Women’s rights, including the right to live free from violence or to make decisions about their own bodies, are in the crosshairs of reactionary forces in a way they haven’t been for decades. These attacks are coming from all sides, whether in countries with autocratic rule or established democracies like the United States.
On October 1, world leaders at this year’s virtual United Nations General Assembly have a chance to recognize and help neutralize this threat during a high-level event on gender equality and empowering women and girls.
The landmark 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women reinforced “women’s rights as human rights” and created a strong vision and blueprint for action. On its 25th anniversary, taking stock of progress made and challenges ahead is a mixed exercise, both inspiring and grim.
It’s inspiring because movements for gender equality have shattered norms, introduced rights-respecting legislation around the world, and in many areas significantly shifted access to education, health, jobs, and individual freedoms for women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people. For example, the number of out-of-school girls dropped by 79 millionbetween 1998 and 2018, and 155 countries currently have laws addressing domestic violence.
In other areas, there has been significant progress, but simply too slow or not enough. For example, global maternal mortality dropped by 38 percent between 2000 and 2017. Yet the goal is to eliminate preventable maternal deaths – and most are preventable. The inequities in access to health care are stark across national borders, for women and girls living amid armed conflict, and across race, ethnicity, and class. Women’s and girls’ rights to access and claim property, including to matrimonial property or inheritance, still lag behind.
Women’s representation in positions of economic and political power has advanced at a glacial rate. The gender gap in labor force participation has stagnated at 31 percent over the past 20 years. In 2019, women held just 25 percent of parliamentary (lower-house) seats and 21 percent of ministerial positions globally. In a stark and symbolic example, 47 male speakers took the floor in the opening days of this year’s UN General Assembly before the first woman, President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia, spoke.
The road ahead feels grim because as activists for gender equality, we face not only the hard work of moving forward, but pushing back against powerful attempts to roll back women’s and girls’ rights. Disturbingly, if governments sat down together today to chart out a new platform on women’s rights, it is unlikely they could agree on one as progressive as what was negotiated 25 years ago.
Margaret Atwood’s haunting tale of reproductive servitude in The Handmaid’s Tale looks less like fiction than shades of reality. Real-world examples include horrific accounts of bride trafficking in China and attempts to effectively eliminate access to safe and legal abortions in the United States. Fifty-eight countries have signed a US-drafted joint statement ostensibly supporting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While it looks innocent enough on the surface, the goal of the US statement is actually quite sinister.
It seeks to promote the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, a regressive exercise attempting to undermine the universality of all human rights. In particular, it seeks to downgrade the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and the rights of women and girls, including access to reproductive health services. The list of countries essentially endorsing the Trump administration’s attempt to redefine rights includes those with abysmal or worsening track records on women’s rights–Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
Activists are under attack. Male politicians make an astounding number of sexist, demeaning remarks about women leaders and gender equality. Women human rights defenders face increasing threats to their physical and online security, and their ability to organize and finance gender equality work.
Gender-based violence continues in the home, workplace, communities, and conflicts to subjugate women, girls, and gender-nonconforming individuals while reinforcing patriarchal structures and privilege. Governments often fail to protect lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender women from violence, whether domestic violence, police violence, or community violence. One in three women worldwide have experienced sexual violence or domestic violence in their lifetime, and as many as 38 percent of women murdered were killed by an intimate partner. Despite numerous resolutions and commitments to “women, peace, and security,” prevention and response to gender-based violence in conflict remains woefully weak.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further altered the landscape for achieving the goals set out in Beijing and in the UN Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality. Women make up 70 percent of front-line health workers, and often in the most precarious and unprotected roles — home health aides, cleaning staff, community health workers, and nursing home staff. Caregiving falls disproportionately to women and girls, straining participation in education and employment. Reports of domestic violence have increased during lockdowns in many countries, while services such as shelters and psychosocial – mental health –or legal support remain woefully under-resourced. Services that do exist often are not accessible to or do not consider the specific requirements of older women or women with disabilities.
What has worked, and where should advocates of gender equality invest? The greatest hope comes from the diverse movements that have exposed gender injustice and fought for change. Despite concerted political opposition, sexual and reproductive rights advocates have successfully liberalized abortion laws in dozens of countries. Domestic workers have mobilized at national and global levels to expose labor and other abuses, push for and win international standards, and translate them into national reforms. The #MeToo movement transformed public debate about sexual violence and has launched sustained momentum to shift social norms, support survivors, and demand accountability.
What should governments do? They need to recognize that women’s rights are not secondary but integral to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, looming economic recession, armed conflict, elections, and climate change. Addressing the gender impact of these issues, promoting women’s leadership, and backing up commitments with real economic resources and political will at all levels are essential.
The 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference could have been a celebration of progress made instead of a somber assessment of current and future dangers. Governments meeting October 1 can give us reason for hope by committing to new and measurable concrete actions, backed with dedicated resources and timelines to expedite progress on gender equality. The time to stand for gender equality is now.
Nisha Varia is the women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.