February 6, 2020

What’s at Stake for Women’s Rights in 2020?


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Achieving social change to protect marginalized groups is never an easy process of quick victories over weak opposition. But, as feminists have proved time and again, with sustained commitment, changes that once seemed impossible can later seem inevitable.

NEW YORK – From US Republicans’ effort to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion, to Poland’s increased restrictions on access to emergency contraception, to Brazil’s clampdown on sexual health education, this is a difficult time for women. But if the global feminist movement has proved anything over the years, it is that it can overcome powerful resistance to defend the rights of marginalized groups. In 2020, it will do so again.

The challenge is formidable. An inevitable corollary of the authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, and xenophobia embraced by political leaders in many countries – in particular, Brazil, Hungary, India, Turkey, and the United States – is the perpetuation of regressive gender norms.

According to “strongman” leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and India’s Narendra Modi, women are born to be wives and mothers; immigrants and racial, religious, and ethnic minorities are dangerous and inferior; and LGBTQI+ persons deserve ostracism, detention, or even death. These leaders have emboldened people who share their views to engage in discrimination and violent attacks against racial or other minorities, migrants, women, and other marginalized groups.

Through measures like restrictions on abortion and contraception and the removal of protections for LGBTQI+ people, these leaders have sought to control people’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction, and punish those who defy their outdated beliefs. For example, immediately upon entering the White House, US President Donald Trump reinstated the “global gag rule,” which, by barring US aid to any international organization that provides, refers, or advocates for abortion care, is deadly for women.

Yet, as president of the International Women’s Health Coalition and a longtime women’s rights advocate, I have seen firsthand what the feminist movement can do. Consider Argentine feminists’ fight against highly restrictive abortion laws.

Twenty years ago, at the United Nations, Argentinian diplomats refused even to acknowledge sexual health or reproductive rights. But in 2005, Argentine feminists launched the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, beginning a grueling uphill battle against powerful adversaries.

In 2018, hundreds of thousands of activists took to the streets across the country wearing green handkerchiefs (now a global symbol of the fight for abortion rights) to demand that the Senate pass a bill legalizing abortion. They lost, but only narrowly – an outcome that would have seemed impossible just a couple of decades earlier. And they kept fighting. Last month, Argentina inaugurated a president, Alberto Fernández, who has vowed to legalize abortion.

Achieving social change to protect marginalized groups is never an easy process. There are no quick victories over weak opposition. But, as feminists have proved time and again, with sustained commitment, changes that once seemed impossible can later seem inevitable.

In the last year alone, there have been numerous examples of such changes. The Mexican state of Oaxaca and the Australian state of New South Wales decriminalized abortion, as did Northern Ireland, while others liberalized their laws, expanding the circumstances in which women can access safe, legal abortion services. In April, South Korea’s Supreme Court struck down the country’s abortion law as unconstitutional, setting the stage for decriminalization this year.

Beyond abortion, Austria, Ecuador, Northern Ireland, and Taiwan all legalized same-sex marriage in 2019. Moreover, in a striking shift of political power, Finland elected Sanna Marin, a 34-year-old woman, as prime minister. Women now lead all five political parties comprising the country’s governing coalition, and four of them are under the age of 40.

Advocates for women’s rights are committed to making 2020 at least as important a year in the global fight for equality, not only for women and girls, but for all people. In India, for example, women are leading protests against a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.

Particularly inspiring are the young female and non-binary activists who are leading movements for transformative change. For example, Emma González is demanding gun reform in the US; Bertha Zúñiga is defending the land rights of Honduras’ indigenous people; and Jamie Margolin and Greta Thunberg have emerged as leading climate activists.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations’ Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which recognized women’s rights as human rights and established gender equality’s place on the global agenda. Since the platform’s creation, activists have used it to hold governments to their commitments on a wide range of issues, including maternal mortality, child marriage, gender-based violence, political participation, and reproductive rights.

Feminist activists will continue this work at the Beijing+25 Generation Equality Forum, convened by Mexico and France, in Mexico City in May and Paris in July. There, they will call for bold new commitments to address crosscutting challenges like climate change and the refugee crisis.

This broader perspective is vital. In fact, feminists must strengthen their alliances with other progressive movements, especially those fighting for environmental sustainability, racial justice, and LGBTQI+ rights. Only by mobilizing together and supporting one another’s agendas can we overcome white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal, and exploitative forces to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.

The effects of these efforts will be shaped by decisions made by citizens and policymakers. The US presidential election in November will be particularly consequential. For better or worse, the US has an outsize impact on how the rest of the world addresses issues ranging from climate action and foreign aid to diplomacy and human rights.

If Trump loses the election, the US could again set a positive example, reviving multilateral cooperation, renewing support for UN agencies working on health and human rights, and ensuring that key government and judicial posts are once more occupied by qualified individuals who support human rights and the rule of law. But, whatever happens, one thing is certain: the feminist movement and its progressive allies will not give up.

Françoise Girard is President of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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