‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?
OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.
In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.
While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.
In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.
The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.
Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.
Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?
I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.
The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.
Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?
I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.
So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.
But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.
Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.
From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.
How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?
I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.
People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.
‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toUma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of theJanuary 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.
You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?
I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.
During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.
The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.
Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?
One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.
So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.
You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding?What is there in it for them?
We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.
If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.
How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?
We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.
These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.
In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.
As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?
They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.
As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.
This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?
Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?
We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?
As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.
We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.
For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.
What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?
I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.
People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.
‘People have power, even if they don’t usually feel like they do’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson of the Abortion Rights Campaign, in the aftermath of the historic vote that repealed the eighth amendment of Ireland’s Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.
See also our interview with Ivana Bacik, Irish Senator and campaigner for abortion rights.
1. The vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution exceeded 66 per cent. Did you see it coming?
We had lots of surprises – we certainly never saw 66 per cent coming. We thought it would be hard win, slightly over 50, 55 per cent at the most. We also thought that the people who were not really engaged would just stay home and not make what they surely considered a tough choice. But with close to 70 per cent, turnout was the third highest ever for a referendum.
Just so it is clear, it wasn’t our choice to go to a referendum, and I would never recommend it if it can be avoided. It is really tough, and while we won, it was a hard win, as people had to expose themselves and their stories. It was also expensive. But it was the only way to do this, as the amendment was in the Constitution.
2. What was the state of public opinion when the process started?
It is not easy to put a date to the beginning of the process. For my organisation, the Abortion Rights Campaign, it began in 2012. We started work in reaction to two major incidents around abortion rights that took place in Ireland in 2012. In the summer of that year, Youth Defence, a very militant anti-choice organisation, put up billboards all around Dublin, saying that abortion hurt women, stigmatising women who had had abortions, and saying lots of things that weren’t true. The protests that took place in reaction to this campaign were the biggest pro-choice demonstrations in a long time. This time, we were also organising online, on Facebook and Twitter, and this made it easier to get information out, so the protests were quite large. The first March for Choice, held in September 2012, gathered a couple of thousand people, which was no small feat at the time. It was the biggest in about a decade.
A month later, Savita Halappanavar died. Savita was pregnant and died because she was refused an abortion. She had been told she was going to have a miscarriage and there was a risk of infection but, according to the law, doctors were not allowed to intervene until her life was at imminent risk. This was a real wake-up call and put us under the global spotlight. Soon afterwards, in January 2013, the Abortion Rights Campaign began its work.
But none of this happened out of the blue; it was the result of decades of activism. And of course, the Abortion Rights Campaign was just one among many groups rallying for repeal. But Savita’s death was a turning point: many young people started their journey when it happened. From then on, the Marches for Choice got bigger and bigger every year and at some point, we figured out that we had to call a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and push for political change. We had been agitating for a while, marching in the streets and getting bigger and stronger, and in the meantime, other terrible things that happened strengthened the view that change was necessary, including a horrific court case involving a young brain-dead woman kept on life support against her family’s wishes because she was 16 weeks pregnant.
3. How did you manage to shift public opinion towards repeal?
In early 2016 Amnesty International commissioned a poll that showed overwhelming support for change, with a breakdown of where people stood regarding different causes for legal abortion, including incest, rape, risk to the woman’s health and foetal abnormality. A little under 40 per cent were in favour of allowing women to access abortion as they choose, while about 40 per cent were in favour of allowing it only under very restrictive circumstances. Going in, we estimated we were looking at a maximum of 45 per cent of support.
So we started with a strong, solid base of 40-plus per cent, and we knew the other side had a solid 10 to 20 per cent. There were lots of people, another 40 per cent, who were in doubt, unsure of where they stood. These were the people who could tip the scale, so we had to go talk to them. The common thinking is that people who are unsure will stick to the status quo because that’s what they know. But we knew that when people get the facts, when they get to listen to the evidence, they tend to come to a more pro-choice position. We knew this because that is exactly what happened to each of us, personally: we heard about the issue, thought about it, said ‘well, actually that’s really unfair, let’s work on it’. That’s also what we saw happen at the Citizen’s Assembly and again at the Joint Parliamentary Committee. We saw this time and again and knew it was just a matter of letting people have these conversations. We knew there was a big swathe of people that needed to be persuaded one way or the other, so this was a big part of our strategy: to encourage conversation and bring the tools so they could take place.
