their families, scaring off potential husbands, and taking on the region’s most powerful men. These women are courageous, as are all women who speak out about sexual assault.

Spain and France on Domestic Violence

On Monday, November 25, 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was established twenty years ago by the United Nations, Spain and France moved in opposite directions on protections for women. Violence against women remains a serious problem in both countries:

On November 25, 2019, in France, the prime minister unveiled comprehensive new measures to combat domestic violence. While criticized for underfunding these initiatives, the government at least recognizes the seriousness of the situation. In Spain, however, the secretary general of the recently elected far-right Vox party took the opportunity to reaffirm his party’s intention to repeal a fifteen-year-old law intended to stop violence against women. Instead, the secretary general of Vox gave a speech about men who have been killed by women, as well as women who have suffered “violence from their lesbian partners.” This is a sad state of affairs.

Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights

Mixed messages are coming from the leaders of Saudi Arabia about whether women actually have more rights. Megan Specia writes that the notoriously repressive country has long enforced an interpretation of Islam that restricts every aspect of life for women. While Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, took steps in 2017 to lift some restrictions for women, including allowing them to drive, the government also recently released a video that listed feminism, homosexuality, and atheism among ideologies that are considered to be “extremism.” While the video was taken down and declared by bin Salman to be a “mistake,” Saudi Arabia’s top women’s rights activists are still imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to physical and sexual violence. Definitely a mixed message.

We need to stay awake to all the progress and regression taking place globally so we can be ready to support each other.


Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Sexual Harassment Is Local and Global: Why It Persists and How to Stop It

The outpouring since October 2017 of previously untold stories of sexual harassment and assault in the United States, known as the #MeToo movement, has been both shocking and exhilarating as brave women have been able to finally tell their painful stories and be heard and believed. With new revelations appearing in the US media daily about inappropriate behavior by both high- and low-profile men in the workplace, on college campuses, and in public spaces, it would be easy to miss the equally powerful stories coming out, often from surprising corners of the globe, about similar experiences. It would also be easy to get caught up in our outrage about these individual stories and to lose sight of the reason for this global phenomenon: patriarchal systems that are structurally set up against women. Here are some global examples: Indonesia—Tunggal Pawestri is among the women in Indonesia who are speaking out about the widespread daily sexual harassment endured by women, especially on roads, sidewalks, trains, and buses. Joe Cochrane, writing for the New York Times, explains that because Indonesia is a patriarchal society

  • It has no legal protections for victims of sexual harassment.
  • The topic of sexual harassment and assault is taboo, even in families when children are molested by close family friends.
Not surprisingly, incidents of sexual harassment go largely unreported, but women are starting to speak out on social media. Reading the stories of other women encourages women to share their own and discuss actions they can take together. Cochrane explains that the country’s sexual harassment problem stems from its patriarchal society in which men traditionally hold authority over women. Afghanistan—Maryam Mehtar is one of the brave women speaking out in Afghanistan, emboldened by the uprising of women in America and Europe against sexual harassment. Rod Nordland and Fatima Faizi write that women in Afghanistan tend to remain silent when faced with a problem seen as commonplace and unsolvable in their patriarchal society. The authors explain that
  • If women do speak out and identify their attacker, he might kill either the victim or her family members.
  • It might even be a family member who carries out an honor killing of the victim. Rape victims are sometimes killed by their own relatives who feel they have brought shame on their families.
  • Women who work outside the home are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault from coworkers and bosses as all women who work are considered whores.
Nonetheless, women in Afghanistan are starting to use social media to speak out, to establish NGOs to support women who have been harassed and assaulted, and to demand equality for women. Japan—Shiori Ito spoke out about being raped by a high-profile male television journalist when she was a young media intern. It took courage for her to share her story and name her attacker in a country whose institutions do not support victims. Motoko Rich of the New York Times explains that in Japan
  • Complaints of sexual harassment and assault rarely result in arrests or prosecutions.
  • Public education to discourage sexual assault is nonexistent.
  • Rape laws make no mention of consent.
Rich cites Tomoe Yatagawa, a lecturer in gender law at Waseda University as explaining that “prejudice against women is deep-rooted and severe, and people don’t consider the damage from sexual crimes seriously at all.” The author quotes Shiori Ito as saying that she knows she must be strong and continue to speak out if Japan’s patriarchal institutions are ever going to stop protecting men and start respecting women. Radical Islam in France—Henda Ayari, a French citizen of North African parentage, chose to publicly denounce the beliefs of her radical Salafi Muslim community in 2015 after the terrorist attack and bombing of the Bataclan concert hall. New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall writes that Ayari’s denunciation of the treatment of women in Salafism brought many threats and insults to her on social media. Then, in 2017, after “reading the accounts of women outing their sexual aggressors in the #MeToo campaign on social media after the Harvey Weinstein scandal,” Ayari decided to unburden herself of the secret she had been carrying about being raped in 2012 by a famous Swiss-born Muslim scholar in France by posting her story on social media. She received many messages from other Muslim women in France who have kept silent about sexual abuse and are struggling with patriarchal Salafist strictures that isolate women and require obedience to men. Speaking out and telling her story to demonstrate that women are not inferior, deserve to be respected, and do not have to wear a veil to be a good Muslim has given her a sense of purpose. She has founded a nonprofit to help women seek legal help and refuge. Sweden—When Cissi Wallin, vacationing in New York City with her family from Sweden in October 2017, read the story on Harvey Weinstein, she wondered, “What if people would believe me now?” Jenny Nordberg of the New York Times explains that Wallin had filed a rape complaint in Sweden in 2011 against a high-profile journalist, which was dismissed within a few weeks. Inspired by #MeToo, she decided to post the incident and the name of her attacker on social media. Soon more women came forward about this same man. Then stories of other high-profile individuals came pouring forth from tens of thousands of Swedish women about brutal sexual assaults in every profession. Nordberg notes that while Sweden prides itself on being best in class on gender equality, all the rules, regulations, and agencies devoted to gender equality have not changed basic cultural patriarchal assumptions about the supremacy of men and “traditional sexual norms” that leave women responsible for protecting themselves. Nordberg explains that men in Sweden use their professional power and influence to harass or abuse younger, often subordinate women, often at work, and, like everywhere else, seem to consider it their right to do so. Clearly there is more work to do in Sweden, and everywhere else. Susan Faludi of the New York Times notes that outrage and removal of a few men will not result in women’s equality. If we do not stay focused on changing public attitudes about gender roles and on changing the economic and legal structures that perpetuate the gender pay gap, deny access to family planning, and silence women’s complaints about sexual abuse, we will never have true gender equality or workplaces free of harassment. Faludi explains that the #MeToo movement is important, but it will not change anything if we do not also follow the lead of Alabama’s black women voters and turn out for elections, encourage the ongoing Women’s March on Washington, and support the stunning number of female candidates seeking office in the coming elections. #MeToo is the next step in a long journey, but it is not the end of the road.   Photo by Josh Estey, CC BY 2.0.]]>