10 Worst Countries in the World for Women

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right that no human being should suffer degrading, cruel or inhumane treatment. Yet this basic right is violated wherever there is gender disparity and women are not treated equally. Across the globe, outdated attitudes and religious dogma pertaining to women’s sexual and reproductive self-determination ensures that an unacceptable percentage of the world’s female population is still discriminated against.

In many cases, conflict disguises such concerns, with war and natural disasters often deflecting international attention from the plight of these women. Recent events, however, have raised awareness. The Arab Spring uprisings highlighted women’s rights in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. And recently, in December 2012, the world was shocked when a 23-year-old woman was brutally raped and tortured on a bus in Delhi, India and later died from her injuries.

Being subjected to this kind of abuse is bound to result in serious psychological trauma. What is more, studies have found that one in three women suffer from mental health issues. Yet even so, alarmingly, ingrained attitudes and discrimination frequently make it incredibly difficult for women in some cultures to seek help.

Read on for the 10 worst countries in the world for women. Be warned, however: you may find some of the content upsetting.

10. Nepal

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Over half a decade on from a 10-year civil war, Nepal has achieved a 33 percent female make-up of parliamentary seats. Notwithstanding, women’s freedom across the country remains poor. Despite their success, female politicians still believe that the country has deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes. While the recent war is said to have taken over 15,000 lives, inside that same period, 22,000 women died during childbirth.

In Nepal, early marriage is common and is often followed by multiple pregnancies to ensure a high number of male children – while unwanted daughters are sometimes trafficked. Gender discrimination is common, women lack access to education, and there are high levels of domestic violence.

A huge problem for women in Nepal is a lack of confidence. Organizations such as the Rural Women’s Network Nepal (RUWON Nepal) are trying to work with women at a grassroots level to improve their self-belief and life skills. Yet although peace has brought some change, and women and children are no longer forced to join guerrilla groups, there is still a long way to go.

9. Saudi Arabia

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There have been calls for reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a long time, especially where it concerns women’s rights. In 2009, The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia as one of the worst countries when it comes to gender equality. And while women take a good proportion of university places (as much as 70 percent), social attitudes restrict them to a maximum of five percent of the workforce.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society where honor and the separation of men and women are central tenets. Women of all ages are required to have male guardians, and houses even contain separate entrances for males and females. Furthermore, discriminatory rules have continued to be introduced in recent decades; for example, although a woman may be permitted to fly a plane, since 1990 it’s been illegal for women to drive themselves to the airport.

This being said, there are some encouraging signs as Saudi Arabia strives to present a better image to the West. In 2012, Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani made history as the first Saudi Arabian women to compete in the Olympics. And a new law passed in 2012 decreed that women be allowed to vote without male permission in 2015.

8. Pakistan

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Within months of the attack on Malala Yousafzai on October 9 2012, tens of thousands of people across the globe had signed a petition calling for her to be presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. The Taliban shot the 15-year-old schoolgirl in the head for her advocacy of female education in Pakistan. Treated in Britain, she has been described by Pakistan’s interior minister as a “symbol of courage and determination.” In 2008 alone, the Taliban annihilated over 150 schools to prohibit female education.

Pakistan is polarized when it comes to women’s rights. And in a country of systemic gender subordination, the attack on Malala Yousafzai reveals just one aspect of the problem. Why? Because in Pakistan, honor killings, forced marriages, the trafficking of women, rape and acid attacks are all disturbingly common. What’s more, it’s not just physical abuse: a United Nations study found that 90 percent of Pakistani women are verbally and mentally abused by men in their own families. This kind of treatment can eat away at women’s confidence and mental health and potentially lead to depression, suicide and substance abuse.

7. Afghanistan

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As Afghanistan emerges from yet more conflict, it’s clear the tribal and ethnic divides that have plagued the country are still present. The impact of prolonged conflict on the population’s mental health is significant. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders are all common, and families and communities have been devastated. Moreover, it’s women who continue to suffer the most.

Following their repression under the rule of the mujahideen and the Taliban, rates of literacy amongst Afghan women have only recently risen above 15 percent. As in neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban attacks schools to continue their campaign against female education. Arranged marriages are common, and a strong patriarchal society still allows a man to divorce his wife without even gaining her agreement. It’s only since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001 that women have been able to find their feet in the workforce once again.

The new democracy has sought to accelerate changes in women’s status. However, in a country where female mortality rates are some of the worst in the world and a woman’s average lifespan is just 44 years, there remains a great deal of work to be done.

6. China

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Human rights in China have long been a focus of international interest, but in recent years more attention has been paid to the undercurrent of women’s rights. Four decades of the government’s forced one-child policy has had an enormous effect on the country’s gender stability: it’s estimated that 40 million Chinese men lack a female partner.

The consequences can also be dire for one of China’s poorer neighbors. State support for families in North Korea has been reduced to virtually nothing. In a desperate attempt to make money, some women journey across the border, but even for those who are not captured, China can still be a dangerous place. Of the thousands of North Korean females who make their way into the country, it’s thought that 90 percent are trafficked as part of China’s large bridal black market, with some sold on to multiple husbands.