As activism grew and marches got bigger, we figured out a couple of things. One was that there was an increasing sentiment for change: no matter how you felt about abortion, there was a growing sense that the status quo was not helping women. Our abortion policies had drawn criticism from international human rights bodies. This just couldn’t go on – so at some point we needed to start talking to politicians to make sure they understood that they couldn’t brush the issue under the carpet anymore.
So we decided to make abortion a red-line issue in the 2016 general elections – that is, a key issue that politicians would be asked about daily as they knocked on our doors to ask for our votes. And we gave people the language to talk to their politicians about the issue. We knew that if they encountered the issue once and again when they were canvassing, they would pay attention. We did this in a number of ways: we had civic engagement training sessions where we would give people information about how referendums work, how the law works, what it says about the issue, what we can do and what our position regarding free, safe and legal abortion is. And it worked! We succeeded in forcing the issue into the agenda.
The other thing we realised is that, if and when this came to a referendum, it couldn’t just be a Dublin-based campaign – we had to go national. So we worked very hard to set up regional groups in every county around Ireland. By the time the referendum came, there was a pro-choice group in every county. And those groups went on to form canvassing groups that would hold their own events and talk to their politicians.
4. What role did the media play in the process? How did you work with both traditional and social media?
From my perspective, a key takeaway from the process is that it is vital to use social media to create a space so people can have a nuanced discussion about these issues.
With traditional media, our hands were tied, because when it comes to controversial issues, they are required to provide ‘balanced coverage’. According to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling, it is unconstitutional for the government to spend taxpayers’ money to provide arguments for only one side in a referendum. As a result, any broadcaster that receives state funding must allocate equal airtime to both sides. So, if you talk on TV about how you had an abortion, or you say you are pro-choice, the opposite view has to be given space as well. Even if someone was telling their actual story of needing an abortion and having to travel to the UK, saying exactly what had happened to them, rather than preaching about right or wrong, there would be someone who would be called in to ‘balance’ that. And the rule was interpreted very broadly, so it applied not just during the referendum campaign but also for years before that. It was very stifling.
In other words, traditional media were a massive block to people’s education. You normally look to the media to educate yourself on an issue, but it is not educational to constantly pitch ideas against each other, especially on an issue as complex and nuanced as abortion can be. So we had to bypass the mainstream media to get to the people. Fortunately, we exist in the time of social media, and we put a lot of effort into it and gave people the language and the nuance to talk about these things. We were used to hearing discussions about the morality of abortion where it was either right or wrong: there was no middle ground for people who were not that comfortable with it but thought the status quo was bad, and there was no room to talk about it.
We advocate for free, safe and legal abortion for anyone who wants or needs one, no questions asked, because we know it’s the gold standard and believe that women having choice and control over their own lives is a good thing. But we didn’t want to impose this on people. Rather we wanted to give people the language to talk about it, allowing them to ask more questions, to find out what they were ready to accept and how far they were ready to go. This really worked. There has been so much discussion about the dark web, bots, trolls and possible interference with the campaign – but there were hundreds of pro-choice Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles set by hundreds of pro-choice individuals, and we had tools to protect the space we had created where these discussions were taking place. For instance, a group of volunteers created Repeal Shield, which was basically a public list of bots and troll accounts. When a user flagged an account by messaging @repeal_shield, a volunteer would investigate, and if the account met the criteria of being a bot or troll, it would be added to the list. As a result, people could keep having a conversation without interference.
One big takeaway from this is that people have power. They usually don’t feel like they do, but what they do matters. Someone clicking ‘like’ on your page because they really like it means so much more than paid advertising. People don’t realise that, but when it comes to something that needs to be shared by many people or otherwise won’t be visible at all, this gives everyone a bit of power. Of course, there’s a lot more to activism than clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook post, but every little thing adds up.
We are always told that there we are an echo chamber, that we only talk with people who already think alike, but it turned out that we weren’t doing this at all. We got 66 per cent of the vote. That was not an echo chamber. That was reality.
