What women have gained
in the fight for equality with men-
and what they are in danger of losing
by Nikki van der Giag
New Internationalist magazine,
It was very difficult at first,' said
Lisa. 'Some of the women found it hard to get permission from
their husbands to come. And some came even though they had been
told not to.'
This is not a rural village in India or
Brazil, nor is it a voice from a generation ago. It is 2004, in
Britain, at a conference on gender and regeneration. Lisa Hilder
is from the Preston Road women's centre in Hull, in the north
of England. Hull has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy
in England; 75 per cent of residents on the Preston Road estate
lack qualifications and many are unemployed. But despite all this,
the women's centre is thriving as a result of local women's efforts.
The Preston Road story is echoed in poor
and deprived areas around the world, where women have decided
to get together - with no money, little time, and often opposition
from their husbands or partners. They are armed only with the
power of an idea - to change their lives and those of their whole
community for the better.
It is as a result of the pressure from
such people that many women's lives have improved. Today, more
are working, more girls are being educated, women are living longer
and having fewer children, there are more females in business
and in politics. The laws on personal relationships have improved
too: there is legislation against domestic violence, in some countries
there are more liberal marriage laws, and in others, same-sex
relationships are now recognized in law. In six African countries
female genital cutting has been outlawed.
And just as importantly, women around
the world now know they have rights. Some 6,000 attended the first
UN women's conference in Mexico in 1975; 20 years later 30,000
went to Beijing. And these were only a fraction of the women who
had been organizing. Getting together with others can win tangible
benefits but it can also give emotional confidence. Take Emerencia
Lopez Martinez, a 52-year-old seamstress and street vendor from
Mexico who took part in a legal-awareness training workshop: 'I
think I became a leader because I was angry, and also because
at times I felt so impotent, because we women don't speak up...
Since the workshop, I have never felt that I was alone in this
struggle. I feel that my companeras in the workshop are my family.
And you can be sure as hell that I am going to continue working
for the women of my neighbourhood, now with more experience, more
knowledge... I know what I am talking about.'
This is great. Women have achieved so
much. But the brutal facts remain. The vast majority of the world's
women still have very little power, at work, in their relationships
at home, or in the wider world. s British social commentator Polly
Toynbee noted, even in the Britain of 2004: 'the battle is only
Worldwide, 70 per cent of those living
in poverty are women, as are two-thirds of illiterate adults.
One in four women is beaten by her husband or partner. Every day,
1,300 still die unnecessarily in childbirth or during pregnancy.
And while middle-class white women in
the West are unlikely to lose the rights they have won, there
is a danger that rights elsewhere are being slowly, silently and
inexorably clawed back.
One of the reasons that this goes largely
unnoticed is that the threats come from five very different directions.
First, the world is becoming increasingly
The values of the military are traditional
'male' values - strength, aggression, domination - which inevitably
tend to disadvantage women. In the past, when a nation went to
war, women tended to be employed in the jobs that the men had
left, or to make munitions. In the US during the Second World
War, seven million women found employment. But today's wars are
different: only a small proportion of the population, mostly men,
is involved in combat, but the psyche of the whole country is
pressed into service. In times of crisis, women are expected to
be the homemakers; it is no coincidence that 'family values' are
back in fashion.
Second, economic globalization is disempowering
many women. Globalization has affected women in particular ways.
Some of these are positive: for example,
women have entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Many
are not. It is largely women who are exploited by the $57-billion
pornography industry; women who are trafficked from country to
country as commodities in the sex trade; women who do the parttime,
low-paid jobs in appalling conditions. Women like Nasrin Akther,
from Bangladesh, who is 21 years old and until recently worked
from 8am to 10pm every day in a garment factory. Around 80 per
cent of the garment workers in Bangladesh are women, often producing
clothes for the big Western labels, and working in appalling conditions
for low wages.
Nasrin says: 'There is no childcare, no
medical facilities. The women don't receive maternity benefits.
