04/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Are All Guilty

In the many years I have worked for the promotion of women's human rights, the most frequent question I get is "why?" Why is it that, after so many years of progress in terms of women's access to education and jobs, women still earn less than men in similar position. Why is it that even now, with an all-time high of women serving in Congress, women hold only a third of the seats. Why is it that, in a country that prides itself on its high levels of gender equality, domestic violence continues to injure and kill women every single day. Surely, my interlocutors argue, if we know something is wrong, we can prohibit, punish, and eliminate whatever abhorrent practice we are talking about.

And at the most basic level this is, of course, true: we have the tools the stop the abuse, so why don't we? Reality is a bit more complicated. In my experience, there are three main reasons women and girls continue to be discriminated against.

1. Laws are poorly defined and badly implemented.

Legal protections against discrimination and violence against women are much better now than even just 10 years ago. Even so, many laws carve out massive exemptions and implementation is often inconsistent. Take sexual harassment. While U.S. law contains a solid definition of the practice, it exempts businesses with less than 15 employees, and doesn't provide protection for temporary workers. What, I wonder, is the part-time waitress to do, when her boss insists she unbutton her shirt to attract more customers. Or how about the notion that women deserve equal pay for equal work. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, signed into law by Obama in January this year, eliminates the statute of limitations on lawsuits for pay discrimination in the workplace, but still doesn't guarantee equality.

Clearly, there is a need to reexamine the laws we think protect us, and look closely at whether they do the job.

2. Myth and culture are used to justify discrimination.

Culture is used to justify even the most unconscionable abuse. When I did research on rape in Mexico in 2005, government officials shrugged at the mention of incest: "Of course it's wrong, but it's our culture," they would say. Needless to say, I have never met an incest survivor who dismissed their own suffering as "culturally appropriate."

But culture and myths are also used to perpetuate inequality in more subtle ways. In many countries, including the United States, women - more so than men - often tend to be pushed towards careers in care-giving such as nursing and teaching, because, as myth has it, women are naturally nurturing. Critical professions, they still generally don't pay as much as the "harder" alternatives, such as transport and construction, but, as myth continues, women won't have to support themselves, and therefore don't have to make a living wage. In reality, many women head single-parent households.

While these myths persist, equality remains an illusion.

3. Gender stereo-typing may be perpetuated in the home.

While government carries the large share of the responsibility for continued sex discrimination, the reality remains that gender stereotyping is alive and well in the home. Women are still, to a much larger extent than men, expected to cook, clean, and deal with childcare, even when they have a full-time job outside the home. While men's participation in work in the home is often seen as "helping out," women are still saddled with the main responsibility for getting this work done. A 2002 academic study from Northwestern University concluded, among other things, that women do substantively more of the housework than their male partners. In fact, even when American women earn half or more of the joint household income, they have more duties at home than men.

And this unequal burden sharing perpetuates the larger sense of women's servitude and subordination, which can lead to abuse. Bureau of Justice Crime statistics indicate that women are almost five times more likely to be attacked by their intimate partner or spouse than men are. A third of female victims of homicide were killed by their partners, as compared to 5% of male victims of homicide.

So why do women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and abuse? There is no easy answer. Legal protections are incomplete, and only go so far. Myths persist, and culture is used as an excuse. Women themselves internalize the inequality.

But at the end of the day, discrimination continues because we allow it to.

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