Skip to content

UN Women releases first report: Progress of the World’s Women

The newly created organization within the UN, UN Women, led by former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, (Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director) dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women which was  established to accelerate progress on meeting the rights of girls and women worldwide, has released their first report yesterday, Progress of the World’s Women.

The report can be downloaded here (link goes to PDF file) and the facts sheets (also in PDF format) are available here.

In the interest of brevity for this post (and you will notice that brevity has not been achieved given the amount of data I went through), I have specifically gone through the fact sheets and not focused on the overall report. I might collate the data in the report itself (which deals with specific cases and studies in each region) for a future post.

Now, a couple of observations: to start with, I am particularly upset that the rights and issues specific to trans* folks are nowhere mentioned in these reports. Not even once. I suspect this is because the UN, in its need for consensus among member States, sometimes invisibilizes certain issues so as not to irritate the governments of those countries who are adamant about recognizing the need for work/ improvement/ change in certain areas (or even acknowledge the mere existence of certain issues). Still, a global report about the state of gender equality and women’s rights that doesn’t address the gross inequalities and discriminations faced by trans* folks is an incomplete one. The same applies to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer folks. Not mentioned at all in these reports.

And second, I’d like to invite readers to see through this data with a critical eye, if anything because I believe that it does away with the notions usually portrayed in mass media of certain areas of the world (namely, those in the Global South) depicted purely as backwards, oppressive regions where nothing good ever comes out. If anything, I think this report does a good job at showing that inequalities and injustices are a global problem and that each region faces a unique set of issues, defined by their socio-political and cultural realities. However, no region in the world is without serious troubles.

From the global fact sheet:

  • Women all over the world are less willing to report sexual violence than robbery, Progress found. Across 57 countries, on average 10 percent of women said they had been sexually assaulted, but only 11 percent reported it. This compares to similar incidence of robbery, on average 8 percent, but a reporting rate of 38 percent.
  • Globally, there are high levels of attrition, where cases drop out of the ‘justice chain’ – all the steps between a crime being committed and the offender being convicted. A 2009 study of European countries found that, on average 14 percent of reported rapes ended in conviction, with rates falling as low as 5 percent in some countries. In South Africa, research found that only around 1 in 6 reported rapes reached court, and just 6 percent ended in a conviction.
  • Globally, women average 27 percent of judges and 26 percent of prosecution staff. In a review of 84 supreme, constitutional and regional courts, women are on average 23 percent of justices and are Chief Justices in 12 courts. Serbia has the highest proportion of women judges in supreme courts, at 67 percent.
  • Globally, data from 40 countries show that where women are present in the police, reporting of sexual assault increases. But, on average only around 1 in 10 police officers in the world is a woman. Developed countries and sub-Saharan Africa have the largest proportion of women police officers, with 13 and 12 percent respectively. The Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia have the lowest proportions of women police, at 2 and 3 percent respectively.


  • Despite the fact that globally at least 117 countries have equal pay laws, on average women are still paid 10 to 30 percent less than men across all regions and sectors.
  • Several studies have linked the gender pay gap with women’s caring responsibilities. In a study of 15 developed countries, where men did more housework, the gender pay gap was smaller.
  • Based on prevalence surveys from 20 countries in Europe, between 8 and 35 percent of women have experienced physical violence, and between 3 and 11 percent have been targeted for sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • In surveys in 18 countries in Europe, on average 19 percent of women and men agreed that it is sometimes justifiable for a man to beat his wife.
  • A 2009 study of European countries found that, on average, 14 percent of reported rapes ended in conviction, with rates falling as low as 5 percent in some countries.
  • In the United Kingdom, defendants in rape trials were until 1999 allowed to use evidence of a woman’s sexual history, which could be used to call into question a woman’s credibility as a witness. The ‘rape shield’ law, introduced in 1999, banned courts from using this evidence, but two years later the House of Lords overturned this law, allowing judges to once again use their discretion.