We have two days off a month. In my factory, it is very crowded,
very hot and badly ventilated. I could not support myself with
the wage I was getting. Because we have to work very long hours,
seven days a week, we have no family life, no personal life, no
social life... Our lives have been stolen. Any workers who attempt
to get together a union are fired immediately and may be blacklisted.'
Nasrin knows. She and her colleagues protested,
were fired and became part of a global campaign on garment factories
in Bangladesh. But there are millions like them. who are still
trapped in such employment.
In the countries of the former Soviet
Union the end of the Cold War and the advent of the free market
also meant the end of a range of benefits for women maternity
pay, free healthcare, and free education - and drove many women
back into poverty.
In China, with the rise of the market
economy and the scrapping of gender quotas, women are the first
to he laid off from once ironclad state jobs. They are the first
to be deprived of local government seats. They are the first to
drop out of school as academic fees climb ever higher. Arid they
have regressed financially, too: in the 1980s, women made $0.80
for every dollar that men earned; now, women make only $0.65,
as private enterprises are free to pay as they please. 'China
is progressing in so many ways,' says Deng Li, deputy director
of the government-run All-China Women's Federation. 'But for many
women, their lives are going backward, because the rules to protect
them are no longer being followed.'
Third, the rise of religious extremism
has resulted in heightened legal and social restrictions on women.
Joni Seager, in her Atlas of Women, charts
such restrictions in 25 countries between the late 1990s and 2002.
These include Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic
of Congo, Gabon, Uganda, Somalia, Swaziland, Qatar, Yemen, Iran,
Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Afghanistan,
India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei - and the US.
Fundamentalist religious believers, be
they Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, tend to see women as
the vessels in which their beliefs are held; bearers of children,
fetchers of water, providers of food, but on no account equal
In Indonesia, the largest Islamic organization,
Mahdlatul Ulama, issued a fatwa against former President Megawati,
forbidding Muslims to vote for a woman in the run-up to the September
2004 elections. Her running mate, Hasyim Muzardi, said the fatwa
'was an obvious attempt to blacken Ms Megawati's campaign.'
'In any situation where religious fundamentalism
is on the rise it will always impact on women because at the heart
of the religious fundamentalist agenda is the control of women,
of reproductive rights and of the family,' says Pragna Patel of
Southall Black Sisters in Britain.
Other cultural restrictions have been
used to boost heterosexuality and discourage homosexuality. One
study notes that: 'in Indonesia the minister of women's affairs
asserted that female homosexuality is not in accord with Indonesian
culture and is a denial of women's natural destiny to become mothers.'
In some cases, beliefs and practices are
being dredged up from the past by fundamentalists and recast,
sometimes in countries where they were never common practice.
In Sri Lanka, for example, some groups demanded the introduction
of female genital mutilation (FGM) as an 'Islamic duty', despite
the fact that no-one in Sri Lanka had ever practised FGM and that
it has nothing to do with Islam. In many countries, there has
been an increase in the practice of 'honour killings' where a
woman is killed by members of her family if they feel that she
has infringed the family 'honour' - perhaps by having a relationship
with someone they do not approve of, or even by being raped. In
Algeria, muta'a marriage is being reintroduced in fundamentalist
military camps. This is a 'temporary' marriage which can be entered
into for years, months or just days. It should require both parties'
consent. It is a Shi'a practice and had never been used in Algeria
until fundamentalists wanted to legitimize their rape of young
women in raided villages.
In the US, women have suffered setbacks
from a combination of all three factors: militarism, economics
and right-wing religion. Despite his fine words on women in Afghanistan,
back home the US administration of George W Bush slashed social
programmes for single mothers, attacked affirmative action for
women, appointed right-wing radicals to powerful positions and
tied large chunks of HIV/AIDS funding to programmes that promoted
These policies have also had an effect
on women in the South: Chandra Kali Devi in Nepal, for example,
who received her contraceptives from a local nongovernmental organization.
