Hailing from various corners of the world, five activists gathered in New York recently to assess the progress of women’s rights globally — presenting a mixed picture of gains in Africa but threats to women’s rights through new programs countering violent extremism — just as the world celebrated International Women’s Day.
The five women, representing the developing world countries of India, parts of Africa and Colombia, as well as an American feminist and author who provided a more global worldview, were keynote speakers at the March 7 Ralph Bunche Forum, “The Global Struggle for Women’s Rights,” sponsored by the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and PassBlue and held at the university. Barbara Crossette, contributing editor to PassBlue, introduced the panel.
The panelists addressed such issues as human trafficking, religious extremism, domestic violence and the role of civil society in making progress in these and other areas central to women’s struggle for equality.
The exploitation of girls and women has become one of the biggest human-rights crises, said Ruchira Gupta, the founder of a Delhi-based antisex-trafficking organization, Apne Aap Worldwide. “It’s not just a human rights crisis, it’s an urgent humanitarian crisis.”
Apne Aap has helped more than 20,000 girls, women and their families exit lives of prostitution.
“There is a feminization of poverty,” she told the audience of dozens of women and men. “The face of the poor is someone I define as the ‘last girl’ ” — a teenager from a lower caste.
“She also has no control over her own body, let alone her own dreams and aspirations,” Gupta said. She may end up trafficked into prostitution — sexually exploited by 10 men in one evening — or engaged in hard labor or domestic servitude. “Her life is defined by absence of choices.”
Moreover, “very often, poor female teenagers do not have documentation,” Gupta noted, who was responsible for creating the Trafficking Fund at the United Nations after taking delegations of survivors to speak to the UN General Assembly on their behalf. “They do not have anything to prove that they exist as citizens in the country.”
Part of improving these girls’ lives is securing their identification, which enables them to receive government subsidies and the right to cast a vote, she said.
Representing Africa was a lawyer, Liesl Gerntholtz, a South African native and executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. She noted major progress for women in her continent, with most African countries passing laws against domestic violence and as many as half of all parliamentarians being women. “Africa has led the way in women’s participation in politics.”
Africa, particularly the countries Burkina Faso, Kenya and Liberia, has experienced a reduction in incidences of female genital mutilation, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, established by the African Charter, carried out a campaign this year to legalize abortions for women pregnant from rape.
“This was almost unthinkable five years ago,” Gerntholtz said.
Yet Morocco stands out for being one of the few countries on the continent with no law on domestic violence. Without a formal legal definition, “it means that services are not available for women who are fleeing violence,” Gerntholtz said.
A Human Rights Watch report published in February also documents the widespread sexual violence committed against women and girls in Kenya in 2007 and 2008, after a disputed presidential election. “Sexual violence has almost been invisible,” Gertholtz said. “Many of these women continue to suffer chronic and long-term health issues,” have been dispossessed and, most significantly, have children they cannot care for.
And in Tanzania, adolescent girls have been expelled from school for becoming pregnant, thus limiting their life’s prospects.
Gerntholtz noted the more recent and potentially serious effect of efforts to combat violent extremism on women’s rights. Gerntholtz, who has been documenting abuses of insurgency groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, said that “naming and shaming” — calling them out on their abuses — is largely useless against extremists.
“Women really play two roles,” she said of their interaction with such extremists. They are seen as “agents of deradicalization” and as sources of information about the activities of the men in their lives, even forced to provide information to the authorities despite the risks involved.
Suggesting that proposed solutions stick “Band-Aids” on wounds, Gerntholtz said, “I don’t see a lot of programming that makes me feel that anyone is thinking strategically and carefully about deradicalization, and I don’t see a lot of programming that is really addressing countering extremism.”
Focusing on West Africa was Abosede George, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Barnard College and Columbia University. She mainly discussed the 2014 abduction of 276 Nigerian secondary schoolgirls in the north by Boko Haram as they were preparing to take school exams, with no serious government response for weeks afterward and still an abysmal lack of success to find them.
It was only when Nigerian female activists highlighted the girls’ plight through social media, using the now-famous hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, that the world rallied to push the Nigerian government for some response. “What happens when the world stops paying attention and loses interest in the rescue of 276 girls?” George asked. “When the disappearance of 276 girls is forgotten, or worse, normalized?”
Activists reacted: they advocated for support of the girls’ families, held rallies, used media, distributed clothing, fund-raised and organized medicine drives for internally displaced Nigerians relocated to refugee camps as a result of Boko Haram’s continuing rampaging in northern Nigeria.
“I want us to be reminded that we’re literally coming up on the second anniversary of the abductions,” George said. If the daughters of the Nigerian elite had been kidnapped, they would have been found “a long time ago,” she added.
The realities on the ground are also mixed for women in Colombia, who have been both emboldened to demand their rights while contending with abuses they endured throughout the 51-year civil conflict between the FARC guerrilla movement, of which 40 percent of its ranks are women, and the government.
“This conflict has been brutal,” said Gimena Sánchez, originally from Argentina and the leading Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, or Wola, with millions of victims of kidnapping and displacement and thousands of cases of sexual violence.
Since 2012, peace negotiations have been held in Havana that include 16 Colombian women’s organizations who forced the incorporation of a subcommission on gender, bringing attention to the reality of rapes, forced labor, forced abortion among the ranks of FARC members and violence against transgendered women. “We’re hoping that the full accord will also reflect most of the recommendations made by the sub commission.”
The immediate priority is “to make sure that this peace accord” — due to be finished by March 23 — “is the strongest it can be and that it’s well monitored and paid attention to,” Sánchez said.
Offering a fuller perspective — if not optimistic view — on women’s rights was Ellen Chesler, a leading American feminist and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank in New York.
Chesler, a co-editor of “Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World,” noted the extensive progress in women’s rights in place since the UN was founded in 1945, and the huge growth and influence of civil society.
Globally, “there has been a revolution in norms,” with 160 countries having passed laws that criminalize violence against women. Political representation has increased in places like Africa and Latin America, and across the world parliaments are composed of about 22 percent women — not necessarily high enough, however, for many advocates, who lament the slow progress.
Gains in maternal health have led to a global drop in maternal deaths through legal medicalized abortions and programs to deal with infections and maternal emergencies, with the continued exception of sub-Saharan Africa.
A revolution has also begun with the understanding that contraception is not just an issue for married women — that access to birth control and safe abortion care are issues that “must transcend age and must address adolescents,” Chesler said. “That’s a huge breakthrough in the last 25 years.”
“We live in increasingly complex times geopolitically,” Chesler added, so it is necessary to recognize “that women are half the population, and that we can’t isolate gender from larger geopolitical concerns.”
The relationship between economic empowerment and gains in women’s status was highlighted in the question-and-answer period.
“Economic challenge will always hurt women, probably even worse than men,” Chesler said. But the inverse is not true with economic growth “unless laws and institutions are in place to secure them.”
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.