Traditional media and politicians were slower to catch up to this, so we carved our own way. I am not saying this is the way to go for every activist group around the world. For one, Ireland has very good internet coverage, most people have access to it, and we have high user rates of Twitter and Instagram. This is not the case everywhere. But we used the tools we had, and it worked for us.
5. What other tactics did you use?
We gave people the language and an understanding of the political process, and that didn’t happen on social media; it happened on the ground. We would talk to people and they would bring the issue to their doorsteps. The Abortion Rights Campaign is a grassroots organisation, and what we did best was give people those tools so that they could then use them themselves. For years we had stalls every second week so people would come, have a chat, get information, take a leaflet. We had monthly meetings so people would learn about the organisation and how they could join, and sometimes we had somebody bring in a different perspective, such as a migrant or somebody from Direct Provision, a terrible institution for asylum seekers. We also developed training activities for marginalised groups about abortion in a wider reproductive context.
Other groups would lobby politicians. We are now probably going to do so, but at the time the grassroots campaign was our main concern. We also did advocacy at both the national and international levels, including submissions to various United Nations bodies. And we maintained links with Irish groups in other countries, because the Irish diaspora is very focused on this issue. We also had connections with other organisations that didn’t have a direct pro-choice mandate but might support a repeal stance, such as migrants’ rights groups, disability groups and others.
Beyond women’s rights organisations, we got the support of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, which meant a lot because everyone knows who they are, as well as some migrants’ rights organisations. An awful lot of the charity organisations in Ireland would have a nun or a priest on their board, so they would not take a stand on this issue. But a lot did, and we got a lot of support. More than a hundred organisations eventually signed up.
And of course, we sold t-shirts, repeal jumpers, so we gave people visibility. People became visibly pro-choice. You knew somebody was on your side when you saw them. You felt supported on a decision that maybe once you took and never told anybody about. Now you knew there was a visible crowd of people who supported you.
6. What was the tone of the debate?
A lot of it was about the moralities of abortion. Many people would say ‘I believe that life begins at conception; I believe you are taking a human life’ – and that’s okay, it’s people’s beliefs. But there were also lots of arguments that were brought in that were disprovable, greatly exaggerated, or not responding to the reality of what people were going through. Abortion is a contentious issue and there are indeed conversations to be had around disabilities and the like. But people were saying things like: ‘99 per cent of the people who get a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome will abort’. And may be true in certain contexts, but not necessarily here. And in any case, that says more about our attitudes towards people with disabilities than it does about abortion.
While some of it was about people’s deeply held beliefs, there were also lies, exaggerations and a deliberate misuse of stats. Some really nasty stuff happened: a huge amount of graphic images were used and are still out there. I absolutely do not think that every ‘no’ voter is a terrible person - people have their beliefs and their struggles - but I do think the anti-choice campaign made it quite nasty. It never got as bad as we had expected, but it was still hard.
7. For things to happen, changing the Constitution seems to be just a first - big - step. What work remains to be done, and what will be the role of the Abortion Rights Campaign?
When the eighth amendment was repealed, legislation about abortion had already been put on the table. It wasn’t fully spelled out, but it provided broad strokes of legislation coming from the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Parliamentary Committee. As a result, people knew going in what they were voting for: 12-week access with no restrictions as to reason, and longer if a woman’s life or health is in danger or in case of severe foetal abnormalities. There are discussions about mandatory wait periods and this kind of thing, and we are not that happy about those, but part of our work is to have discussions about that.
The legislation will be debated in the autumn and we expect it to be brought forward at the beginning of 2019. In the meantime, our job is to keep the pressure on to make sure that the legislation includes the right language and that people who continue to travel or take pills are taken care of. The Abortion Rights Campaign has a broader mandate. We have a mandate to seek the establishment of free, safe and legal abortion, but we also have a longer-term mandate aimed at de-stigmatising abortion. We’ve taken huge steps towards that because we’ve had this national conversation and it’s not possible to avoid the issue any more, but we still have a long way to go.
It’s been more than a month since the referendum, and we are already strategising about what we want and how we see our role moving forward, in forcing legislation through and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. Are people still having to travel to the UK? What improvements can be made? We need to make sure our legislation is good enough, that it allows people to get access. All along, part of the ban on abortion was also a ban on information about abortion, and most of all about how to get one. You were basically left to your own devices to go sort yourself out in the UK, and there were rogue pregnancy agencies giving terrible advice and purposefully delaying women seeking abortions. So a big part of what will come in the future will be making sure that doctors can actually take care of their patients. We take it that conscientious objection is going to come into play and need to make sure that it does not undo any of the good that we have achieved.
