Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The growing backlash against women’s rights

Around the world, women have been taking bold steps in the pursuit of gender equality – resulting in remarkable gains for women’s rights in recent years. At the community-level, women’s organizations have led conversations, campaigns and projects that have produced dramatic shifts in the attitudes and behaviours toward women and girls. These movements are also having an important impact at the country-level:

  • Last August, Somalia adopted a new constitution banning female genital mutilation calling it a “cruel and degrading customary practice” that is “tantamount to torture”.
  • In October 2012, the Botswana High Court declared women legally entitled to inherit property, overturning a customary law that placed male relatives first in line for inheritance.
  • Last month, the Government of India put forward new guidelines to regulate the sale of acid, limiting its availability in an effort to reduce the number of attacks on women.

And while we are still buzzing from the exposure women’s rights have been receiving globally over the past year, it is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot yet take these gains for granted. Along with the progress for women’s rights, we have also witnessed a growing backlash from religious and cultural fundamentalism. Around the world, we are being reminded that we must continue to hold our ground for women’s rights and ensure that the gains we have worked so hard to achieve are not lost for future generations.

In Afghanistan, women’s legal rights are quickly unraveling in the face of rising religious fundamentalism

For more than a decade, women’s legal rights have been a priority for women’s organizations in Afghanistan. With the support of international governments and organizations, oppressive laws have been dismantled and replaced with ones developed by women for women. A massive catalyst for the creation of these laws, the 2005 national elections saw a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved for women. Suddenly, female MPs were in a position where they could bring about impressive legal gains for women.

All that is changing as US and NATO troops prepare to withdraw in 2014. The legal gains women have fought so hard for now face a rising backlash from religious groups who have started closing in on women’s rights. Last month, a local religious council released a fatwa banning women from leaving their homes without a male companion, barring them from clinics without a male escort, and requiring them to adhere to an undefined “strict dress code”. But perhaps most frightening was the national assembly’s removal of the reserved parliamentary seats for women. Consequently, today laws that protect women from violence, such as ones that set clear penalties for rape and child marriage, sit stagnant in parliament, unable to get the approval required to stand the test of time.

In Papua New Guinea, women’s rights activists are being accused of witchcraft to justify violent attacks

In Papua New Guinea gender-based violence has been a rampant problem for years but local women’s organizations have been successfully working to change this reality. Through projects aimed at education, economic empowerment, and the political participation of women, these organizations have made important gains for women’s rights.

But this progress has recently been overshadowed by a dramatic rise in the number of attacks against women, attacks that are grounded in long-standing cultural beliefs in witchcraft. Often used as a pretext to commit violence against women, these attacks have begun to target local women’s rights activists. This past April, Helen Rumabli, leader of the South Bougainville Women’s Federation, was abducted along with her sister and two nieces after being accused of using black magic to kill another villager. Given no access to justice and tortured for several days, Rumabli was finally beheaded by her attackers in front of her community.

In Egypt, brutal and frequent sexual assaults aim to undermine women’s political rights

In recent years, women have been at the helm of political protests in the Middle East, toppling oppressive regimes and opening up new possibilities for women and girls in the region. Women have fought hard for the right to participate in local and national politics, with many local women’s organizations leading the way – demanding quotas for the political representation of women and offering educational and training workshops to potential female leaders.

However, women’s participation in the political protests in Egypt have been met with extreme acts of violence. As of July, over 100 cases of sexual assault have been reported since the overthrow of President Morsi by the Egyptian military. Many believe these attacks are carried out to deter women from protesting. To make matters worse, Egyptian authorities have turned the other cheek on this violence, placing the blame on the women themselves. They imply that, knowing the dangers, women should take full responsibility for their own safety. Egyptian women wishing to take part in the future of their country are then faced with two choices: raise their voices and risk brutal assault or keep quiet and stay inside while history unfolds outside without them.

Overcoming the backlash: Holding Ground. Breaking Ground.

Clearly the gains for women’s rights that we have made in recent years are not set in stone. It is now more important than ever for women’s rights activists to hold tight, hold strong, and hold ground. We cannot count our achievements against religious and cultural fundamentalism as battles won- they are not yet over. We must protect these gains and the women who have worked so hard to achieve them, so that progress may continue and new ground may be broken in the pursuit of true and lasting gender equality.