Those North Koreans who have escaped compare their treatment to that of livestock. And of course, because these people are refugees, there is little official support to deal with this growing problem.

5. Mali

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In Mali, the status of women remains a concern. Discrimination and violence is common, and it’s thought that female genital mutilation (FGM) has been performed on 95 percent of adult Malian women. As FGM is a difficult subject, there is a lack of knowledge about the mental and physical impact it can have, but it’s believed that increased pain during intercourse could lead to psychosexual problems.

In the country’s male-driven society, many women even have to ask their husbands whether they are allowed to leave the house. Recent reports have emerged that Islamic extremists in the country have started compiling lists of unmarried mothers, which has increased worries surrounding barbaric punishments like amputations, stonings and executions.

While women’s groups have been pushing for change for over a decade, attempts to increase rights have faltered. In November 2012, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson expressed concern about the plight of women in Mali, stating, “Despite being the primary victims of a combined security, political and humanitarian crisis, women remained excluded from the various bodies seeking a solution.”

4. Iraq

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Iraq is a country ravaged by conflict and sectarian divides. And despite the deposing of Saddam Hussein, almost a decade of transition, and the withdrawal of American troops, the country still finds itself divided – with women often bearing the brunt. A survey found that 19 percent of Iraqi women suffer from mental disorders as a result of living in a country racked by long-term turmoil. Moreover, treatment and facilities are scarce, and severe sufferers are hidden away at home to prevent neighbors from passing judgment.

Worryingly, it’s actually been said that since the fall of Saddam Hussein, women’s freedom has deteriorated. While 2003 saw the creation of NGOs like the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), the new government introduced Sharia law in 2004, which is one of many recent developments to have impacted on the lives of Iraqi women.

OWFI has sought to play a key role in protecting women and promoting women’s freedom by drawing attention to the rise in rapes, abductions and attacks on women, as well as the resurgence of honor crimes. But religion and sectarianism remain key factors affecting female struggles in Iraq. And the signs are evident on the streets of the country. Perhaps most obviously, since 2003, with pressure from Islamists, the number of women wearing veils has increased.

In an interview with the BBC, female doctor Lubna Naji said, “Women used to behave in a more liberal way under Saddam. And I hate to say that, because I hate Saddam so much, but women were freer under Saddam.”

3. India

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India is frequently cited as one of the world’s fastest growing economies. However, recent events have drawn public attention to a different issue: the plight of women in the world’s largest democracy. The news of the brutal December 2012 bus attack in Delhi, which left a 23-year-old Indian student dead, shook the world and prompted mass protests in Delhi – where a woman is raped every 14 hours. As authorities seek to make quick changes in response to the protests, Indian women believe that a deep-seated cultural shift is required to solve an age-old problem.

A 2012 poll by the Thompson Reuters Foundation found that discrimination against women was worse in India than in any other G20 nation. The situation is particularly acute in the country’s northern plains, where deeply rooted mindsets reinforce women’s perceived inferiority.

Domestic violence in India is also said to be endemic, and scientific studies have proven that this can lead to poor mental health. The psychological wellbeing of Indian women is a huge concern, especially when cultural attitudes make it difficult for them to seek help.

2. Somalia

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In November 2012, Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan became Somalia’s first female foreign minister. Somalia is described as one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman, and the significance of Adan’s appointment was not lost on her. “It turns a new page for the political situation of our country,” she said. And when it comes to women’s rights, Somalia is desperately in need of a new page. In 2011, Thomson Reuters Foundation Service TrustLaw found that access to education for women was rare, while domestic violence against them was commonplace. In addition, the study found that 95 percent of Somali girls experience female genital mutilation.

The areas controlled by Islamist militants al-Shabaab are said to be particularly bad. Famines have forced an increasing number of families to head to the capital Mogadishu, only to then live in camps where rape at the hands of armed bandits is a common occurrence.

In spite of this, international support still focuses on food supply and security, and at present it’s up to Somali-led word-of-mouth organizations to provide support and counseling wherever they can. Adding to the problem, poor mental health is regarded as taboo among Somalis, and sufferers are seen as weak and a shame on the family.

1. Democratic Republic of Congo

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is often dubbed the “rape capital of the world.” A UN report indicated that in 2009, more than 8,000 women were raped in the country. And almost 10 years on from the Second Congo War, violence remains an everyday occurrence in the DRC, with rape still effectively used as weapon of war.

The effects of rape on a woman’s mental health can be far-reaching. Jimmie Briggs, a journalist who spoke to women in a DRC refugee camp, found that many of them didn’t associate their sadness with depression or post-traumatic stress. Many were also scared to tell their stories, as they were worried about shaming their families. In any case, mental health care is seen as a low priority by the government, and facilities are few and far between. The UN has attempted to assist by providing escorts for women and developing early warning systems, but the situation remains dire.

The country’s women say they are treated as second-class citizens. They are given little opportunity to enter politics and are often subjected to forced marriages as teenagers, which limits their educational options. While some of Congo’s NGOs have made improvements and expanded the educational opportunities for women, other organizations have highlighted the fact that the police and local authorities are often the most culpable when it comes to enforcing arranged marriages. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once described the sexual violence in the Congo as “humanity at its worst.”