Civic space in Ireland is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’
Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane,asenior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation.Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.
- Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?
Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.
We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.
- Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?
We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Departmentappointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.
- Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?
ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.
I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.
- What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?
As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.
The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.
At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.
From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.
- Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?
Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.
#BEIJING25: ‘All efforts towards gender equality must be built upon intersectionality and power-shifting’
For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
#BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’
For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.
A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?
A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.
Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.
On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.
I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.
Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?
A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.
Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.
Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.
Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?
There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.
Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.
Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.
There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.
When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?
Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.
Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.
What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?
Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.
The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.
What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?
There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.
Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?
Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.
Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.
#BEIJING25: ‘We are outraged at discrimination and are turning our claims into action’
In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
CIVICUS speaks to Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and a member of the Secretariat of the Gqual Campaign, a global initiative seeking to promote gender parity in the composition of international organisations.
How much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has been translated into actual improvements?
We still have a long way to go to ensure that women can live autonomously without the burden of discrimination. Clearly, there are disparities and different effects among women due to age, economic situation, skin colour, ethnicity, migrant status, rural condition and several other situations that partly define our experience. Global figures for disparities in education, access to health, property and positions of power show the enormous disadvantage that women are at in most societies and the differential weight of inequality.
For instance, according to data from UN Women updated to the first semester of 2020, only 6.6 per cent of heads of government worldwide are women, as well as 20.7 per cent of those in ministerial positions; likewise, women hold 24.9 per cent of all parliamentary seats. The under-representation of women is also reflected in other areas, such as access to education: globally, 48.1 per cent of girls are not attending school. It is also visible in the labour market, since women receive 23 per cent less income than men. The same can be said about the prevalence of gender-based violence: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 87,000 women were victims of femicides worldwide in 2017, and that more than half – 50,000, or 58 per cent – were murdered by their partner or a member of their family.
In other words, there is a long way to go, but we have made significant progress in the 25 years since the Beijing Conference. Some important examples are the progress, made both through legal channels and on the streets, in rejecting sexist violence and femicide, the recognition of the differential effects of violence affecting Afro-descendant women, the policy changes aimed at tackling maternal mortality, advances in gaining access to government or legislative positions, the greater valuing of care tasks and the development of legal frameworks to deal with workplace harassment, among others.
In part, these advances were possible thanks to synergies between national-level change processes and international goal-setting and rights-recognition processes. In this sense, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) on women's equality, agreed globally at the UN level, is one of the key tools to achieve respect for individual autonomy and the collective development of communities. To advance this goal agreed upon by governments, there are a series of institutional spaces that promote it at the international and regional levels.
In addition, there is the fact that many women from various sectors, in Latin America and the world, are outraged at discrimination and structural violence and are turning our claims into action. Initiatives such as #NiUnaMenos, #SayHerName and #LasTesis, among many others, have been examples of this. Engaging in analysis, protesting and making proposals are key to ensuring that discriminatory structures are overcome.
Why is equal gender representation important, and what is the situation in international institutions?
One of the most significant arguments of women and other movements in search of representation is that of equality, since often the absence of women in decision-making sites is not the result of their own choice but the effect of glass ceilings, implicit discrimination and the segmentation of labour markets, among other factors. On top of this, there is the argument of the impact of equal participation in terms of enriching debate, innovation and due diligence in decision-making and improving the legitimacy and sustainability of certain processes, among other possible beneficial effects of the inclusion of women in decision-making spaces. In the same spirit, several innovative international conventions have included clauses to promote gender equality and representation. UN General Assembly Resolution 1325 on peace and security also includes language on the need for women’s participation in peace processes.
This recognition stands in contrast with the limited participation of women in decision-making sites, both nationally and internationally. The norms and mechanisms established in most of these spaces do not ensure the participation of women in conditions of equality or equal representation.
