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THE lives of women have changed significantly ever since I was a graduate student around mid-1960s. In the last forty years gender gaps in education, employment, income, decision making and even in political leadership have been narrowed. In many countries women now outnumber men in the education system. They have a significant presence in many fields like science, medicine, business, and law, which used to be heavily dominated by men.

Women's labour force participation has also equalled to men. Marriage and family patterns have changed enabling women to have greater voice within the household, which had traditionally been a major site of women's exploitation. We have travelled far but we still face many challenges. Here I will focus on four.

Our first challenge is to shape our own identity without being defined by others. This is not always easy as our families and societies are constantly telling us who we should be. But from my own experiences, I know that when we stand firm on what we want to be, we can break many barriers.

When I began my academic-activist life in Bangladesh around early 1970s, I stood out as a young, single woman pursuing a path unique from other women. What I find remarkable is how quickly our society changed. Change happened because I was not alone; many other women also decided to fulfil their own potentials.

Our second challenge is to improve the terms and conditions of women's work, both paid and unpaid. We all know that women's employment rates have increased significantly in the last forty years, but women's share of earned income has not been at par with their employment.

A part of the problem is that the conditions of poverty have pushed women to take any employment, no matter how poor the terms and conditions. This has resulted in women predominantly concentrated in low paid jobs.

For example, in Bangladesh, men dominated manufacturing jobs in the 1970s. Now the situation has reversed where young women make up a majority of the industrial workforce. Further, 80% to 90% of the workers of the garment industry are young women. This industry, which constitutes Bangladesh's main exports, annually earns 9 billion dollars whereas these women workers earn less than a dollar a day while putting in 12-14 hours.

Additionally, the burden of unpaid work in the care economy (i.e. child care, care of elderly family members, etc.) continues to be a problem for women as they expand their participation in paid employment. Getting governments and the private sector to recognise women's contribution to economic growth, their poor work conditions, and their labour in the care economy remains a major challenge for women in the future.

Our third challenge is to reduce violence against women. We have succeeded in making violence against women, particularly domestic violence, a criminal offence in many countries. But this has not resulted in any significant reduction of such violence.

Even in Sweden, which ranks number one in global women's empowerment index, police reports of assaults on women have increased by 40% during the 1990s. What is worse is that war, political and ethnic conflicts have embraced violence against women as a part of their arsenal. In recent years, rape is seen used as a weapon in conflict situations in Asia, Africa as well as Europe.

Our final challenge is to improve women's presence in political leadership positions. With the exception of Nordic countries, where women have made significant progress, in the rest of the world progress has been extremely slow. Women in US hold only 16% of Congressional seats and 14% of ministerial positions. In India, which is a model for stable democracy in Southern countries, the progress of women is even slower, though a women prime minister governed India for more than a decade. In India, women's share of parliamentary seats is 9% and ministerial positions are 3%.

However, these challenges cannot be effectively addressed without recognising the emerging risks for women's empowerment. I will be selective and focus on four major risks.

The first risk is the cutting of government and the public sector roles and relying more on the market/private sectors. This particularly affects poor women's health and education. From experience, we know that government laws/policies played a critical role in improving women's conditions. Nordic women are doing better compared to women of other regions mainly because Nordic governments have been proactive. Their women friendly social policies and laws, 40/60 principle of political representation, public sector provisioning of health and education have contributed significantly in pushing Nordic countries to the top in women's empowerment index.

The second risk is the alarming class gaps between different groups of women, holding back our overall progress and creating obstacles in building a cohesive political voice. The gains women have made in the last 40-50 years have not been equitably shared.

A few examples of these disparities are: maternal deaths are 1 in 2,500 in the West, 1 in 94 in Asia, and 1 in 16 in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, along with North-South disparities there are greater inequalities within countries too. In India 43% of births are attended by skilled personnel compared to 99% in US. But disparities within India are greater than that between India and US. Only 16% of the poorest families compared to 84% of the richest families in India have skilled birth attendance. Sustaining progress means working towards reducing these disparities.

The third and related risk for women is the narrow constituency base of the women's movements. Women's movements have played a key role, globally, in mobilising women to demand their rights, pressurise governments to enact laws, adopt policies and take specific actions. But the constituency bases of these movements have been limited to upper and middle class women only. Working class and poor women have generally not been drawn into them. This gap has considerably weakened the capacity of the women's movement to work as a strong unified political force.

The fourth risk is the backlash from conservative groups, consisting of mostly religious extremists from all religious backgrounds. In recent years, the resurgence of political use of religion has directly threatened women's rights. For example, religious extremists in US are limiting women's choice in this country; and via the gag rule are threatening reproductive rights of women globally. The secularists, championing women's rights, are politically in a much-weakened position as well. The global war on terror has further exacerbated these risks by legitimising political use of religion.

Let me finally turn to women's obligations. Again, I will be selective and highlight only four.

Our first obligation is to ourselves. As mentioned earlier, we need to stand up for our rights, be constantly vigilant and ever ready promote our rights.

Our second obligation is to assist the less privileged women in our own countries and globally. We may all have our own paid and unpaid work responsibilities, but we still need to volunteer for civic and political actions that address inequities and exclusion.

Our third obligation is to recognise the critical role that education has played in fuelling women's progress. Millions of girls and women around the world are still denied access to education, particularly quality education. Girls account for more than half of the 57 million children who are out of school. We need to move beyond simple knowledge generation. We have to get involved in quiet initiatives as well as public campaigns to ensure that quality education becomes available to all of the world's citizens.

Finally, we need imagination to create a vision of a society, economy, polity and world order that will be equal, just and inclusive; and we need to be in the forefront and provide leadership to a shared struggle of women and men to reach that vision. We need stamina and courage, but above all, we need to be committed and have faith in our own strength to transform the world.

The above is an abridged version of Dr. Jahan's address to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on receipt of the Graduate Society Award, June 2008.

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