“You love your country, as I do mine.” Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf placed her hand on mine as she uttered the words and the irony of it all wasn’t lost on me. She was the first woman in modern African history to become a head of state, succeeding a brutal dictator and a 14-year civil war. Belinda Stronach had asked me to join the two of them for dinner in Ottawa and it was clear from the outset that Sirleaf was an exceptional human being. I was shocked to discover that her son had attended in school in St. Thomas, Ontario.

So I was deeply pleased this past week when she, along with two other remarkable women, received the distinguished Nobel Peace Prize. Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Ghana, and Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, who had the double honour of being the youngest laureate and the first Arab women to do so, both shared the spotlight with Sirleaf.

A number of writers celebrated the occasion by commenting that the elevation of these three distinguished women to laureate status is a sign of the growing influence of women worldwide. Perhaps. But consider the following information.

  • Women own only 1% of the world’s land
  • In 76 countries, less than 50% of eligible girls are enrolled in secondary school
  • Over half a million women die in childbirth every year in Africa and Asia
  • The World Health Organization reports that 40% of girls aged 17 or under in South Africa are reported to have been the victim of rape or attempted rape
  • Only a small number of countries do not require women to be paid some form of maternity leave, including Australia and the United States. Struggling countries such as Colombia, Russia, Laos and Morocco have their governments carry the entire bill for 3-6 months of maternity leave.
  • 80% of the 50 million people around the world who are affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disaster, and displacement are women and children
  • Nearly 4 million women go missing each year in developing countries
  • Women account for almost 60% of unpaid employment globally
  • Globally, 1/6 of girls die in early childhood
  • Globally, over 1/3 of women die in their reproductive years
  • Women are responsible for 80% of all house care and work

Indeed there have been advancements for women’s possibilities worldwide, most especially in the field of education. In the developing world, more girls than boys are now attending secondary school.

But overall it’s still not all that positive. Figures released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), reveal that a women still dies every minute from complications due to pregnancy or childbirth. Of all the Millennium Development Goals (developed as a global approach to reduce worldwide poverty), efforts to reduce maternal death have made the least progress of all. Half of the people living with AIDS are women, and in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60% of those living with HIV.

In an area of my own personal interest – peace and security – of the 10 major peace processes of the past decade, on average, only 6% of negotiators and 3% of signatories were women – all this despite three major Security Council resolutions in the past 10 years that mandated greater women’s participation in such initiatives.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our charitable efforts at aid and development are turning the corner for women globally. There have been certain advances, to be sure, but with the trend for affluent nations cutting back on development dollars, it is more than possible that any gains might be lost due to a lack of international investment in the state of women.

It is a clear tragedy that just as the affluent nations began jumping on the bandwagon in their understanding and investment in women’s rights and economic progress, the global financial downturn now has the clear capacity to undermine the gains made in women’s programs.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has quoted repeatedly, “Women hold up half the sky.” Indeed. Sadly, we are now living in an age where the affluent West can’t even hold up to half of its commitments. It’s a good thing that millennia of trial and sacrifice have provided the world’s women with patience above measure; it appears as though they will require it for some time yet until equity is achieved.