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Sexual violence against women a 'global epidemic,' study finds

UN analysis tracked status of women globally over two decades since Beijing declaration on gender equality

Violence against women and girls "persists at alarmingly high levels" despite significant progress in gender equality for health, education and legal rights, according to an expansive global report released Monday.

The "No Ceilings Full Participation Report" — based on an analysis of global data drawn from a host of international agencies, including the World Bank, the World Health Organization, various U.N. agencies and polls — identifies gains and gaps in women's progress toward equality over the last 20 years. The report follows a year-long global project led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the No Ceilings initiative of the Clinton Foundation.

The report also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — a blueprint towards greater equality forged out of the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women. The 1995 document called for “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life."

A review of how much progress had been made since then found encouraging evidence that when women and girls participate fully in society, the positive results create a ripple effect that increases well-being in communities, growth in economies and security in nations, the report said. Among the most positive findings were those in health, education and legal rights. 

Due to improvements in access to health care services, girls born today can expect to live an average of almost 73 years, about four more years than in 1995, the report said. The rate of global maternal mortality dropped by 42 percent in 20 years; the mortality rate for infant girls decreased by half and adolescent births fell by almost a third.

But sexual violence remains "a global epidemic," the report warned. It cited data that showed 35 percent of women report physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. And despite an increase in laws against domestic violence, implementation and enforcement of such legislation is often lacking. In addition, laws restricting women's rights still exist, the report found. Marital rape is still legal in many countries.

The findings come on the heels of a series of incidents that have put in sharp focus the plight of women confronting sexual violence. High-profile rape cases have sparked a national dialogue in India, while the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria by armed group Boko Haram sparked a global campaign. Recent reports of female villagers being forced to become sex salves by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have likewise underscored the vulnerability of women caught in conflict.

Monday’s report also highlights other areas of concern. For example, more work needs to be done in reducing HIV infections in women, which are nearly double the number in 1995, particularly among adolescent and young women. Also, more than 220 million women around the world want to use modern contraception but often lack access. 

In education, the report found that the global gender gap among primary school-age children has "virtually closed." But in secondary school, considered an important factor in girls' ability to avoid child marriage and contribute to their families and communities, the gender gap has narrowed but is still there; it is particularly wide in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Lack of progress is also worrying in women's economic participation, which has virtually stagnated since 1995, with 55 percent of women in the workforce compared with 82 percent of men. Often working in the informal economy, women still earn less than men in almost every country. 

More than 150 countries lack laws guaranteeing equal access to capital and property ownership while nine nations legally restrict women's freedom of movement.

Although twice as many women hold political office now as in 1995, their political participation has grown relatively slowly. Women hold 22 percent of seats in national legislatures, an increase from 12 percent 20 years ago. They also still are significantly rare in formal peace processes, where only 10 percent of peace negotiators are women.

"Data is knowledge and knowledge is power – in this case, the power to help women and girls build a better future," Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, said in the preface to the report.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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