For humanity and the planet to thrive, we need to empower women

07 March 2023 – There’s a golden rule for humanity, common across all major religions and societies: treat others as you would like to be treated. It is the bedrock of democracy and just legal systems. But when it comes to one part of society, this rule, it seems, does not apply.

Today, Women’s Day, 2.5 million girls and young women in Afghanistan have had their education stolen from them. Nearly 30% of girls in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, have never been to school. Worldwide, 130 million girls cannot access education – the most basic need to exit poverty. And in the United States, the richest country in the world, Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) teenage girls has seriously considered attempting suicide.

Today, Women’s Day, the reproductive rights of women in the United States are under attack. Indeed, worldwide, over 1.2 billion women and girls (one in three women) live in places where safe access to abortion is restricted.

Today, Women’s Day, we are in the midst of a polycrisis – war, inflation, cost of living, food and climate – and through economic insecurity, women are disproportionately hurt. Women’s share of income from labour stands at 35% today and make up less than 20% of landowners worldwide. It’s not just that women tend to earn less than men. Women are stuck in low-paying jobs and face glass ceilings.

Today, Women’s Day, women hold just one in four (26%) of parliamentary seats worldwide. In 23 countries, women hold less than 10% of seats. This is not democracy. This is the patriarchy.

At today’s rates of legal reforms, women will have equal legal rights and protections as men three centuries from now (in 286 years to be precise). By that time, the last remnants of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets will be slipping into the ocean and sea levels could be 10 meters than today. The rate of change for women’s rights is glacial. Let that sink in.

But this is not just disastrous for women; it is terrible for all in societies.

Recently, we used a new computer model Earth4All to explore scenarios for this century. We wanted to know if everyone on Earth could have a high standard of living within planetary boundaries. Remarkably, the answer to this question is “yes, we can.”

We were able to use the model to explore how energy, food, inequality, social tension, poverty, population and economic growth might play out in the course of this century. We found out that we won’t make progress on any of these without greater empowerment of women. In fact at Earth4All we made empowerment of women one of the five extraordinary turnarounds needed this century for all to live healthy, long lives while protecting the climate and nature. The other extraordinary turnarounds are energy, food, poverty and inequality. Without these five extraordinary turnarounds we can expect rising social tensions, a continued slideback from democracy and failure to meet even low-ambition climate goals. That’s right. Stabilising planet Earth, stabilising those ice sheets, means empowering women.  Gender equity is essential for resilient, healthy societies.

Gender empowerment helps build social cohesion because everyone in societies is valued the same. Social cohesion empowers governments to make bold, long-term decisions that benefit the majority of people. And these decisions enhance resilience to shocks. This is a foundation for the future we want.

How, then, do we value our future. At Earth4All we propose big steps.

First, investment in education. Education is the best escape route from a life in chains. It provides social mobility, economic security and opens up a world of opportunity. Educating girls increases their lifelong earnings and national income, reduces child mortality and maternal mortality, and helps prevent child marriage.

Second, we propose a simple target: all corporations and public bodies set a goal for gender equality in leadership positions as soon as possible, and certainly by 2030.

The third solution is economic. One of the most inspirational economic ideas proposed by Earth4All is a universal basic dividend – those using natural resources pay a fee and this fee is distributed to all in society equally. We know that the polycrisis will continue. We know that the economic system will drive up social tensions and increase economic insecurity for women. But we also know that transforming societies will be disruptive. We propose that societies introduce a universal basic dividend.

Today, Women’s Day, strong forces in society are doing everything to push women back into the dark ages. We must fight this patriarchal mindset to achieve greater social cohesion to enable governments to make bold, long-term decisions that benefit the majority of people. Only then can we build a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

First published by Reuters Sustainable Business Review.

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