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Decades of Hard-Won Gains for Women Are Unraveling Fast. How Can We Stop It?

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A female Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, 2019. In the last six years, the backlash against the rights of women and girls has sped up, the writer says, citing examples in Iran, the United States and Afghanistan, for starters. But giving up on gender equality is not an option. CAPTAIN RAJU/CREATIVE COMMONS

Nearly a quarter of women and girls cannot escape unwanted sex. Eleven percent are unable to make decisions on contraception. The recent report from the United Nations Population Fund is the latest source of grim statistics on women’s rights. It follows a barrage of papers released for International Women’s Day in March, from the World Bank’s study showing that only eight countries offer full equal rights for women to an Ipsos survey of 32 countries revealing that 55 percent of male and 41 percent of female respondents believe that we have gone “so far in promoting women’s equality that we are discriminating against men.”

Perennially depressing, this year’s reports so far hit home harder due to the arrival of my third daughter. Like her sisters, she is fortunate to have immense privilege. Her birth was testament to that. Surrounded by health professionals and all the equipment we might possibly need, our experience was a far cry from that of Sudanese mothers cut off from medical care, Ukrainian women laboring in bunkers and the Tamil lady from my homeland, Sri Lanka, who chose a roadside C-section to give her and her baby the best chance of surviving bombs and atrocities in 2009.

But even my children’s privilege cannot shield them from the risks they face as girls — and brown ones at that.

My first daughter was born when President Trump’s inauguration started the chain of events that led to some 22 million women and girls now living in American states where abortion is either banned or inaccessible. My second daughter emerged during the Covid-19 lockdown, when men seemed at last to realize that care is actually work (yes, I know, #NotAllMen but quite a few), only to go back to business as usual. Meanwhile, women and girls continue to suffer the consequences in employment, education and gender-based violence. My third daughter arrived amid headlines of Iranian schoolgirls being poisoned and forced to wear headscarfs; the Taliban banning female aid workers; and the impacts of the global cost-of-living crisis that has, you’ve guessed it, disproportionately affected women.

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In the last six years, the so-called “backlash” against women’s rights has accelerated.

Maternal mortality — long emblematic of women’s rights, given its largely preventable causes — offers a stark example. Since 2016, global progress has stagnated, as women’s health and rights have fallen down the priority list. Deaths have risen in Europe and in the Americas, increasing by 40 percent in the United States. The country has long been the West’s health laggard due to systemic inequalities, yet it is the richest nation in the world. Now the overturning of Roe v. Wade threatens even rich white women.

From my perch in Britain, it feels much harder to speak out than it did just a few years ago. The Ipsos survey showed that the share of people who are scared advocating for women’s rights has doubled since 2017, to 29 percent. Sexists and racists, meanwhile, seem emboldened, from ridiculous stories blaming women’s empowerment for all the world’s ills to chilling comments about slavery.

So what can be done? First, we must never de-prioritize the fight for equality and continue to push for women’s rights (including transwomen, of course) despite the pushback — in the courts, in our communities and online. While other challenges may dominate the headlines, they are unlikely to be solved if women and girls cannot achieve their full potential.

Second, we must fund the people and programs striving to advance women’s rights. Only four percent of bilateral official development assistance goes to programs where gender equality is the main objective, and only one percent of that reaches grass-roots groups. This is why Open Society has committed $100 million to support feminist movements and leaders.

Most challenging of all, we need to get serious about transforming our economies and societies. Since the 1990s, governments have embraced development agendas based on the reassuring formula of economic growth, while frameworks aimed at addressing structural inequalities, such as the Beijing platform for women’s rights, have floundered seriously. This must all change. In April, the UN high-level advisory board on multilateralism presented numerous proposals that would help, although its report is light on gender-specific interventions.

Climate change should have prompted social and economic transformation decades ago. Instead, we are on the brink of irrevocable damage.  From conflict to debt, pandemics to atrocities, we now face a downward spiral of crises because we opted for a “whac-a-mole” approach to solving them rather than addressing the systemic inequalities that lie at their heart.

Perhaps seeing the threats facing our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends and colleagues grow ever more dangerous will move us to act at last. If we don’t, we have a heartbreaking example of what “gender apartheid” looks like — Afghanistan today — where women recently told UN experts: “We are alive, but not living.”


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the deterioration of women's rights?

Natalie Samarasinghe
Global Director of Advocacy at 

Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

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Decades of Hard-Won Gains for Women Are Unraveling Fast. How Can We Stop It?
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Frank Makumbi
Frank Makumbi
1 year ago

The deterioration of women’s rights is concerning and requires immediate attention. We must prioritize the fight for gender equality and women’s rights, advocate through legal means, and engage communities and online platforms. Urgent action is needed to increase funding for organizations working on women’s rights. Addressing systemic inequalities in our societies and economies is crucial, prioritizing frameworks like the Beijing platform. We must recognize the interconnectedness of global challenges and take a comprehensive approach. By addressing these issues, we can halt the unraveling of women’s rights and create a more equitable future.

Kimberly Weichel
Kimberly Weichel
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank Makumbi

Well said Frank – I fully agree. As a longtime advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, I have been deeply troubled by the back sliding, and recommit my efforts to do whatever I can to advance women’s rights. I hope we all will.

Darlene Prescott
Darlene Prescott
1 year ago

Sexism is the oldest discrimination on planet Earth–and negatively affects half the global population. But we must rid ourselves of this destructive and harmful pathology. It will take some drastic and well-organized strategies–mostly by women themselves. The first thing that comes to my mind are serious boycotts–of all types. D. Prescott

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