I’ve never really considered myself a feminist, in the traditional sense. I believe in equal rights across all spectra: gender, race, religion, hair type, skin tone, you name it. But I’d also like to think I live in a time [and place for that matter] where being a woman doesn’t translate into a constant struggle for that equality. But alas, (that word isn’t used enough – it’s got a dramatic yet poignant effect), we simply do not live under the utopian conditions that most of us naively assumed the 21st century was to deliver. Hell, I’m still waiting for my electro-laced pair of Nike’s and hover-converted DeLorean.

In a rather revealing Newsweek article published last month, the best – and worst – places to be a woman were outlined; where a rather thorough compilation of data was collected that spanned from how well women were treated within their justice systems to their participation in government. Five major factors were used when categorizing which countries in the world were optimal for women’s prosperity, and which were lacking: Justice, Health, Education, Economics and Politics. Each of these factors were graded on a scale of 1-100, and were evaluated  according to how well women fared when it came to these basic fundamental issues. Not surprising, primarily Westernized, progressive nations made it in the Top 20 where overall scores ranged from 100-85.

What was surprising, however, was The United States’ ranking: 8th overall in the world – something that most Americans might very well scoff at in disbelief. After all, this is the nation where the invention of the phrase “stay-at-home-dad” is considered a benchmark for judging how far the working mom has truly risen the corporate ladder. Sigh.

On the forefront of women’s prosperity in the international community with an outstanding overall rating of 100, was actually just a little fellow: Iceland. Piloted by a female president, this tiny nation leads all others in women’s rights, health, education, financial well-being and political clout. The US’s score is a good deal lower: 89.8 overall. Ouch. Our poorest grade was in women’s participation in government; arguably the foundation for which any improvement – and success – can be given a chance to be implemented into society.

As Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General once said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” So it seems that without this incorporation and participation of 50% of the world’s population, any growth – economic, societal or otherwise – is bound to be stunted.

I began to then take a look into where the worst places to be a woman were and again, sadly I wasn’t too surprised by what I found: the poorest, most democratically lacking countries took the top ranks. Chad climbed to the No. 1 podium position with an overall score of 0. Yes, you read that correctly. Zero. Health and education were rated as non-existent, as women have basically no legal rights. And this wasn’t the only place with remarkably dismal scores. Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Sudan where honor killings and arranged marriages are not only legal, but oftentimes condoned by the male-dominated governments filled the top 10 spots. At least they’re winning at something.

It seemed like the more I read about this, the more frustrating it was to realize that the underlying reasoning behind much of the world’s difficulties was the lack of vital, unobstructed female participation in absolutely every aspect of life: from active roles in passing legislation to the incorporation of women in the labor force as equal contenders for jobs, salaries, and the ability to climb the industry ladder. Without establishing the root for which fundamental change may have a chance to grow, no hope can be realistically garnered for any sort of development for women’s rights – in this country or any other.

We [The US] like to think we have it made over so many other places and admittedly, we certainly do have a lot to be proud of. There are private and governmental programs in place that support female-owned businesses, more women with college degrees than almost all other nations, and increased advancements in early breast cancer detection with new 3-D mammogram technology. But the US is still lacking severely in reproductive-health services, maternity-leave policies and the number of women holding political office (thanks Hillary, but we’re going to need a whole lot more assertive pant-suits to counteract the Sarah Palins/Michelle Bachmans that have effectively set back our gender another 30 years).

Still, women in other countries, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, have it a lot worse. While Egypt didn’t make the top 20 for worst places to live as a female, it certainly didn’t make any where near the top 20 best places either. With its growing political uncertainly – also echoed by many other Arab countries now in critical civil turmoil – there’s no telling where the future of women’s lib is heading. If Sharia law becomes incorporated more stringently into the daily lives of Egyptian citizens, (or any other Arab/Islamic country) this could substantially thwart any progress for women to make their mark in the growth of developing countries. As much as the US would like to believe that Egypt is the Mid-East pillar for democracy, its immensely flawed model obviously revealed an intensely corrupted system as evidenced by the ousted former President Mubarak. Amidst the already mighty reign of men in this and other Arab/Islamic societies, women oftentimes struggle to survive, let alone be heard – or even better: be participant.

Some people would argue that there are many things being done to promote the empowerment of women in business via microfinance programs: lending services that assist natives of impoverished countries. These programs claim to empower indigenous workers to grow their businesses usually based on the capitalist model, and many times use a particular emphasis on aiding women as their common-place tagline. Nevertheless, the impact that these programs have on women – or whole communities in general – have not been accurately measured, and therefore no concrete conclusions can be drawn regarding their effectiveness. It can be assumed however, that if women’s presence is not established in the governmental strata for which these programs are even permitted to be employed, any help derived from them would therefore have no fighting chance to exist.

This may sound bleak. And it is. Understanding where we are as a country, (and where everyone else is), is key in grasping how far we still have to go in the pursuit of women’s equality. But the answer is unquestionably clear: the establishment of women in government is the first and most critical step in moving forward toward progress in absolutely every way. While it is still very much a ‘boy’s club’, for any sort of international evolution to take place the female population must construct an assertive voice at the very base of our society – not just for the well-being of the gender, but for the overall advancement of our civilization.

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