Published on October 28, 2007
Of the 73 ambassadors assigned to Thailand, only four are women. These - Latha Reddy of India, South Africa's Pearl Nomvume Magaqa, Israel's Yael Rubinstein and Merete Fjeld Brattested of Norway - this month shared their views of women's status in their homelands.
The occasion was a Bangkok forum called "Cross-cultural Perspectives on Gender Equality and Women's Rights: Progress and Challenges", which was organised by the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
Ambassador Reddy pointed out that many Indian women are in the public eye, among them 73-year-old President Pratibha Patil and tennis player and youth icon Sania Mirza, and many others serve on the police force and with the UN's peacekeeping mission.
But the great majority, she said, remain "invisible".
"Women's work in India is largely invisible, unrecognised and unremunerated. While 31 per cent of Indian workers are women, 96 per cent of women workers are in the unorganised sector, which means there are no safety nets."
And, while India's constitution espouses equal rights for all and a third of the seats on civic and local government bodies are reserved for women, she noted, there is a fundamental challenge in their gender itself.
"Indian women have generally faced a dilemma: performing a multitasking role, between reproductive and productive roles," said Reddy, who is also a permanent representative with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).
She is encouraged that women make up 20 per cent of the workforce in the country's information-technology industry, but laments the fact that salaries are inequitable in the export sector.
Women must become more economically empowered, Reddy said, suggesting that the World Trade Organisation should negotiate on their behalf - securing better deals from the agriculture sector and the enforcement of legislation to ensure a better work environment and fair living wages.
"Many women need only a small budget to start a business, such as a small loan to buy a cow so they can sell milk," she said.
And education, she said, is crucial: "Educate a man and you educate an individual; educate a woman and you educate a family."
Reddy credited the men in her own family for enabling her achievements.
"I would say it all began with a liberated family. The men in my family - father and grandfather - encouraged me," she said.
In Israel, Ambassador Rubinstein observed, it's not uncommon to see women in high positions.
"The state of Israel became the third in the world - after Sri Lanka and India - to be led by a woman."
Golda Meir served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974, and currently Tzipi Livni is deputy premier and minister of foreign affairs and Dorit Beinish is president of the Supreme Court.
Israel, Rubinstein noted, is the only nation in the world where service in the military is compulsory for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18, but men must serve for three years and women just two.
"Women should in fact be serving three years to make it equal," she asserted.
Israel legislated equal opportunity in the workplace in 1988 and equal pay in 1996, and criminalised sexual harassment in 1998, she said.
"However, our challenge lies in what gender equality really means to us. Are women really interested in gender equality?" In her former role as a university professor, she found that some of her female students just wanted to stay at home and raise children.
"Gender equality means different things to different people and groups in different societies," she said.
Ambassador Brattested said women in Norway have achieved a great deal - "Gender equality and women's rights became political topics very early on" - but there is more work to do.
Gender is one of the four pillars of Norway's development policy, she said, and women fill 38 per cent of the seats in parliament and 24 per cent of senior government positions.
In terms of education, 64 per cent of graduates and 46 per cent of researchers are women, yet only 16 per cent of the professors in universities are women.
"Men become doctors, while women become nurses - to overstate things a little," Brattested said.
As well, Norway was the first country to introduce paternity leave for both parents. Both men and women have the right to 42 weeks' paid leave based on the mother's salary.
"It is for both mums and dads, so they can share half and half in the childcare," she said, "but we still have to encourage men to take their half. And generally men earn more."
South African Ambassador Magaqa said gender issues have always been close to her heart.
"South Africa comes from a very painful past, in which the majority of our people were oppressed, and women in particular," she said.
It remains common there for rural husbands to leave home to find work in the cities, and the wives and children have no guarantee that they will return or send money.
In 1956 tens of thousands of women marched against the injustices imposed on them, and they evolved into a major force for change.
When democracy at last dawned in South Africa in 1994, it shed light on gender awareness, and two years later rights were enshrined in the constitution.
"This constitution is said to be one of the most progressive and gender-aware constitutions in the world," the ambassador said.
In 1997 a National Commission on Gender Equality was formed.
Government ministries including foreign affairs, public works, communications and water affairs are headed by women, Magaqa said, and 40 per cent of the provincial premiers are women. Women hold senior management positions at 75 per cent of the country's private businesses.
"This shows how far women have come, and we are proud of that achievement."
However, she acknowledged, daunting challenges remain in terms of literacy and domestic violence, and there is considerable resistance in some pockets of society to the further empowerment of women. Many still see women only in dependent roles.
Like her fellow ambassadors, Magaqa admitted that her own personal accomplishments don't reflect the situation of South African women as a whole.
"I was a little bit fortunate because I came from an educated family. Both my mother and father are teachers," she said. By contrast, there are still many people in their 60s who have never learned to read or write.
And many men continue to shun the concept of gender equality, she said.