The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 is a historical milestone. Anyone who has read the opening sentence of this document’s Article 1 that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, in any version of over 500 languages it is published in, considers all human beings equal.
As if the opening statement were not enough, among other explanations, Article 25 states, ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’
The declaration covers rights to freedom of opinion and expression, religion, marriage (which also implies reproduction), possession of property, governing by equal and universal suffrage, equal pay for equal work, parental prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. Do all these not make people equal? No.
These declarations and provisions are in paper. In practice, things are different.
The world treats people differently based on sex and it starts as soon as the gender of the fetus can be identified. Synthesizing birth data from 1970 to 2017, from 202 countries and regions, and using a modelling method to fill gaps in countries with poor statistics, Fengqing Chao of the National University of Singapore and her colleagues report—in the 2019 April 15 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—excess male births in some years in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), Georgia, India, South Korea, Montenegro, Tunisia and Vietnam. The reasons were valuing sons over daughters and thus selectively aborting female fetuses. As a result, at least 23 million girls went missing before birth.
In a 2020 statement, UNICEF acknowledges almost one-third of countries have not reached gender parity (defined as having a GPI value between 0.97 and 1.03) in primary education enrolment. In Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, girls are more likely to be disadvantaged than boys. In Chad and Pakistan, for example, the GPI value is 0.78 and 0.84 respectively, meaning that 78 girls in Chad and 84 girls in Pakistan are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys. The situation is no better in higher education.
Gender imparity in income is also reflected in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020: the global average income of a woman is about $11,000 (in Purchasing Power Parity) while that of a man is $21,000. Citing OECD data from 2010-2019, the World Economic Forum says the differential in men’s median income and women’s median income is about 13.5 percent. The gap is wider in non-OECD countries.
Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2020 report shows that the proportion of women in senior management roles globally reached the highest of 29 percent in 2019. It is not that women’s share in managerial leadership is any better in developed countries. The same report shows the percentage of women in senior management was 38 in Africa, 35 in East Europe, 33 in Latin America, 30 in the European Union, 29 in North America, and 27 in the Asia Pacific.
Life expectancies are different for babies born in different places. It is 85 years for one born in Japan, 70 years in Nepal, and 52 years in Afghanistan. It is not that all babies in a country or a region are born equal either. Take Fresno city in California, for example. In a southwest ZIP code of Fresno, life expectancy is 69 years. Six miles away, in a northern ZIP code of Fresno, life expectancy is 90 years.
Status of one’s language makes a significant impact on the economic performance of the speaker. In 2011, Tarun Jain of Indian School of Business—using the 1956 reorganization of Indian states on linguistic lines as a natural experiment to estimate the impact of speaking the majority language on educational and occupational outcomes— concluded that districts that spoke the majority language of the state during colonial times enjoy persistent economic benefits, as evidenced by higher educational achievement and employment in communication-intensive sectors. Such a scenario is self-evident when one applies for jobs in international institutions, national bodies or other attractive areas, which eventually leads to income gaps.
Race matters, too. A 2016 UN Report on the World Social Situation shows, in a majority of countries where data were available, the share of ethnic and racial minority workers in skilled—managerial, professional and technical—occupations is lower than that of workers in the majority or dominant ethnic group. Similarly, people living in rural, remote areas characterized by poor infrastructure and little access to off-farm work had poor job opportunities.
In countries like Nepal many elementary school-level brilliant students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are lost on the way to higher education while poorly performing ones from well-off families are able to get higher education and take leadership positions in politics, influential institutions and business firms. More often than not, the ones from affluent and influential families and society find it easier to get established as celebrities.
Media report in positive light minute details of those born with silver spoons in their mouth. The poor are also reported, but it is done just to make the news sellable. Multinational companies make every penny of their profit by overcharging poor consumers and try to create an altruistic and philanthropic image by selectively supporting some advertizable persons and projects here and there with a fraction of their profits.
In short, there has been much talk about creation of an equitable society but implementation is weak. At present nowhere on earth are people born equal and treated equally. Better drop the insincere slogan of equality and practice an honest principle of doing no harm to fellow humans.
The author is a professor of pharmacy at Tribhuvan University