How empowered are women across the world?
As part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World season, Mary Robinson discussed the issue of women's rights and the empowerment of women around the world.
As former President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now director of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, she has campaigned for the improvement of women's rights, particularly in developing countries.
The empowerment of women and promotion of equality between men and women is one of the UN's key Millennium Goals for reducing poverty across the globe.
How are the roles of women changing around the world? In terms of democracy, education and human rights, how much progress has been made? Are women's rights in the developing world improving?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
In my opinion, women's rights is a very broad issue. Yes, I do believe that we that we should have the same political and ecomonic rights as men. However, when it comes to social rights, it differs a lot from country to country. Coming from a developing country (Bangladesh) I believe women rights have improved a lot. However, it's not 100%. Personally,I think the work place is the biggest issue, not only in developing countries but also the West. Nevertheless, we should not forget about men's rights too. After all we are trying to be equal.
Habiba Hussain, Dhaka, Bangladesh
What is mind blowing in South Africa in a year period (according to the police) there where over 55 000 rapes in a year against women and children. More horrifying is that they estimate there are thousands of rapes that are not reported. Another sick side of humanity is the spousal beatings and murders, until the whole society starts valuing and appreciating the females, from young girls to women - life is cheap. Furthermore, until such time as the women are empowered, via education, freedom of speech and they find their voices this will continue.
Gail, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Do you think it is about time that we boycott nations that actively subjugate women via their legal systems, as we did with apartheid? Or is the oil revenue of countries like Saudi Arabia more important than basic human rights? Why is it ok to object to inequality on the grounds of ethnicity, but when it comes to gender we indulge in moral relativism and burble on about "cultural differences"? No one claims racism as a viable cornerstone of a culture, so why do we allow them to get away with it when it comes to sexism?
Fhiona Alsop, Bristol, UK
What is your view about LTTE women fighters? Apparently, they are the only powerful women military in the world?
Ram Ragu, Toronto, Canada
Does Mary Robinson agree that the first step in getting proper rights for women is for women themselves to be empowered to decide what rights they should possess; as opposed to governments and "the great and the good" deciding what minimal set is compatible with the interests of governments, business and religious leaders?
African women probably have it the worst, after the Afghanis that is. They do everything. Polygamy is widespread in Africa. And men don't marry for love, they marry for labour. If you have five wives, good for you, that's five labourers for your fields. That really is how the logic goes in these cultures. Women do 80% of the farming in Africa. So they put food on the table, clean after their husbands and children, cook for them and have none of the rights that come with responsibility. They are totally subservient to their patriarchal husbands. It's slavery.
Khalil Djalal, Ottawa, Canada
How do I get Mary Robinson's comment on my current views of achieving women's right through mutual understanding of problems here in Ethiopia? Would she be willing to discuss with me about the role of the media in a situation so unpredictable and difficult especially to women, that total control of it is necessary to get the upper hand in a traditional and poor society?
Women's rights have improved tremendously in Turkey as young girls are aiming for higher professions and careers. There are many government-backed funds for girls living in poor areas that provide access to girls to have higher education. This means higher wages in the long run. It is vital for every nation to aim to educate women as they make up the backbone structure of family and society. All the efforts make us proud and give us hope for the future, but I just wish that girls with scarves would be allowed equal opportunity to study in universities.
Esra Karatash Alpay, Istanbul, Turkey
Recently my son spent three days in a village in a remote coastal area of Kenya. What he witnessed there astounded him. The men folk hardly do any work. They just spend their time in wasteful pursuits like chasing women and drinking mnazi, a brew made from coconut milk, while the women are left with the brunt a earning a living to feed the family and educate children. They do menial jobs like selling food stuff etc. When and how will these uneducated women learn about their rights?
M. Bashir Bharadia, Mombasa, Kenya
In my opinion, women's rights are very important but I'd also like to voice a concern on long term implications - the breakdown of families, delinquent children, economic inflation, unaffordable housing, double-income necessity, lagging standards of men's healthcare because all funds go to women's health, social pressure on women to "have it all". Women must have equal rights but societies must also understand and be prepared for the side effects.
Gavin, Bristol UK
What can a woman do in the office after constant harassment from a male boss who is the Chief Executive, especially when the CEO has no qualification and has an ego problem. This is very rampant in Nigeria, and many women are suffering in silence, including me.
Grace, Lagos, NIGERIA
I grew up in India and witnessed a huge movement in the rights of women. Now, many women are engineers, doctors and pursue higher education. However, there is still a deep gender bias concerning the conduct of women in the society. They are expected to run a household by a particular age and apply themselves to certain kinds of professions. These strongly rooted ideas in the fabric of the society make women timid and shy of truly expressing themselves. Ultimately, they want to fit in the social context. How does one change the continuity of a paradigm?
