Maps and borders are human creations.

We also thought about whether to place nations into regional groupings for comparative purposes. We know that imaginative or political ‘neighbourhoods,’ such as the Francophonie or the British Commonwealth or the Non-Aligned Movement, sometimes matter at least as much as physically bordering states. Finally, however, we elected for regional grouping, knowing as well that some nations such as Russia and Turkey, sit in more than one place. We invite readers, however, to make their own relevant comparisons.

The best comparative source on the status of women globally is provided by the reports provided by the 186 countries that have ratified or agreed to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Equally helpful are the challenges to these narratives often presented by affected women. For example, in Canada, the BC CEDAW coalition has regularly challenged official claims. Also to be consulted are the reports from UN Women, most recently its In Pursuit of Justice; Progress of the World’s Women 2011-12 (UN Women 2011/PDF).

Explore Regional and National Profiles Below

Africa Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user Martin23230 (Modified).

Africa Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user Martin23230 (Modified).


Africa

The African continent is not readily summed up in suffrage, political traditions or anything else. Some distinctions are, however, helpful. A line has often been drawn between the communities of the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa but Islam, Christianity, and animism have been similarly influential in shaping responses to civil society and democracy. Also important have been the various influences of formal and informal empires, whether the French, the British, the Italian, the German, the Portuguese, the Spanish or the American. Combinations of indigenous and external forces have shaped perspectives and influences in ways that have been both empowering and debilitating. In other words, specific traditions matter. Even with the inauguration of pan-African initiatives such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on Women’s Rights that came into force in 2005, generalizations should only be made with caution. While genital mutilation and discriminatory family law still curb many lives, there are positive signs such as the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, as well as Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.

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Asia Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user SSolbergj (Modified).

Asia Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user SSolbergj (Modified).


Asia

Asia’s boundaries are fluid, its nations and populations numerous and diverse. Human rights have flourished in a few settings but ethnic, religious, ‘racial’, and colonial histories regularly curtail opportunity as they do elsewhere. Imperialism takes its own forms as well.  China and Japan have often been hugely influential, even as they have experienced western efforts at domination at points in their histories. This region has also produced some of the earliest democratically-elected leaders, such as Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka’s) Sirimavo Bandaranaike the world’s first female prime minister in 1960.  Like many female ‘firsts’, she was the widow of the previous incumbent, her husband who was assassinated in 1959.  In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became the eleventh Prime Minister in 1988, heir to her executed father, the former prime minister, Bulfikar Ali Bhutto. She was in turn assassinated in 2007 but her privileged family, major landlords, continues politically powerful.  Such family connections, much like those of Hilary and Bill Clinton, remind us that kinship always matters when it comes to politics all around the world.

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Central & South America Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia users Towndown and Luan (Modified).

Central & South America Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia users Towndown and Luan (Modified).


Central & South America

We have not employed the term ‘Latin America’ for this region because it privileges European settlers, many of whom were from Spain and Portugal. As elsewhere in the Americas, the place of Indigenous women is critical to understanding the extent of equality in politics as in much else. Nationalism and anti-colonial politics have been influential in shaping attitudes to women’s rights and in mobilizing activists but so too has the power of forces such as the Catholic Church. Women were key players in the Cuban and other revolutions and Catholic nuns became some of the most outspoken proponents of liberation theology. Today some leaders in the region have named themselves feminists, such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Chile’s Michele Bachelet (now Executive Director of UN Women). The latter named an equal number of women and men to her cabinet in 2006.  Women of European descent remain most visible in public office but male violence and entitlement persist as an obstacle for them as well.  In 2002, it was estimated that women’s “participation in political power” in this region put it “behind Europe, on par with Asia, and ahead of Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East” (Htun 10). The UN Commission on the Status of Women more recently reported, however, that only Europe and this region surpass the world average for women in government. In 2011, the United Nations opened the new UN Women Regional Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama City.

