The Observer October 2007
"It is unacceptable that women stil face barriers and discrimination simply because of their gender."
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Across the world, it is women who are driving economic growth. Over the last 30 years, they have filled two out of every three new jobs. The term 'womenomics' has been coined to illustrate the increasing role that women are now playing, and will continue to play, in economic life.
It certainly represents what's happening in Tanzania, where I have been meeting African businesswomen. The popular saying - 'the African farmer and her husband' - shows there is nothing new in the essential, if hidden, role of women in the economy. But with so many women setting up their own businesses, the motto needs updating to 'the African entrepreneur and her mobile'.
All this could lead people to believe that the fight for women's rights, although not won, should be subsumed into the bigger battle for human rights for everyone. After all, the denial of human rights hits both men and women.
But while both sexes suffer, it's still women who suffer most. Two out of three children denied education are girls. Women own just 1 per cent of the world's titled land, a fact that makes it very difficult for women entrepreneurs to get bank loans, because they have no collateral. Even in the UK, where there has been huge progress, women in full-time work still take home 83p for every pound that men get paid and the glass ceiling at the top is as unbreakable as ever.
And, importantly, these barriers and discrimination are not an accidental byproduct of gender. They exist simply because of it.
They rest on the idea, spoken or unspoken, that women are somehow not the equal of men, that their rights, views and interests don't carry the same weight. It is this assumption that underpins and links the pay gap in developed countries, the denial in some developing countries of a woman's right to own property, the practice of abortion or infanticide because the child is a girl, and that allows rape or honour killings to go unpunished. It is the belief that women are worth less than men.
There are those who, while appalled at such prejudice in our societies, attempt to excuse it elsewhere as a result of different cultures. They argue that it is wrong to impose our standards across the world, casting doubt on the concept of universal human rights in a world of diverse cultural and religious standards.
I believe this is both wrong and patronising. As Rosalyn Higgins, the first female judge on the International Court of Justice, noted, it's an argument advanced by states or by liberal scholars but rarely by the oppressed groups themselves. It's often based, too, on a false belief that the idea of universal human rights, and the UN declaration that made them concrete, is a construct of a few Western democracies foisted on a reluctant world.
The declaration was drafted, in fact, by experts from every background and improved by contributions from all the UN's founding members from across the world. It was an express statement that the same human rights belong to each and every one of us, whatever our race, gender, religion or background.
They are a recognition of our essential dignity as human beings, something that, I would argue, has its roots deep in all our great faiths. As such, they can't be ignored or watered down simply because of claims of cultural difference.
Of course, culture doesn't stay the same. It is changed by law, by education and campaigning. Look at the seriousness with which our society now treats domestic violence. When I first started practising as a barrister 30 years ago, it was still very much a hidden crime. If reported to the police or courts at all, attacks by a husband on his wife were routinely treated as less serious than an assault on a stranger.
Now such cowardly behaviour is rightly seen as an aggravated offence. In the Middle East, too, the culture is slowly changing. Across the Gulf, women, with the support of men, are winning the right to vote and are increasingly filling important ministerial positions. They are also taking a bigger role in the economy.
In Tanzania and across the developing world, innovative credit schemes are springing up to tackle the reluctance of the banks to lend to women despite their better record of repaying loans than men. In Bangladesh, micro-credit schemes are also educating women about their rights and training women in the fundamentals of the Muslim law of property to help them argue their case. Economic empowerment and education are making a difference.
This is not the time to retreat from the fight for women's equality. It's the time, with sensitivity but also firmness, to step it up wherever we find prejudice. The prize is not just a better world for women. It is a better world for all.