North America

  • The gender pay gap is 23 percent in the USA and 28 percent in Canada. In the USA, the pay gap was larger for African American and Latina women, who were paid on average 39 and 48 percent less than white men, respectively.
  • USA federal employment law obliges employers to offer mandatory maternity leave, but it is the only developed country that does not specify that this leave must be paid. The USA is one of only a few developed countries that do not oblige employers to offer paternity leave, which is proven to help encourage a more equitable division of childcare responsibilities.
  • Between 1997 and 2010 the proportion of women in the US Congress increased from 11 percent to 17 percent, and a third of ministerial positions are held by women – almost double the world average.
  • Prevalence surveys in the USA show that 22 percent of women have experienced physical violence, and 8 percent have been targeted for sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • In the USA, 16 percent of women and men agree that it is sometimes justifiable for a man to beat his wife. In Canada, this figure is 6 percent.
  • Evidence shows that jurors in the USA are especially likely to question the credibility of African American and Latina female witnesses in rape cases.
  • Representation in the police is 12 percent in the USA. However, Canada exceeds the regional average, with 18 percent of women in the police.
  • The USA has among the highest rates of women in prison in the world, with nearly 200,000 women currently incarcerated.

Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Six countries in the region have reached or exceeded the 30 percent critical mass mark for women’s representation in parliament: Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador and Guyana.
  • There are currently four women serving as elected Heads of State or Government in the region, in Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Women’s labour force participation in Latin America and Caribbean is 53 percent, but in common with all regions, the gender pay gap means that in some countries women are paid up to 40 percent less than men.
  • In Ecuador, indigenous women were successful in ensuring that their right to participate in indigenous governance and justice systems is enshrined in the 2008 Constitution. In the highlands around Cotacachi, women have developed ‘Regulations for Good Living’ (Reglamentos de Buena Convivencia), which draw on indigenous justice principles to address issues of family violence and improve women’s access to justice.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, 97 percent of countries have laws on domestic violence. However, fewer than half of countries explicitly outlaw marital rape.
  • Surveys in seven countries in the region found that on average 85 percent of respondents said that it is never justifiable for a man to beat his wife. (Editor’s note: I invite you to contrast this figure with the general global figures and contextualize it with media depictions of Latin American culture and machismo).
  • Crime surveys in Costa Rica, Paraguay and Peru show that up to 20 percent of women experience sexual assault, but few or no women report it to the police.
  • In some parts of Latin America, indigenous women, who face triple discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender and poverty, do not speak the majority languages (Spanish or Portuguese), and provision for translation in the justice system is typically limited or non-existent.
  • Brazil opened its first women’s police station in 1985, in Sao Paulo. Today there are 450 women’s police stations throughout the country. They have helped raise awareness and have increased reporting of violence against women. (Editors Note: I wrote about this here at Tiger Beatdown, if you are interested in more background info).


  • Nepal’s 2007 Interim Constitution ruled that women must be at least 33 percent of candidates in parliamentary elections. As a result, it is currently the only country in the region that has reached the 30 percent critical mass mark for women in parliament.
  • Women account for nearly two thirds of Sri Lanka’s one million international migrants, many of whom are employed in the Gulf States as domestic workers. Together, these women contribute $1.7 billion annually in remittances to the economy of Sri Lanka.
  • Based on prevalence surveys in some countries in the region, nearly half of women have experienced physical and sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
  • According to surveys in seven countries in the region, on average a third of respondents say that it is sometimes acceptable for a man to beat his wife, including over half of respondents in Malaysia and nearly two thirds in Thailand.
  • There are 19 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region that have passed laws to prohibit domestic violence.
  • Research by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that in almost every case investigated, rape victims had themselves been charged with adultery.
  • A quarter of judges and around a fifth of prosecution staff in East Asia and the Pacific are women. But South Asia lags behind, with women making up just 9 percent of judges and 4 percent of prosecution staff.
  • The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) runs the largest NGO- led human rights and legal education programme in the world, and has reached 3.5 million women.

