Written by Caroline Plenty

Did you know the highest female representation in government is 56 percent and in the UK only 22.5 percent of MPs are women? The only country with more women than men in government (56 percent) is Rwanda? Or in Kenya teenage girls are 3 times more likely to be HIV positive than boys?

That is how I started a blog I wrote a year ago for Irise International. In the past year I’ve been frequently told that gender inequality no longer exists and therefore there is no need for feminism today. But have things really changed that much in the past year?

In my opinion the short answer is some things have – but not enough. My long answer is the rest of this blog.

So what has changed?

The female representation in Rwandan Government has continued to increase to 64 percent, yet bar Rwanda and Andorra, all other governments are made up of more men than women. In 38 governments worldwide, women make up less than 10 percent of elected officials.

That does not sound like gender equality to me.

In July 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet and promoted several female officials. Now, women make up 24 percent of the cabinet, an improvement on the previous 15 percent – but that still is not good enough.

Gender cabinet graph
Image c/o The Guardian

The media’s reaction to the new cabinet members did not exactly scream equality. The Daily Mail reacted by publishing a two-page spread pitting “Cameron’s Cuties” against one another on the Downing Street catwalk.

That does not sound like gender equality to me.

2014 saw the first prosecutions in the UK related to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and efforts are being made to increase awareness of FGM/C amongst teachers, doctors and social workers. It is estimated that 23,000 girls are at risk of FGM/C in the UK every year.

That does not sound like gender equality to me.

The past year also saw the media FINALLY discussing periods. India’s Menstrual Man hit headlines after designing a low-cost, easy to use machine that makes sanitary towels. In India, a country where only 7 percent of women have access to sanitary towels, an invention of this nature could increase access to menstrual hygiene products, forever changing the lives of women and girls.

Still, everything surrounding menstruation suggests inequality. Women pay “luxury tax” on tampons but men are forced to pay no such tax on razors. Around the world, difficulties accessing menstrual products result in school absenteeism. Can we really say we live in a gender equal society when even saying the word “sanitary towel” in public is so taboo that, according to Indian comic Aditi Mittal, it is “like standing in a Hogwarts common room and saying Voldemort?”

So how can we speed things up in our aim to reach a society/world where women and men are equal? I think one of the main ways is increasing discussion. If people don’t talk about periods, how will they know they can affect the length of time a girl stays in school? If people have never heard of FGM/C, how can they identify girls at risk? If people don’t talk about the gender gap in both representation and pay in careers such as politics, the media, finance (the list could go on and on), how will girls know that they should have an equal share?

Friends of Irise (FOI) is a student led group established by Irise International with a mission to teach students about issues related to gender equality. Using global case studies, we have worked with over 400 teenagers – facilitating discussions on global gender stereotypes, access to education, menstruation, gender and the press, social media and sport.

The FOI network is growing. In Uganda, Kampala International University has its own FOI that has organised re-usable pad making training sessions and events for Menstrual Hygiene Day. Manchester and Birmingham will start FOI branches this September and we’re gearing up for bigger and better events in Uganda and the UK in the coming months. Our hope is that the growing network of FOI groups will increase discussion focusing on gender and menstrual hygiene both here and in East Africa. And I look forward to a time when I really can say, now we have reached gender equality.

Caroline PlentyCaroline Plenty is a medical student at the University of Sheffield, where she helped set up the first Friends of Irise, the student sub-group of Irise International. She is now the National Coordinator for Friends of Irise UK and hopes that their work within schools and universities will highlight the importance of tackling gender inequalities and encourage young people to question the gender inequality they see in their daily lives and within the wider world.





The Conversation

0 Responses

  1. Thank you for such a brilliant blog! I just thought I would highlight that the stats for FGM in the UK have changed. As you may know, the last stats on FGM were done in the UK way back in 2001 with FORWARD and a whole host of other agencies which stated that 24,000 girls were at risk and 66,000 women has undergone the practice. The new statistics were released at the Girl Summit 2014 which states that 66,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in England and Wales with 137,000 women already gone through the practice. So the numbers are much higher, as we would expect and many have even suggested that this is just a guesstimate, that in reality, the numbers are much much higher than we think.

    1. Hey, glad you enjoyed the blog! Thank you for pointing out the change in statistics. The numbers are shocking and it’s definitely something that needs wider attention, including in the education of those in healthcare – as a medical student I’ve received little to no formal education on FGM, something student groups in our university are working to change. I’ve found a link to the updated report on FGM: http://www.city.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/226287/FGM-statistics-report-21.07.14-no-embargo.pdf for anyone interested.

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