Monika Kochhar, New York, USA
Women don't want equality, they want special treatment. Claiming women are the backbone of society is discrimination against men. Why is it OK to say this?
Alex Busby, Bedlington, Northumberland
I grew up in India and witnessed a huge movement in the rights of women. Now, many women are engineers, doctors and pursue higher education. However, there is still a deep gender bias concerning the conduct of women in society. They are expected to run a household by a particular age and apply themselves to certain kinds of professions. These strongly rooted ideas in the fabric of the society make women timid and shy of truly expressing themselves. Ultimately, they want to fit in the social context. How does one change the continuity of a paradigm?
Monika Kochhar, New York, USA
The improvement of women's rights in the developing world is a mixed bag. While there is appreciable empowerment in a few countries, religious and traditional beliefs forestall women's rights in most developing countries. While most people maintain that advancement in education and democracy would accelerate the empowerment of women, I think, these are the necessary but not sufficient conditions. Until the strong cultural attachment is substantially reduced, the enhancement of the status of women in the developing world would be minimal.
Sigismond Wilson, Sierra Leonean in Michigan USA
What can the UN do to address this issue? Is it possible there can be a UN mandate that states the minimum equality women must have around the world?
Christopher Southerlin, Anchorage, AK
Women in the developing world have come a long way in achieving higher education, positions in governmental agencies and private sectors. However, there are tougher roads lying ahead.
Charles Obieze, Minnesota, USA
Women are the backbone of every society. Why are politicians dragging their feet on women's issues? In the 21st century we are all supposed to be enlightened and we should recognize that women have been treated very unfairly for centuries the world over. Women should no longer be discriminated against. They should be fully recognized for their talents and be given equal opportunities.
Pancha Chandra, Brussels, Belgium
I do not think it is so much women's roles that need to be addressed in terms of equality but how women are viewed in terms of media, health, rights and so on - we may have different roles and rights (in the west at least), however from a social stand point we are still victimised. As for world wide, well, have we really seen any difference when it comes to things such as genital mutilation, stoning for adultery, impact on communities when so often we see women left behind to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy and so very little done to acknowledge their voices. Let us not also forget, as women's rights are pushed men's rights are ignored, we do live in a culture in the west where men's issues are largely ignored, or often when discussing equality actually openly attacked as being anti-women. Women's right are women's rights, and equality cannot be achieved without focusing on human rights rather than purely women's rights, doing so keeps women as victims, men as the evil doers, which is negative for both sexes.
Marie-Louise, Newcastle, UK
Women's roles and positions are changing and the position improving, in my opinion, but not enough! my question for Mary Robinson is this. As someone who works with women's rights in Africa, it is so obvious to me that equality makes for better development, so why is so little development aid in Africa spent on achieving equality and why is it so difficult to persuade leaders and donors about the importance of empowering women?
Stella Maranga, Nairobi
Poverty is killing the women of Walewale, northern region of Ghana. I want to know from Mary Robinson, when will the Ethical Globalization Initiative get to my region and save the women? Men abuse them because they are the soul breadwinners of the family. The women are voiceless.
Robert Aziz, Walewale, Ghana
Women in Malaysia have no such problems, women do not get discriminated against, they have rights just like men, equally and differently in some way. Therefore, I see no reason to blame Islam for the mistreatment of Muslim women in the Arab world; what their men do to their women is their own custom, it is never Islamic to mistreat women.
Mohammed, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
One of the trends of globalisation is empowering women in the exercise of their rights. However, discrimination in the workplace is inevitable as chauvinism among men is still dominant. In my country, I believe that the rights of women are not recognised well because women themselves, especially those of the lower strata, don't even know that they have rights. We have a well-worded law, Violence Against Women and Children Law, which provide the best protection for women and children against any form of abuse and discrimination. Unfortunately, in our country, laws are only good in letters but no spirit at all. Better in my case for I have the opportunity to know these laws and as such I believe that I am empowered at par with the men.
Ruby Go, Cebu, Philippines
Men and women are equal but I think problems come when we try to make them the same. As long as women fight for equality, men will fight back. Men should take the leading role in advocating for women's rights, fellow men will listen.
Alex Mbewe, Blantyre, Malawi
How would Mary Robinson approach the conflict between the practices of a culture that make female children a financial liability and maintaining the traditions and values of a society? The effect of these practices being a disparity between the numbers of men and women in many countries.
