I was dancing and sipping a caipirinha—you know, that fabulous Brazilian cocktail made with lime and sugar—when Leila nudged me to say that Nilcea Freire, the minister of women for Brazil, appointed by President Lula da Silva, was standing next to us. She wanted to introduce me. “I'd love to!” I shouted over the loud drumming.
Leila is from Sao Paolo and was one of my roommates at the Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe, a conference I attended a couple weeks ago in Brazil. More than 1,500 women from all over the world, but mostly Latin America, come to the conference to talk about feminist issues ranging from reproductive health, maternity leave and child care, to domestic violence, lesbian rights and women running for public office. The women who came represented such a diverse array of issues and countries, it was hard to comprehend how the discussions, presentations and workshops would be structured so that everyone was given the opportunity to learn and share their stories, problems and solutions.
I learned the most from the women with whom I ate lunch and talked during the breaks. Leila works on lesbian rights and rights for black women in Brazil. Two Mexican bureaucrats told me about their tedious jobs ordering tablecloths and nametags for city events since their office of women was closed by a newly elected mayor. Another woman was running for office in Honduras, and I discussed the upcoming election in Chile of a socialist woman for president with a group of Chilean women. Freire, the Brazilian minister, told me about her work on reproductive rights and complained about President Bush's international family planning policies.
When I returned to New Mexico, a friend asked me if the conference was more focused on issues relevant to Latin American countries than on issues relevant to the U.S. My response was, “What's the difference?” Women face many of the same issues, whether they live in Chile, Brazil, Mexico or the U.S. We are all struggling for equal access to education, jobs, healthcare and political participation. The real difference is that here in the U.S. we have not made as much progress as people like to think.
In fact, the U.S. is rated only No. 17 of 58 in a report that attempts to measure the global gender gap, recently released by the World Economic Forum. According to the United Nations, gender equality refers to that stage of human social development at which “the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not be determined by the fact of being born male or female.” So, the gender gap is really a measurement of gender equality. The study was done to provide a benchmarking tool to nonprofit agencies, governments and policy-makers to assess the size of the gender gap in 58 countries, ranking these nations according to the level of advancement of their female population and identifying successes and failures based on economic, political, educational and health-based criteria.
Five areas of female empowerment and opportunity were chosen for the study, based mainly on findings from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), concerning global patterns of inequality between men and women: economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and wellbeing.
The reason why the U.S. ranks so low in the study is mostly due to our low score in the areas of economic opportunity and health and wellbeing. This is because of inadequate maternity leave and maternity leave benefits, as well as limited government-provided childcare. With little public debate, the U.S. has chosen a radically different approach to maternity leave than the rest of the developed world. The U.S. and Australia are the only industrialized countries that don't provide paid leave for new mothers nationally, though there are exceptions in some U.S. states. Australian mothers have it better, however, with one year of job-protected leave. The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of job-protected leave, but it only covers those who work for larger companies.
Our score is also brought down, in comparison with other developed nations, by the large number of adolescents bearing children and the high maternal mortality ratio, both in relation to the high number of physicians available.
Even in light of heightened international awareness of gender issues, it is a disturbing reality that no country has yet managed to eliminate the gender gap. Those that rank the highest in terms of narrowing the gap are the Nordic countries, with Sweden standing out as the most advanced in the world. France (No. 13) ranked ahead of the United States (No. 17) among the 58 nations, while Latin American nations such as Costa Rica (No. 18), Colombia (No. 30) and Uruguay (No. 32) ranked in the middle. Interestingly, Brazil (No. 51) and Mexico (No. 52) ranked the lowest.
Regardless, Americans certainly could learn a thing or two from other countries. In the U.S., where basic gender equality appears to have been achieved, the struggle has shifted to removing the more intangible discrimination against working women.
Anyway, this was my introduction to Brazilian beats and world feminists. It was refreshing to participate in a conference in which difficult subjects were openly discussed and ideas were analyzed and critiqued. I was even asked to defend my commitment to feminism when someone noticed that I shave my legs! But I'll save that story for another day.