She had three children and didn't want any more. But then the
organization found that its US funding had been cut under what
has become known as the 'global gag rule'. Under this policy,
10 foreign non-governmental family planning organizations cannot
receive money from the US if they 'provide abortion services;
counsel their patients on pregnancy options; refer their patients
for abortion services; or lobby their governments to legalize
abortions and make them safe'.
'It is hard to understand how US lawmakers
are so easily able to implement such a far-reaching and damaging
policy,' said Dr Nirmal Bista of the Family Planning Association
of Nepal, 'when the differences between our countries are so vast
and the realities women in Nepal face must seem so unimaginable'.
As a result of the global gag rule, among
other cutbacks, $34 million in congressionally allotted aid to
the United Nations Fund for Population Activities was withdrawn,
and $3 million for the World Health Organizations reproductive
health programme frozen. Republican senators lobbied against changes
in abortion law in countries like Uruguay (see page 22).
'In only three and a half years, George
W Bush and the rightwing leadership in Congress have undermined
and eroded more than four decades of advancements for women,'
said the National Organization of Women's president, Kim Gandy.
Fourth, rights for women are being rejected
as a 'Western' import - along with Coca-Cola, Levi jeans and pornography.
This line of attack comes from the South.
In Uganda, for example, an amendment to the Land Act which would
give married women the right to own land was rejected by President
Museveni on the grounds that he wanted to save the world from
the mistakes of the West. The Women of Uganda network says: 'His
ideological stance is trapped in a 1960s time-warp, and the questions
he raises on gender are out of step with what is now the general
understanding of what constitutes gender issues. The President's
analysis of issues is contradictory in that while he loathes Western
values, he projects a social evolution that is determinedly Western
'The notion that feminism is Western is
still bandied about by those ignorant of history or who perhaps
more willfully employ it in a delegitimizing way,' says scholar
Margot Badran. 'Feminism, however, is a plant that only grows
in its own soil.'
The irony is that a huge amount of the
thinking and the pushing through of women's issues over the last
10 or 20 years has come from women in the Majority World.
And finally, the fifth line of attack
comes from those who think that the 'women's revolution' has gone
too far and that women have too many rights. Take the UK Men's
Movement, whose website says: 'We regard the assertion that women
are disadvantaged as The Big Lie of our time... The question of
whether "feminism has gone too far" is perhaps less
important than "why feminism was established at all".
Feminism is an aberration, like Nazism and communism - a blight
on our society.' A South African study suggests that current high
levels of violence against women may be partly fuelled by male
backlash against the progress women have made- Researchers have
referred to this as 'neo-patriarchy' - a new attempt to exert
male authority, in this case through a culture of sexual violence.
But other men have the opposite reaction
and are recognizing that they too need to change (see pages 14
and 26). For men, this kind of organizing is relatively new. Women
have been doing it for years, and one of the positive aspects
of globalization has been the thousands of women's organizations
that have emerged over the past 20 years, campaigning on a wide
range of different development issues, from HIV/AIDS to environment,
political representation to poverty, often using the internet
to do so. For example, from August to December 2004, women throughout
Africa are using SMS text messaging to show their support for
the African Union's 'Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa',
which is a comprehensive legal framework that women can use to
exercise their rights.
Those in favour of women's rights will
need all the knowledge and all the tools they can lay their hands
on over the years to come. For we are at a turning point. Either
the steady drip drip of the rightwing, anti-woman agenda continues,
or both women and men take cognizance of what is happening to
women around the world, and ensure that all women, everywhere,
have a better future. Which will make the future better for men
Such a future is possible. But it will
take courageous people to achieve it. There are many of them around.
People like Lisa Hilder, quoted at the start of this article,
who feels the women of Preston Road have overcome the odds: 'It
has not been an easy road, but now it rocks!' Or Shirin Ebadi,
the first female judge in Iran, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace prize.
Giving advice to a young human rights activist, she once said:
'Have confidence, have courage, and know that if we work hard,
our struggle will be victorious.