Women and free speech

When looking at freedom of expression globally, it is important to look at how access to it is limited — and who is being shut out. A global deficiency in gender equality goes hand in hand with a lack of free expression, as spelled out through trends in political representation, education, and political participation. A lack of freedom of expression is particularly illustrated in the disparity in literacy rates for women vs. men, as well as representation in national bodies.

Of the world’s estimated 796 million illiterate adults, 64 per cent are women — restricting access to information, education, and public debates taking place online or in newspapers. Women experience a much higher rate of illiteracy — as seen in India, where one in two women are illiterate versus a rate of one in four men.

Women only make up 20% of all national parliaments worldwide, meaning that they only account for 9,206 of 46,048 elected seats. Without representation in national bodies, women are being kept out of wider discussions on social, economic, and political issues. Even in developed nations, representation for women is a major problem. Women in the UK, for example, only hold 145 of the 650 seats in Parliament. With fewer women in decision-making roles across the board, there must be a discussion on how to promote and ensure free expression for all women.

While many well-established international initiatives exist to tackle gender inequality, many do not explicitly protect freedom of expression. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example, places importance on political participation, human rights and education for women. CEDAW, first ratified in 1979, has been ratified by 187 out of 193 countries worldwide, but it does not include direct support for free expression for women as a key right.

It is vital that countries actually implement key international measures to promote gender equality — including CEDAW — rather than merely paying lip service to such commitments. In addition, it would be a huge step forward if international bodies and declarations commit states directly to ensuring equal and full access to free expression for all women.

Sara Yasin is editorial assistant at Index on Censorship