‘Everyone’s Problem’: On World Population Day, Experts Discuss Women’s Rights

Around the globe, women continue to face barriers. In Israel, analysts express concern about the status of women under the right-wing government

By Hannah Levin/The Media Line

Tuesday marks World Population Day, an annual event established by the United Nations to raise awareness of global population issues, and this year’s theme is “Unleashing the power of gender equality: Uplifting the voices of women and girls to unlock our world’s infinite possibilities.”

With that theme in mind, academics and activists in Israel are expressing concerns about the impact the current right-wing government could have on women’s rights and gender parity in the country.

“Our progress is also, at the moment, being directly attacked by people who wish to turn the historical wheel of gender equality backward, back to [traditional] family values, back to women’s traditional roles and men’s traditional roles in society,” Lilach Ben David, a coordinator at the Isha L’Isha (Woman to Woman) feminist center in Haifa, which claims to be the oldest feminist center in Israel, told The Media Line.

Despite women making up 50.1% of Israel’s population, there are now only 30 women in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset—25%. Even more glaringly, only nine of those women are in the 64-member ruling coalition. And despite the government having 32 ministers and six deputy ministers, only three women are ministers, and one is a deputy minister.

In contrast, under previous Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, there were 24 women in the governing coalition and seven women in ministerial roles. Until the current government took office, female representation in the Knesset had been increasing, thanks in part to the so-called Norwegian Law, under which ministers can resign from the Knesset to focus on their ministerial duties, allowing the next person on the party roster to enter the Knesset. This resulted in the addition of six women to the Knesset during Bennett’s term.

“We see how the representation of women in the government is suffering a huge decrease compared to previous years. It raises deep concerns, and it is also a symptom, [and] a cause for potential problems,” Prof. Ravit Raufman of the University of Haifa’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department told The Media Line.

Ben David also raised concerns over the religious monopoly held by the rabbinate over issues of marriage and divorce. With a man’s agreement required to grant a divorce under Jewish law, known as a get, thousands of women have found themselves trapped in unwanted marriages. These women are known as “agunot,” chained women. The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which aids such women, considers a refusal to divorce a form of domestic abuse.

“When marital issues are governed by a religious body that is definitely not committed to ideas of gender equality, then gender equality is not present in the law,” Ben David said.

Meanwhile, around the world, women continue to face barriers. In 2022, the World Bank reported that around 2.4 billion working-age women were still not afforded equal economic opportunity and that 178 countries maintained legal barriers preventing women’s full economic participation.

In addition, some 24% of girls aged 15 to 19 were not in education in 2022, compared with 13% of boys the same age, according to UNICEF, the UN children’s organization. UNICEF also found that women and girls continued to experience forced sex, female genital mutilation, and unsafe maternal health conditions.

“We cannot approach any social, cultural, political, historical, or philosophical issue without taking into consideration gender issues,” Raufman said.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the statistics are worse. While globally, 83.5% of women are literate, in the Middle East and North Africa the figure is 73.1%. And while, according to the International Labor Organization, the female labor force participation rate in 2022 globally was 47.3%, in the Middle East and North Africa, it was only 18.8%. (Excluding high-income countries, the rate for the MENA region was just 16%.)

Ben David told The Media Line that she does not believe in comparing levels of gender equality in various regions around the globe and that damage comes when gender parity is seen as a regional issue.

“Gender equality is not just something that needs to happen ‘over there,’ you know, in that other place in the Third World, or in that other community of people that don’t have much to do with us, because that is the easy discourse,” she said.

Instead, Ben David said the issue needs to be seen as a global concern.

“It does not matter if in other places there is less gender equality, it does not matter if gender discrimination takes different forms in different societies and different areas of the world,” she said. “What is most important, in my view, is that we do not take the easy path of looking at the other and seeing it as other people’s problems but seeing it as everyone’s problem.”

Hannah Levin is a student at Northwestern University and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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