I am extremely fortunate. I was born in Dominica to a father who was part of a generation of great Caribbean men. He believed in equality, and he believed in me. To him, his daughters were just as exceptional as his sons, and with my mother, he loved us and supported us while teaching us about duty, responsibility and service.
Throughout my life and career, I have learned that, whether in the home, in work, or in political and economic systems, this enabling environment for women is not the norm. We have seen huge progress through the decades of my life, but gender equality remains far from being a reality. This is not just a concern for people who advocate for women’s rights; it impacts everyone, shaping the world we all share.
The World Bank estimates that inequality in earnings between women and men is costing our world $160 trillion – equivalent to around $23,620 per person. This figure is yet another reminder that when gender inequality persists in our society, we all lose. But it does not have to be this way.
Right now, there are exceptional leaders across the international system. From great Commonwealth Heads of Government including, Mia Mottley (Barbados) and Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa (Samoa), to my dear sister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, leading the World Trade Organization, women leaders are driving real progress despite formidable challenges.
But they remain exceptions rather than the norm. Unfortunately, most women are disenfranchised, not by choice, but by prevailing structures. They struggle to provide for their families, face barriers to education and are constrained from taking up leadership roles in society.
A recent study reveals that 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. There is still a substantial pay gap, which is compounded by the fact that women also shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic and care work. While women are advancing in managerial roles, the transition to senior management and boardrooms remains sluggish – even though research has repeatedly shown that firms with more women in senior leadership perform better.
In our world grappling with the ever-constant threat of climate change, it is women and girls who bear the heaviest burdens and recover most slowly. About 80 per cent of those displaced by climate change are women. A closer look at the evidence shows that those women, who stay behind in affected areas, are more likely to experience increased poverty, loss of livelihoods and health issues. These are worrying trends, which should not be ignored in disaster response and recovery.
At the same time, the confluence of weak global growth, stubborn inflation and rising debt is creating a lethal threat, which is fuelling poverty and limiting public investment in human capital, disproportionately impacting women. Such disruptions are alarming signs that the gains made so far, as well as progress urgently needed, are under severe threat. In fact, at the current pace, the goal of gender equality is 300 years away.
It was in this context that I convened the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting in The Bahamas last week. Our goal was to assess the current status of gender equality in the 56 Commonwealth countries and share perspectives to accelerate progress on this shared priority.
Together, we developed a new roadmap, geared towards better delivering for our 1.25 billion women and girls. The roadmap encompasses critical areas such as greater involvement of women in climate action, increased support for women with disabilities, better representation of women in leadership and stronger action on ending violence against women and girls.
In particular, our focus is on strategies to prioritise women in climate action – solutions that can concurrently address climate injustice and gender inequality, while benefiting society. The proposals from this meeting will be considered by leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa next year.
What remains clear is that for gender equality to become a reality, the responsibility has to be shared across the political sphere, public and private sectors, and civil society. This mandates all of us to pool our expertise and resources to dismantle oppressive structures and build new ones that are inclusive, leaving no one behind.
We know gender equality will eventually become a reality one day, but the question remains whether we should wait 300 years. The Commonwealth is determined to lead by example, defying this prediction.
Through mutual support and collaboration, my intention is to work with leaders to build a future for the Commonwealth where we all move forward. It is together that we shape a future for our women and girls that is prosperous, just, meaningful and full of promise.
About the Author: The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC is the 6th Commonwealth Secretary-General. She was born in Dominica and was their candidate for the post at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta in 2015. She is the second Secretary-General from the Caribbean and the first woman to hold the post.