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Europe Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia users Dbachmann (Modified)

Europe Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia users Dbachmann (Modified)

Europe

The origins of women’s rights are often associated with this region. From very different perspectives both capitalist and communist nations have regularly claimed to lead. The Nordic countries, sometimes quizzically referred to as the ‘magical kingdoms’ because of their social advances, are often celebrated. In fact, feminism’s progress here has been uneven.  Equally unfortunately, supposed superiority in the status of women has sometimes provided an excuse for European adventurism in other parts of the globe, in India in the past and in Afghanistan in the present, to give only two examples. Imperially-mined European women, like others in North America, sometimes operated from the same assumption of superiority when they founded the first international women’s groups, such as the International Council of Women (1888), the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1904) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915). That unhappy connection should not, however, obscure significant advances in women’s political rights in the region since the 19th century and the valuable work done by such global ‘sisterhoods.’ They and their successors are largely responsible for the achievement of UN Women today.

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Greater Middle East Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user TownDown (Modified).

Greater Middle East Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user TownDown (Modified).

Middle East

The Arab Spring of 2011 confirmed this region as a centre of debates over women’s rights, though of course not all residents are Arab. Women joined in anti-colonial movements from the beginning and today support diverse political alternatives. Women in the Middle Eastern diasporic communities in Canada as elsewhere also provide support and encouragement for those left behind, in an expression of global sisterhood that needs to be remembered. This activist history helped propel the first woman of Arab descent, Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, to win the Noble Peace Prize in 2011. There are other signs of progress as when Kuwait’s women received the same political rights as men in 2005.  And yet so-called ‘honour crimes’ in countries such as Jordan and Egypt, reactionary interpretations of Islamic tradition in Iran, and laws such as those forbidding women options open to men, ranging from a driver’s licence to the vote in Saudi Arabia, continue to handicap development and justice. And as elsewhere in the world, certain groups of women, notably refugees, migrant workers, members of minority religions and ethnic communities, those with disabilities, and the poor in general are especially vulnerable. Women are significantly under-represented or entirely absent in positions of authority. It is still fair to say that in general“progress is stymied by the lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedoms of association and assembly”(Kelly and Breslin 3).

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North America Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user BosonicDressing (Modified).

North America Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user BosonicDressing (Modified).


North America

This region is taken here to include Mexico, which may otherwise be considered as part of ‘Latin’ America. We have included it because of the increasing ties of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Indigenous women have been long time activists but they remained disadvantaged in all three nations.  The matrilineal traditions of some Indigenous peoples such as the Iroquois Confederation nevertheless remain an inspiration to women of all origins. The European empires of Spain, France, and Britain fundamentally shaped legal regimes, sometimes as in Quebec offering early enfranchisement for some propertied women that ‘progress’ later removed. While the United States has always had greatest prominence in international organizations, Canadians and Mexicans prize their own social movements and connections to campaigns for justice elsewhere. Of the three nations, only Canada has had both female heads of state (the Governors General as representative of Queen of the British Commonwealth; Jeanne Sauvé became the first woman GG in 1984) and of the senior government (Kim Campbell in 1993).

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Oceania Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user Ch1902 (Modified).

Oceania Orthographic Projection via Wikimedia user Ch1902 (Modified).

Oceania

As with other regions, the boundaries here are subject to debate. We are including Australia, New Zealand, and the southern, western, and central Pacific Islands, including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, areas with very different traditions of settlement and providing diverse relations of Indigenous and settler peoples. Australia and New Zealand have enshrined much of the British legal tradition but the former was far in advance of the ‘homeland’ in enfranchising all women in 1893. In contrast, the first female enfranchisement legislation in Australia’s Queensland and Western Australia did not include Aboriginal women. In 1997 New Zealand elected its first female prime minister, Jenny Shipley, while Australia chose Julia Gillard ten years later. The smaller Pacific Islands have their own traditions stemming from Indigenous and various imperial cultures. Women have stood in the forefront of Maori protests about land, sovereignty, and racial equality and alliances among Pacific islands women have also emerged. Violence and poverty are also widespread among Indigenous populations everywhere. There are nonetheless promising signs.  In 2001 the Pacific’s Francophone territories “require[d] political parties to nominate equal numbers of women and men on their electoral lists”, producing a marked increase in representation (George 2011).

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