(WOMENSENEWS)--Gender issues colored many of the top news stories of 2005. Behind the headlines of tsunami, earthquake and hurricane, the suffering of women displaced by disaster was hidden in plain sight. Abortion politics lurked behind every maneuver in the confirmation battles of Supreme Court justices. And women's issues became increasingly important in the elections of Asian and African countries emerging from conflicts as well as in the international focus on poverty and health.
Women reached new heights in politics in 2005. For the first time in more than three decades, women in Afghanistan were elected to parliamentary seats guaranteed by the nation's new post-Taliban constitution. In May, the BBC reported that women in Kuwait had finally won the right to vote and run for office. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak appointed five women to Parliament, bringing their total up to nine members.
Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany in November. Haitian-born journalist Michaelle Jean was appointed in September to be Canada's governor general. Maria do Carmo Silveira was elected prime minister of the equatorial island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in June. And in December, Michelle Bachelet won a run-off election for the presidency of Chile; she is predicted to win the final race in January.
In what may have been the year's most widely celebrated election by women, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia Nov. 10. She told Women's eNews in October that her ascent to power--a first on the African continent--"would open the doors to the one position that has been lacking in terms of women leadership."
American women, however, suffered a setback in representation of a different sort. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose vote has long swung the U.S. Supreme Court toward moderation, announced her resignation July 1. With the expected confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito--whose nomination is opposed by many women's organizations--O'Connor's departure will leave Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman on the U.S. high court.
The United Nations reaffirmed its commitment to relieving global poverty and protecting women's rights in September after reviewing eight millennium development goals first articulated five years ago as an international road map for progress. According to the U.N., poverty rates are declining or stagnating in every region of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, representing an improvement for women, who suffer from poverty disproportionately. The disparity between the world's rich and poor received increased attention from world leaders and the public in 2005 as the wealthiest Group of Eight nations agreed at their July summit to increase financial aid to Africa and slash debts of the poorest countries.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced in August that poverty rates in the United States had increased for the fourth straight year to 12.7 percent. An analysis of the 2004 federal data conducted by the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., indicated that 14.3 million American women live below the poverty line.
The number of families living in poverty increased by 300,000 in a single year, according to census data. Women who worked full-time earned 76.5 percent as much as men, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. And the New York group Legal Momentum said that the poverty rate is 39 percent higher among women than men.
A benchmark study from the Geneva-based World Health Organization documented the levels of violence against women worldwide in November after surveying more than 24,000 women in 10 countries. Among them was Thailand, where data on gender-based violence was collected for the first time. The study added to data collected in previous years and established a framework for addressing violence as a public health issue.
The conclusions of the report were that violence against women is widespread, common and preventable. The November report, however, went further by recommending changes to laws and implementing prevention strategies in reproductive health and HIV-AIDS programs.
"Domestic violence can be prevented," said the study's coordinator, Dr. Claudia Garcia Moreno. "WHO will continue to raise awareness about violence and the important role that public health can play to address its causes and consequences."
Gender-based violence is increasing in wars and conflicts around the world. In Sudan and in the Ivory Coast, reports of sexual and ethnic violence have increased as civil conflicts have raged. In the Darfur region of Sudan, United Nations observers have reported incidents of rapes by soldiers. Amnesty International in July cited increasing violence and kidnappings of girls and women by soldiers in Uganda. In Guatemala, the London-based human rights organization reported that the brutal killings of women continue there unabated, with 531 murders documented in the first 10 months of 2005.
In Burma, too, sanctioned rapes of women by the military regime in power continue to harm female refugees of the ongoing civil crisis. Activist groups are hoping to draw attention to mass rapes by documenting those crimes and lobbying for change. "Unless there is genuine political reform, this suffering of women will not end," Burmese activist Thin Thin Aung told Women's eNews in September. "So that's what we ask for."
American women in eight states are able to more easily obtain Plan B emergency contraception because of the increasing use of collaborative practice agreements. These agreements allow pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception without a prescription under the oversight of a medical doctor, opening a back door to access for women despite the continuing delays by the Food and Drug Administration to approve Plan B for over-the-counter sales. In September, Massachusetts joined Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Washington in making the agreements legal.
Faster, easier access to emergency contraception continues to be delayed by the FDA and abortion rights continue to come under fire from many lawmakers and courts throughout the United States. The New York-based Planned Parenthood has reported increasing incidents of pharmacist refusals to fill legal prescriptions for Plan B in stores around the country.
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights noted in August that 20 states had passed legislation designed to restrict access to abortion, including measures requiring advance counseling, waiting periods, parental notification and limits on funding of reproductive health services. Worldwide, the Population Reference Bureau in Washington estimated that nearly one-half of all abortions are performed illegally.
This year also saw the continuation of the Bush administration's global gag rule, also called the Mexico City policy, which prevents international aid from funding organizations that offer reproductive services to women if they also provide access to or advice about abortion services, or lobby for change in their nation's abortion laws. In Uganda, the Financial Times reported, one-third of U.S. funding for HIV-AIDS programs is targeted toward promoting abstinence and faithful partnerships ahead of condom usage. The Center for Gender and Health Equity, Takoma Park, Md., charged that, as a result of the policy, a shortage of condoms was created and could influence infection rates in Uganda, which has seen a decline in the HIV rate since 1990.
Jennifer Thurston is associate editor of Women's eNews.
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