Suffrage In Silence?


Although some women in Britain were given the vote in 1918, it was not until 1928 that they got full voting rights. What is less well known is that it was New Zealand that was far more enlightened when it came to enfranchising women. With the signing of the Electoral Bill by Governor Lord Glasgow, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant national voting rights to women on September 19th 1893. The bill was the outcome of years of suffragette meetings in towns and cities across the country, with women often traveling considerable distances to hear lectures and speeches, pass resolutions, and sign petitions. New Zealand women first went to the polls in the national elections in November of that year. In fact a contestant for being the first nation to grant women a right to vote could be Sweden, where conditional woman suffrage was granted during the age of liberty (1718 – 1771) to taxpaying women listed in their guilds as professionals. As the so-called ‘Mother of Democracy’ it was an embarrassment to the British government that women in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland and Denmark had given women the right to vote well before the end of the First World War.

Women’s rights around the world are an important indicator to understand global well-being. Despite many successes in empowering women, numerous issues still exist in all areas of life, ranging from the cultural, political to the economic. For example, women often work more than men yet are paid less; gender discrimination affects girls and women throughout their lifetime; and women and girls are often are the ones that suffer the most poverty.

Many may think that women’s rights are only an issue in countries where religion is law, such as many Muslim countries. Or even worse, some may think this is no longer an issue at all. A major global women’s rights treaty was ratified by the majority of the world’s nations a few decades ago. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into force in 1981 when it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Of the 187 countries that have ratified the Convention about 44 still will not implement the treaty in full – essentially refusing to give women full equality with men on political, constitutional, cultural or religious grounds. Those expressing "reservations" and "objections" to some of the Articles in the Convention include Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. In 2014, those who have not even ratified CEDAW are Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Tonga and the United States.

Gender equality furthers the cause of child survival and development for all of society, so the importance of women’s rights and gender equality should not be underestimated. On this day, the anniversary of this important milestone in votes for women, we should not assume that the question of gender equality has been solved nor that the fight for women’s rights is over.

Ray Henshaw