New Internationalist

What women have gained and what they are in danger of losing

Issue 373

Nikki van der Gaag looks at what women have gained in the fight for equality with men - and what they are losing in danger of losing

Sven Torfinn / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk
Team time: Hellen Nyawira, 15, with members of her girls' football team in Kenya. She and her team teach their peers about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Sven Torfinn / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk

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.1 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.

Votes at last? Women in Kuwait have been campaigning for the vote for decades – in May 2004 Parliament approved a draft law allowing women to vote. Photo: Penine Tweedie / (http://www.panos.co.uk/)[Panos Pictures]

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.

The vast majority of the world’s women still have very little power, at work, at home or in the wider world.

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 compañeras 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.’ 2

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. As British social commentator Polly Toynbee noted, even in the Britain of 2004: ‘the battle is only half won.’ 3

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 militarized.

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.

Pennie Tweedie / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk
Votes at last? Women in Kuwait have been campaigning for the vote for decades – in May 2004 Parliament approved a draft law allowing women to vote. Pennie Tweedie / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk

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 part-time, 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.’ 4

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.

at the heart of the religious fundamentalist agenda is the control of women

In China, with the rise of the market economy and the scrapping of gender quotas, women are the first to be 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. And 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.’ 5

Neil Cooper / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk
Pointing the finger – the only man on this dam-building project tells the women what to do. Neil Cooper / Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk

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.6 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 to men.

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.’ 7

Pointing the finger – the only man on this dam-building project tells the women what to do. Photo: Neil Cooper / (http://www.panos.co.uk/)[Panos Pictures]

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.8

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.’ 9

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.10

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 sexual abstinence.11

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 non-governmental 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, 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’. 12

Feminism is a plant that only grows in its own soil.

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 Organization’s reproductive health programme frozen. Republican senators lobbied against changes in abortion law in countries like Uruguay (see page 22).

Blessing or curse? A priest thanks God that this Nigerian sex worker has been released from police custody in France. Thousands of Nigerian women are trafficked into Western Europe every year. Photo: (http://www.panos.co.uk/)[Panos Pictures]

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 and capitalist.’ 13

The notion that feminism is Western is still bandied about by those ignorant of history or who perhaps more wilfully employ it in a delegitimizing way,’ says scholar Margot Badran. ‘Feminism, however, is a plant that only grows in its own soil.’ 14

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.

Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk
Blessing or curse? A priest thanks God that this Nigerian sex worker has been released from police custody in France. Thousands of Nigerian women are trafficked into Western Europe every year. Panos / http://www.panos.co.uk

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.15 Researchers have referred to this as ‘neo-patriarchy’ – a new attempt to exert male authority, in this case through a culture of sexual violence.16

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.17

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 too (see page 14).

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.’18

  1. 1 Oxfam UK Poverty Programme/RAWM A tale of two cities: gender and the reality of regeneration, 2004
  2. 2 Luisa Maria Rivera Izabal ‘Women’s legal knowledge: a case study of Mexican urban dwellers’, in Women and Rights ed Caroline Sweetman, Oxfam, 1998
  3. 3 The Guardian 14 July 2004
  4. 4 [http://www.nlc.net/[(www.nlc.net/)and http://www.waronwant.org/
  5. 5 (http://www.time.com/time/asia/covers/501030728/story.html)[www.time.com/time/asia/covers/501030728/story.html]
  6. 6 Joni Seager, The Atlas of Women: an economic, social and political survey, The Women’s Press, London, 2003
  7. 7 The Weekend Australian, 5-6 June 2004
  8. 8 Trouble and Strife 43, Summer 2002
  9. 9 Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E Weiringa (eds), Same-sex relationships and female desires: transgender practices across cultures, Colombia University Press, 1999
  10. 10 Above examples from an interview with Marième Hélie-Lucas of Women Living Under Muslim Laws in Trouble and Strife 43, Summer 2002
  11. 11 (http://www.thetruthaboutgeorge.com)[www.thetruthaboutgeorge.com]
  12. 12 (http://www.teenwire.com/)[www.teenwire.com/]
  13. 13 (http://www.wougnet.org/Alerts/drbresponseEK.html)[www.wougnet.org/Alerts/drbresponseEK.html]
  14. 14 (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/569/cu1.htm)[http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/569/cu1.htm]
  15. 15 N Anderson et al, Beyond Victims and Villains: The Culture of Sexual Violence in South Johannesburg, Community Information and Transparency Foundation (CIET) Africa, 2000
  16. 16 Judy Mirsky, Beyond victims and villains: addressing sexual violence in the education sector Panos, 2003
  17. 17 http://www.pambazuka.org/
  18. 18 http://www.hrw.org/ress/2003/10/ebadi-bio.htm

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