Today, the world honours the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This extraordinary document, adopted on 10 December 1948, brought the international community together in an unprecedented show of unity, setting out for the first time a bill of rights that would apply to all people, and in doing so struck at the heart of injustice across the globe.
Yet seven decades on, we have seen a weak global economy give rise to bombastic figureheads who use macho posturing, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia to give the appearance that they are “tough guy” leaders. This mirrors the rise of fascism in the 1930s, following an earlier economic depression, and its culmination in the horrors of the Holocaust; one response to this was the Universal Declaration and its proclamation that all people “are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
In 2018, we witnessed many of these “tough guy” leaders trying to undermine the very principle of equality – the bedrock of human rights law. They sought to demonize and persecute already marginalized and vulnerable communities. But nowhere has the struggle for equality this year been louder or more visible than in the fight for women’s rights.
The power of women’s voices
Women around the world have been at the forefront of the battle for human rights in 2018. In India and South Africa, thousands took to the streets to protest against endemic sexual violence. In Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, women activists risked arrest to resist the driving ban and forced hijab (veiling). In Argentina, Ireland and Poland, demonstrators rallied in vast numbers to demand an end to oppressive abortion laws. Millions of people in the USA, Europe and parts of Asia joined #MeToo-led women’s marches to demand an end to misogyny and abuse. In northeastern Nigeria, thousands of displaced women mobilized for justice for the abuses they have suffered at the hands of Boko Haram fighters and the Nigerian security forces.
The burgeoning power of women’s voices cannot be overstated. Spurred on by powerful cries for women’s rights to finally be respected, citizens of Ireland voted by a landslide to overturn the abortion ban. In Saudi Arabia, women were finally granted the right to drive. In Iceland and Sweden, new laws were passed recognizing sex without consent as rape. In the USA, accusations of sexual misconduct sent shockwaves through the Hollywood patriarchy, challenging decades of impunity.
The dire reality of women’s rights
Yet we cannot celebrate the stratospheric rise of women’s activism without recognizing why women need to fight so hard. The stark reality is that, in 2018, many governments openly support policies and laws that subjugate and suppress women.
Globally, 40% of women of childbearing age live in countries where abortion remains highly restricted, and some 225 million do not have access to modern contraception. Despite widespread activism, El Salvador refused to decriminalize abortion in any circumstances, and the Argentinian senate narrowly voted against a bill that would have legalized abortion on demand in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. At the same time, Polish and Guatemalan policy-makers continue to advocate for stricter abortion laws, while in the USA, funding cuts to family planning clinics have put the health of millions of women at risk.
Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women, transgender people and gender non-conforming people, yet it remains a human rights crisis that politicians continue to ignore. In July, Bulgaria chose not to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty for preventing and combating domestic violence and violence against women, after its Constitutional Court declared it “unconstitutional”. In August, Luxembourg became the 33rd state to ratify the Convention; yet, even with a relatively large number of European states signing up to abide by it, the statistics still paint a grim picture.
One in 10 girls worldwide is reportedly sexually assaulted by the age of 20, while only a third of EU countries recognize that sex without consent is rape. Elsewhere, in interviews with Amnesty International, women from conflict-affected areas of Nigeria, Iraq, South Sudan and Myanmar described the horrors of sexual violence they have faced, often by their country’s own security forces.
Throughout the world, women who experience intersecting layers of discrimination – including based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, race or socio-economic status – face unique and additional human rights violations. In Somalia, women with disabilities are often subjected to forced marriages and domestic violence. In Canada, Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered than other women. We in the women’s and human rights movements need to do more to recognize how these intersecting forms of discrimination affect people’s lives and to ensure the voices of the most marginalized are heard.
In response to women’s resistance and activism, anti-rights groups across Latin America and Europe have adopted a new tactic of repression: labelling feminists and LGBTI activists as so-called “proponents of gender ideology” who, according to them, pose an existential threat to “marriage and family values”. Such groups often try to silence women and LGBTI people who speak up for human rights, including through campaigns of online abuse. Thus, people of all genders campaigning against gender inequality are also fighting the additional battle to defend their rights to speak out at all.
Research carried out by Amnesty International this year, one of the first studies of its kind on human rights and violence against women online, confirms what many women know to be true: that social media platforms have proved both a blessing and a curse. Companies and governments have comprehensively failed to protect users from a deluge of online abuse, prompting many women in particular to self-censor or even leave these platforms altogether.
Conversely, social media has given more prominence in some parts of the world to women’s calls for equality in the workplace, a battle that has been raging for decades, centuries even, but which gained renewed attention during the year in calls to narrow the gender pay gap, currently standing at 23% globally. Women worldwide are not only paid less, on average, than men, but are more likely to do unpaid work and to work in informal, insecure and unskilled jobs. Much of this is due to social norms that consider women and their work to be of lower status.
Without workplace equality, women will continue to bear the brunt of the world’s shaky economic recovery. In the UK, women have reportedly shouldered 86% of the burden of austerity measures put in place since 2010 due to their reliance on social security benefits.
For most of history, women have been trapped in a cycle of discrimination driven by gender hierarchies and norms. The political participation of women is essential to tackle laws that entrench social and economic inequality. Although record numbers of women ran for public office in 2018, progress remains painfully slow. Currently, only 17% of all heads of state or government, and 23% of the world’s parliamentarians, are women.
2019: An opportunity for change
The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration is an opportunity to reflect on what was a momentous achievement for all the women and men involved in its creation. It took the active lobbying of a woman – Hansa Mehta – to successfully change the wording of Article 1 of the Declaration from “All men are born free and equal”, to “All human beings are born free and equal.” And Hansa Mehta was right to be concerned that women would be excluded from human rights protections. Now, 70 years on, we are still fighting for women’s rights to be recognized as human rights. One of the most urgent steps
governments must take to address this is to genuinely commit to the international bill of rights for women – the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – and ensure, through national implementation, that women have freedom from discrimination and violence.
CEDAW is the second most ratified human rights treaty, with 189 states parties. Yet governments must stop merely paying lip-service to women’s rights. If the undeniable surge of women’s activism this year proves anything, it is that people will not accept this. And neither will we. In 2019 Amnesty International will be increasing our lobbying efforts to ensure that governments drop their reservations to CEDAW with immediate effect and take the bold steps necessary to fully realize women’s rights. Now, more than ever, we must stand with women’s movements, amplify women’s voices in all their diversity and fight for the recognition of all our rights. I hope you will join us.