Women’s Rights and Development in the 21st Century

Women and girls have much to gain from being treated equally with men. Gender equality helps countries achieve a wide range of international development goals. It provides economic opportunity, promotes health and wellbeing, and empowers children to thrive and be productive citizens.

But the struggle for gender equality has been long and hard. In many countries, women have not been allowed to vote or even own property. Even today, they earn on average twenty percent less than men. And the fight is far from over. Thousands of women and girls die every year from sexual violence, a scourge that often stems from gender inequality.

In the 1960s, women called feminists formed groups such as National Organization for Women and fought for equal rights. They demanded that women be considered equal to men and were willing to take on the battles against entrenched beliefs and traditions, such as that women are naturally weaker and less intelligent than men or that some religions present women as a source of evil.

Women have made great strides since the 1960s. But in 2022, more than two-thirds of countries still have legal barriers that prevent full economic participation. In 178 of those countries, women cannot work at night like men can, and 95 countries do not guarantee that women receive the same pay as men for the same work. And fewer than half of all countries have laws that protect women against sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Throughout history, the gains that women have made in the battle for women rights have come at great cost. For decades, Margaret Sanger and her followers battled the zealously enforced laws that denied women access to birth control. And abortion remains controversial, despite the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade.

The success of the women’s movement depends on changing the forces that limit or advance women’s rights. Those forces include economic, cultural, and time-dependent factors. Economic forces such as the return on investment in education, relative bargaining power, and social norms can all lead to progress for women’s rights, but they must be balanced against the costs and benefits of limiting those rights.

For example, in a country with an agrarian economy that depends on labor from the soil, it may be more important to expand women’s property rights than to invest in modernizing farming techniques. Similarly, in countries where religion dominates politics, the religious channels may outweigh the positive effect of economic drivers.

But in all countries, the forces pushing for progress can be weakened by social and cultural pressures. We are now seeing real regression in the United States and elsewhere, with a backward move on abortion rights and an increase in the number of anti-women legislative proposals in state legislatures. In these circumstances, NGOs and other civil society organizations need to continue organizing and advocating for change. They must also work to empower the women who are fighting for their rights. Only then can we see a world where women’s rights are not just respected, but fully realized.