Amid the horrors that women and girls have suffered around the world in 2014 — including being forced to flee their homes by the hundreds of thousands in Syria, the sexual enslavement of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and the kidnapping and forced conversion to radical Islam of girls from schools in northern Nigeria — UN Women has produced a timeline showing some positive gains, often stories that never made much news.
The brave attempt by the United Nations’ women’s agency to catalog progress takes note of legal and constitutional gains for women in Tunisia and Morocco, the high number of women in political power in Latin America and the Caribbean, the recording and prosecution for the first time of female genital mutilation cases in Britain and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai. The interactive timeline, which is relatively short, not surprisingly, is on UN Women’s website.
The new year will most likely see more accounts of the progress of women and more terrible setbacks. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995. Coincidentally, the Millennium Development Goals, framed in 2000-2001, will have run their course in 2015, to be replaced by a new set of aspirations known as the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Millennium goals have not delivered on their promises for women. Though education gains by girls in many places have increased considerably, there are still tens of millions of girls who have been married as children, illegally and mostly against their will and without their consent. They are denied schooling and personal freedom to grow into productive adults. They die in teenage pregnancies and are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.
There have also been tragic disappointments for women, who still die of preventable pregnancy-related causes because they cannot exert the right of access to life-saving reproductive health care and contraception. Not infrequently, they are victims of cultural barriers to female advancement.
A large majority of world governments endorsed these rights at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. There are now signs that those rights of women may not be reaffirmed but rather sidelined when the new Sustainable Development Goals are approved in the United Nations General Assembly. For women and men everywhere, 2015 will be a year of reflection, stock-taking and action.