Evaluate the claim that equality of opportunity for females is a desirable but unrealistic view. (2016 A Levels Paper 1, QN 9)

In late 2017, globally acclaimed magazine National Geographic ran a cover story on the achievements of Jane Goodall, the highly respected primatologist who pioneered transformative and critically insightful research into the study of chimpanzees and their social capabilities, which are so akin to human societies. National Geographic, in recognising Goodall’s achievements, noted how she had to struggle in the early years of her career from the 1970s to 1990s to overcome the obstacles to her work imposed by a male-dominated work-culture and environment. In reviewing her story, many readers recognised and acknowledged how Jane Goodall’s journey from the margins of the scientific community to becoming one of the brightest stars in today’s constellation of research celebrities signifies that equality of opportunity for women today is increasingly possible. Despite the scepticism and queries posed by those who doubt the reality of equality for women, many of us will agree with the hope symbolised by the Jane Goodall narrative. Women today are increasingly gaining opportunities to excel in diverse fields, providing a much needed motive force to humanity in our march towards economic and social progress.

A common doubt expressed by the pessimistic regarding female empowerment finds its rationale in the continued denial of educational opportunities for women in the impoverished regions of the developing world. The dominant perspective for this narrative is found, so the skeptics assert, in diverse countries where patriarchal traditions and practices present obstacles to education for young girls and women. The usual list of countries where such practices take place would include India, Nepal and Bangladesh where unfortunately, male children are often preferred over female children. In these societies, the former are deemed as being of greater economic and social worth by parents in conservative rural regions and communities, leaving the latter – female children – to be deprived of educational opportunities when poverty and scarce monetary resources compel parents to exclude female children from obtaining even basic literacy or primary school education. Indeed, given this bleak picture, it is difficult for us to deny the skeptics of female empowerment: the shackles of female social imprisonment, lent rigor by the twin forces of poverty and discriminatory traditions, may indeed prove impossible to overcome.

However, this narrative ignores the positive and transformative power of social activism in our globalised world today, which equips all societies with the means and – more critically – motivation to realistically facilitate equality of opportunity for women. This highly desirable outcome has been given impetus in recent years through the tireless efforts of diverse social organisations and activist movements, all united in their common aspiration to create and sustain the conditions and platforms needed to provide social and economic opportunities to women that were previously denied to them. The most notable of these champions for female empowerment would be micro- lending organisation, Grameen Bank, which pioneered the practice of micro-financing in the early 2000s for impoverished young women and farmers in Bangladesh, enabling a generation of women to find opportunities as entrepreneurs in their rural communities and acquire the financial resources necessary to send their children, both boys and girls, to schools. Micro-financing has since become a viable platform for poverty alleviation and the provision of education for young girls and women in diverse communities in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, supported by aid groups such as Oxfam and international organisations such as the United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF). Thus the granting of opportunities for females is a distinct possibility rather than a lost cause, given the hopeful and inspirational work done by these groups.

Nevertheless, the escalating cycles of war and violence which have begun in the mid-2000ss and metastasised in the 2010s lend fuel to the fires of pessimism for many today. As a result, many of us may feel despair and believe that the laudable goal of equality of opportunities for women is more remote than ever before in human history. This pessimism is understandable, given how war and conflict irreversibly destroys the societies and stable social conditions which all people – but women especially – require for a peaceful and fulfilling life. Thus, we feel sympathy and – for the sensitive – acute emotional distress for the women and girls displaced by violent war and conflict in diverse conflict zones ranging from Marawi in the Philippines to Homs in Syria and the ongoing high- intensity government-drug cartel battles in the Juarez region of Mexico. The absence of peace has regrettably, in all these instances, prevented or at the very least, delayed the prospects for women and girls to fulfil their aspirations for education, work or even the basic right to life.

Yet, there is hope and a more optimistic landscape of social change and empowerment we can look to if we review the issue from a more pro-active perspective. The opportunities for females can paradoxically find life and resurgence in conflict zones once the conflict has ended or more realistically, been reduced to manageable levels through intervention and sustained engagement by the affected people and the wider international community. This trend is best observed in societies undergoing rebuilding and reconstruction today, such as Rwanda and Afghanistan. For the women in the former country, a generation of conscientious rebuilding since the genocide of 1993-1994 has enabled the government to provide more opportunities for female workplace participation and economic rejuvenation. Similarly for Afghanistan, concerted efforts by the government and United Nations peace-keeping forces dedicated to reconstruction have provided a fair degree of stability for women to participate more fully in economic and social life today then when the country was held by the Taliban regime. More notably, the participation of Afghani women athletes, such as its celebrated women’s boxing team, lends hope to the ideal of empowerment and equality of opportunity for women.

Thus, while the tendency to feel despair for women’s prospects may exist in us, given the social and political realities we live in, we can direct our sights and efforts towards a more uplifting understanding of the world today. International efforts, alongside the innate fortitude of women which gifts them with the power to rise above their difficult circumstances, enjoins us to feel cautious optimism for equality of opportunities for women today. Going forward, it will be imperative that we collectively direct these efforts with greater commitment to the provision of opportunities for women. In doing so, we will have taken additional steps, initiated by the likes of Jane Goodall, Grameen Bank and the Afghani women boxers, to pave the road of well-being and dignity for all women today and in the future.

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