Matt, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (ex. UK)
Can equality be achieved without asking for changes in attitude by men and toward men? I ask with particular regard to improving the status of fatherhood such that men feel able to truly prioritise this important part of their lives, setting the stage to remove obstacles to a good work-life balance for all workers, so that anyone of either sex can reach their full potential in both the office and the home.
Z E S, Los Angeles, USA
This is a millennium goal that the UN is not going to achieve. The state, the media, advertisers, the machismo attitudes of certain professions all go to destroying any hope of equality. Spend one day in the UK and look around you, everywhere you go women are treated as commodities and "eye candy". We constantly complain about the rights of women in the Arab world, and rightly so, but we should not forget that we here are also oppressed. They fight hard in the US, they need to. It's about time more of us did over here.
Jennifer Hynes, Plymouth, UK
Is it time to face that we in the West have no right to force another nation to change its laws and practices, no matter how distasteful? Our attempts to impose rights on people have only ever resulted in conflict and death.
Women and men should have the same opportunities but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that men and women are equal in all ways or that they should be. Men and women are obviously physically and emotionally different and to take equality to extremes is to de-emphasize what makes both sexes unique and complimentary. I for one appreciate women that are still feminine and men that are still masculine.
Allen, CA, America
How are women empowered by claiming they are victims of men?
Robert Getchell, USA
How do you see women's rights in Iran? Can women be released from the bondage of fanatic Muslim men who aggressively dominate that society?
Miss Aryandeh, Denmark
Mary Robinson actually came to speak at my university and was an inspiration. I wish the US could say that we had a former female president. Sadly I think that time is a long way off - money, tradition and 'who you know' still bind small minded thinking to US politics. Yet I am proud of the steps women are making all over the world everyday.
Shannon Dawkins, DC, USA
It worries me that, with the rise of China, western societies tend to overlook the human rights being desecrated in that nation. We hear in the news of China's threat to our way of life but what about the threat that nation presents its own people? Why isn't this addressed in greater detail and with greater concern on the part of the west?
Ronnie, Annapolis, MD, USA
In your experience as a lawyer, politician, and now working for the UN as High Commissioner for Human Rights, have you found that these fields are as male-dominated as they are made out to be? During your career have you come across obstacles because of your gender? And how have you managed to balance your incredible list of jobs with having a family of three?
Miriam Sherwood, London, England
Why should women be treated any differently to men? It seems women are being pushed to success over men in every walk of life. Do you really think this is fair considering the power most women have over the men in their lives anyway?
In some countries of sub-Saharan Africa genital mutilation is still practiced. Most of the world's people would be horrified by this practice. But how do you respond to the argument, based on cultural relativism, which says that one group has no right to impose their cultural values on another?
Tom Hunsberger, Canadian in Mexico
I come from India and I have seen that though the laws of the land are directed towards empowerment of women, there is a big gap between the existence of laws and implementation. Though great progress has been made, there are pockets where people including women are not ready to accept the changes.
Rahul Deshpande, Saarbrucken, Germany
For the last five years, the United Nations, international and local NGOs have committed themselves to resolving some of problems faced by refugee women in the world especially in developing countries in Africa. My question is; will the UN and NGOs put more effort towards preventing mass rapes occurring often among the refugee women? What are the UN and other concerned bodies immediate plans to stop such barbaric acts against refugee women in the world?
Peter Tuach, Minnesota, USA
With the growing demand for certain aspects of Sharia Law to be made available in the West for Muslim citizens (most notably of late in Canada), how much do you know about Sharia & what is your opinion of it, in terms of women's rights as they have been established in the west?
Ian Michie, Whitwick, England
As a man I'm getting a bit tired of being blamed for the perceived inequalities of society, most of which were eradicated decades ago. The facts are; Women live longer than men, suffer less serious illness, less likely to commit suicide, be unemployed or homeless, do better from education, the legal system and the welfare system, have more friends and even better sex lives. I really can't see what you have to complain about! Stop blaming men for your petty frustrations and count your blessings!
Matt Munro, Bristol, UK
Traditional beliefs is one issue that still militates against women especially in the developing world. In Nigeria, not much is being done is terms of women empowerment. Male children still get a lot of preference to female children.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA
To Mary Robinson: Ireland has had two female presidents, including yourself, and a female Tanaiste (deputy prime minister). How long do you think it will be before we have a female Taoiseach (prime minister)?
Jason Robinson, Dublin, Ireland.
It looks like women in Iraq may end up with less freedom as a result of western intervention and regime change in favour of a distorted democracy - less clout in court, fewer employment rights and opportunities. What is to be done about this?
As women's rights are men's rights as well, does it not promote sexism to speak as though one exists without the other?
Rob, NYC, USA