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

U.S. first lady Jill Biden visits Kenya
U.S. first lady Jill Biden talks to traditional Maasai women during a visit to highlight the impacts of drought relief at the Lositeti village in Matapato North, Kajiado County, Kenya February 26, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

March 6 - 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.

On International 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 one in three teenage girls has seriously considered attempting suicide.

On International 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.

On International 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 women make up less than 20% of landowners worldwide. It’s not just that women tend to earn less than men, they are also stuck in low-paying jobs and face glass ceilings.

Women hold just one in four of parliamentary seats worldwide. In 23 countries, women hold less than 10% of seats. This is not democracy. This is the patriarchy.

A 17-year-old girl, who wants to become an engineer, studies on YouTube at her home in Kabul, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

At today’s rates of legal reforms, women will have equal legal rights and protections to 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 higher than today. The rate of change for women’s rights is glacial. Let that sink in.

This is not just disastrous for women; it is terrible for all in societies. Recently, we used the 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 others 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.

An abortion rights supporter holds up a protest sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 29, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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.

On International 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.

Sharan Burrow, former General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation, and Carlota Perez, Honorary Professor University College London contributed to this comment piece. All authors are members of the Earth4All Transformational Economics Commission.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève is co-president of the Club of Rome and project lead for Earth4All, a global initiative focused on five key areas that could enable humanity and the planet to thrive. She chairs the European Commission, Expert Group on Economic and Societal Impact of Research & Innovation (ESIR), and also sits on the European Commission’s Sustainable Finance Platform.

Jane Kabubo-Mariara is executive director of the Partnership for Economic Policy, a Southern-led global organisation dedicated to supporting development in the Global South. She is also a professor of economics at the University of Nairobi.