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Women’s Rights in 2009: Some Steps Back, Some Steps Forward

2009 was a year of losses and gains for women’s rights. Campaigns for gender equality experienced some setbacks in certain parts of the world – or on a given issue - and gains in others.

by Masum Momaya

In January, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. He quickly revoked the global gag rule, restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for access the sexual and reproductive health and, in spite of Pope Benedict’s pronouncement in Africa against the use of condoms, acknowledged the need to rapidly and systematically address the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The same month, more affirmation for sexual and reproductive rights came as Bolivians approved a new constitution with a dedicated chapter to women’s rights.

At the international level, in April, the UN Commission on Population and Development passed a resolution placing an unprecedented emphasis on human rights, including in regard to sexuality. The resolution made a commitment to comprehensive education on sexuality and gender equality, access to male and female condoms, reproductive health services for adolescents, and the importance of sexual and reproductive rights to HIV/AIDS.[1] A few months later, maternal death and illness were finally recognized as pressing human rights concerns by the UN Human Rights Council.

Mexico City decriminalized first-trimester abortions, which triggered a backlash of restrictions as states across Mexico quickly passed anti-abortion legislation. Meanwhile, Nepal enacted a more permissive abortion law, making the procedure more accessible.

Youth activists made significant strides this year, advocating on behalf of the largest generation of youth ever at high-level international conferences, including the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights, and the NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development as well as the Internet Governance Forum, where they advocated for policies based on agency and consent rather than victimization and repression of sexuality.

LGBT persons faced discrimination, cruelty and loss of rights in Burundi, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Uganda. Honduran LGBT activists were murdered in the wave of violence and impunity there, and Iranian authorities executed minors and adults accused of sodomy. Still, historically significant gains were won in India, when the Delhi high court ruled penal code 377 as unconstitutional. Also, an LGBT center was legally recognized for the first time ever in Mongolia after three years of struggle, and a law banning all expression of homosexuality in Nigeria stalled in the country's lower house of parliament.

Xenophobia and religious fundamentalist attacks on women and women’s rights continued to grow worldwide as did surveillance and crackdowns on women’s human rights defenders. Switzerland banned minarets. Churches were attacked in Malaysia. Indonesia's province of Aceh has passed a new law making adultery punishable by stoning to death. And radical groups in Somalia grew in power. Still, at the year-end Parliament of the World’s Religions, women leaders called out religious institutions for not doing enough to promote peace, gender equality and human rights.

Increasing militarism, war and violent repression continued to devastate women around the world, including in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Congo, Fiji, Gaza, Guinea, Honduras, Iraq, Madagascar, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Such atrocities increased violence against women and the number of women who became refugees, but also catalyzed action on the part of local women’s organizations.

In September, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1888, mandating peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict. Women in the Congo won a longstanding battle to get justice for rape victims while women seeking justice for femicides in Ciudad Juarez finally won a court judgment against the government of Mexico.

Politically, elections did much to both harm and help women in 2009. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai used women’s rights as a political football, signing a repressive Shia law in exchange for votes. In post-election Iran, government authorities cracked down on political dissidents. Meanwhile, in Kuwait, women were elected to the Parliament for the first time. In February, Johanna Sigurdadottir of Iceland became the world first openly lesbian head of state and put women in charge of Iceland’s banks.

Media and information and communications technologies (ICTs) played an increasingly prominently role in raising awareness about women’s rights in 2009. Women asked Google why it banned abortion services advertisements in fifteen countries, women protestors in Iran shared their concerns via SMS, cell phone images documented the rapes of women in Guinea, women from Honduras used the radio to broadcast their struggles and Arab feminists began tweeting live updates from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, individual journalists such as Lubna Hussein from Sudan challenged dress code laws and the sexist treatment of women in the media. Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained in North Korea and then drenched in media attention upon their release, and women’s rights advocates capitalized on the coverage to highlight the plight of North Korean women refugees in China.

In the realm of the environment, 2009 saw the disproportionate impact of ongoing conflicts over oil and gas, debates over biofuels and worsening effects of climate change. Still, a Global Center for Women’s Land Rights was launched in October and, in November, representatives of Indigenous peoples from all over the world gathered at the Global Forum for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty to reaffirming their right to this basic necessity. Women also continued to raise awareness of and mitigate the impact of climate change at local levels but were forced to walk away from the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen having faced many restrictions on participation and with few concrete, binding agreements by governments to reduce global warming.

Economically, the systemic crisis caused more women to plummet in poverty, especially due to the persistent food crisis, rising unemployment and further decreases in social spending. Migrant women were particularly vulnerable to job loss in 2009, and many turned to work in industries such as sex work, where social protections and access to health care diminished and the risk of HIV infection increased exponentially. Moreover, stimulus packages in most countries were not gender sensitive or based on human rights and did little to create jobs in sectors primarily populated by women.

Nevertheless, women pushed for reform of the global financial architecture, including dismantling the G8 and G20 and, through longstanding organizing and mobilization, women’s rights advocates and their civil society allies gained more access to and influence in the aid effectiveness process than ever before.

The systemic crisis also meant a reduction in gross national incomes of many OECD donor countries, which will likely translate to decreased aid levels in 2010 and beyond, including proportional cuts in funding for gender equality.

Still, 2009 saw the continuation of important special funds targeting gender equality, including the Dutch MDG3 Fund, Swedish government’s Global Program for Gender Equality and UNIFEM’s new Fund for Gender Equality.

2009 also saw a heightened attention to the case for “investing in women” by the Clinton Global Initiative, Goldman Sachs, The Economist magazine and the book Half the Sky, among others. Funders took note and directed some investments accordingly although a strong gender equality and women’s rights focus did not necessarily accompany these campaigns.

The United Nations was plagued by coverage of sexual harassment cases early in 2009, but women’s rights advocates celebrated the success of the GEAR campaign and, in September, the UN General Assembly’s approval of a new gender equity entity at the UN. The new entity will consolidate existing UN bodies for women and have high-level political standing, country-level operational capacity and a global policy making function. Finally, by year’s end, organizing and mobilization for Beijing +15 was in full swing in all regions with the anniversary promising to be one of the many reflective and formidable moments for women’s rights in 2010.


Note: This article is cross-posted on the Gender Across Borders blog.