Middle East and North Africa

  • Tunisia was one of the first countries in the region to take steps to eliminate early marriage, setting a minimum age of marriage in 1956. In 1960, nearly half of Tunisian women were married before the age of 20 years, but by 2004, only 3 percent of girls between 15 and 19 years were married, divorced or widowed.
  • While women do not enjoy fully equal citizenship or nationality rights in any country in the region, since 2002, Egypt, Libya and Morocco have introduced reforms to give women greater rights to transmit citizenship to children, while Algeria, Iraq, Qatar and Tunisia have taken steps to amend laws that discriminate against women in relation to passing citizenship to both children and spouses.
  • Four countries—Algeria, Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia—outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace, protecting women’s rights in this sphere.
  • While overall women’s representation in parliaments in the region remains low, averaging 10 percent, some countries have made very large gains. Since 1997, there has been a six-fold increase in the number of women parliamentarians in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, albeit from a low base. Women’s share of seats has increased from 6 percent to 25 percent in Iraq over this period. All four countries have used quotas to boost women’s representation.
  • Women have been at the forefront of the Arab Spring campaigns for democracy, demanding a say in how their countries’ futures are shaped. In Tunisia, women’s rights activists have secured a commitment that the new parliament will include a 50:50 quota for women’s representation.
  • Prevalence surveys in the region indicate that 33 percent, 21 percent and 6 percent of women in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco respectively have experienced physical violence in their lifetime.
  • In Morocco, a survey found that 33 percent of respondents agreed that it is sometimes justifiable for a man to beat his wife. The figure for Jordan was 13 percent. Data show that where there are laws on domestic violence, prevalence is lower and fewer people think it is acceptable.
  • On average, women make up a quarter of judges and prosecution staff in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • In implementing the Moudawana (the Moroccan family code), the Moroccan Government created family sections within the district courts, each employing a female social worker, and a programme of training for family court judges. While distrust of the police remains a problem, women are much more willing to approach the new family courts.

Sub Saharan Africa

  • In Rwanda, 51 percent of parliamentarians are women – the highest level of women’s representation in the world.
  • Globally, 28 countries have reached or exceeded the 30 percent mark for women’s representation in politics. Eight of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. All have used quotas to boost women’s representation. Of these eight, six have emerged from conflict in recent decades.
  • As a result of legal reform, today women have equal rights to pass citizenship to children in more than 80 percent of countries in Africa. But women have the right to pass their citizenship to foreign-born spouses in fewer than half of the countries in Africa.
  • Based on prevalence surveys from 17 countries in the region, in some countries half or more women have experienced physical and sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • More citizens in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region believe that domestic abuse is acceptable. In surveys in seven countries, on average, 47 percent of women and men respondents agreed that it is sometimes or always justifiable for a man to beat his wife.
  • 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have laws that prohibit domestic violence. Burundi, Cape Verde, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe have specific laws that outlaw rape within marriage.
  • In Lesotho, the law on violence against women specifies that women must be provided with post-rape health care free of charge.
  • UN Women supported an initiative in Burundi to incorporate women into the Bashingantahe (traditional elders responsible for resolving community conflicts). Women now make up 40 percent of committee members and Bashingantahe leaders have become key allies in the campaign for women’s inheritance rights.
  • South Africa has created Thuthuzela (meaning ‘comfort’ in Xhosa) Care Centres, to support sexual assault victims, improve conviction rates and reduce delays in legal proceedings. They are staffed 24 hours a day by specialist medical staff, social workers and police, and they deal with around 20 percent of all victims of sexual offenses in South Africa. The Thuthuzela Care Centres in Soweto has seen conviction rates reach up to 89 percent, compared to a national average of 7 percent.


  1. Stella wrote:

    Thank you for putting this together.

    Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. samanthab wrote:

    Thanks! This is SO interesting, the different ways women are allowed to advance and then held back.

    Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  3. Rex wrote:

    Thankyou for summarising the report. Why doesn’t the UN report on the gender-selective abortions and gender selective infanticide of millions of females across India and Asia?

    Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  4. samanthab wrote:

    Rex, it’s in there, although they address only the numbers for gender selection and not the mechanisms:

    Friday, July 8, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  5. tree wrote:

    thanks so much for doing this.

    i’m surprised there’s no information on australia or new zealand. i would have expected there to at least be something about indigenous australian and maori women. but there’s none that i could find.

    Friday, July 8, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  6. The Captain wrote:

    Thank you for this post. A very useful summary!

    I agree that the lack of acknowledgement for transpeople in this report is troubling–it’s such a shame that “Women” is so often used as shorthand for “cisgendered, heterosexual women”. I can see why they did it, but I can’t help thinking that ignoring these issues does more harm than good.

    Saturday, July 9, 2011 at 5:08 am | Permalink