At the international level, in the spaces where decisions are reached on war and peace, the evolution of international criminal law, the scope of human rights, economic law and environmental law, and various other key issues, women are underrepresented at extreme levels. For instance, the International Court of Justice currently includes only three female judges (19 per cent) and historically it has only included four women out of a total of 108 magistrates (3.7 per cent). Only one of the seven current members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is a woman (14.3 per cent), and in the International Criminal Court there are only six women out of a total of 18 members (33 per cent). Finally, 10 of the 56 special mechanisms of the UN to date have never been led by a woman.
In other words, women are on the fringes of the decisions that are made on most of the issues that are most significant for the future of humanity in the areas of politics, justice and peace. This reality contrasts with the recognition of the right to participation in the international arena under conditions of equality enshrined in Article 8 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, widely ratified worldwide, and with the aspirations of balanced or equal participation proposed in various spaces of the UN system and other institutions.
How did the Gqual Campaign originate, what are its goals and what has it achieved so far?
Taking into account the reality of glass ceilings and the drastic regressions that have occurred recently in the composition of some bodies, a group of women and men convinced of the value of gender-balanced and diverse spaces joined in an initiative to promote gender parity in justice and monitoring institutions at the international level. With this objective in mind, we launched the Gqual campaign in September 2015. From this platform we promote individual and institutional commitments to gender parity in international representation, the development of research, standards and mechanisms to promote gender equality in international monitoring and justice institutions, vibrant and timely debate on the issue to advance the equality agenda, and the creation of a community of discussion and action around the issue.
Among the campaign’s actions are the monitoring and distribution of information on available positions in the sphere of international justice. We send letters and post information on networks calling attention to opportunities and disparities, we promote academic research, and we make proposals to modify the procedures for the nomination and selection of those who occupy positions in justice and monitoring institutions at the national and international level. Among our most interesting initiatives is a ranking that includes the number of men and women in these positions, by country. We also hold meetings of experts to contribute to the development of specialised documents. Additionally, we create synergies with selection processes in judicial spaces at the national level and participate in debates on representation at the national and international levels, in order to advance the broader agenda of political and social change towards equality.
I would like to invite you to join the online campaign and to follow and interact with it on social media. Since the launch of the campaign, we have made progress in debating the issue and have had several significant achievements, including resolutions by the UN and the Organization of American States on gender balance in the composition of international bodies, the systematisation of information on the composition of positions at the UN level disaggregated by gender, and excellent research that supports the international obligations of states and international organisations, among several others. By working for women's access to international spaces in conditions of parity, the Gqual Campaign promotes several of the commitments expressed in the SDGs: equality, access to justice, the fight against poverty and commitment to peace.
What support from international civil society is needed to continue promoting the campaign?
The greatest support that international civil society could give to the campaign would be to join the debate on the importance of ensuring women’s equal participation in international monitoring and judicial institutions. Depending on their possibilities, each person, organisation or institution might help advance more specific agendas at the local or international level in synergy with the campaign’s objectives. They can do so, for example, by encouraging their country’s government to monitor its nationals who occupy elected positions, doing field research on selection processes, writing about constitutional obligations or those derived from international law to guarantee equal access to international representation, running public awareness campaigns, or contributing to the campaign’s blog or writing about it in local newspapers. Given the structural inequality and the inertia that makes some governments reluctant to act, civil society and citizens must demand that the authorities ensure that women are nominated and considered for decision-making positions at the international and national levels. Civil society can also help drive the debate by collecting data and publishing analyses and studies.
I want to emphasise that due to the nature of the campaign – which arose from the initiative of women who advocate for equality and who mostly donate their time to move it forward – we are grateful for any contribution of time or donation aimed at supporting the campaign’s work and initiatives. We want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and for that we need women to intervene on an equal footing in making the decisions that concern us all.
#HRC50: Call for Urgent Debate on the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan
Open letter to Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States to the UN Human Rights Council
We, the undersigned civil society organisations, urge you to call for and support an urgent debate at the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council regarding the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan. We further urge you to support a resolution responding to this crisis.
Since August 2021, when the Taliban took control of the country, there has been an enormous deterioration in the recognition and protection of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, including with respect to the rights to non-discrimination, education, work, public participation, health, and sexual and reproductive health. The Taliban has also imposed sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement for women and girls. Afghanistan is now the only country in the world to expressly prohibit girls’ education.
In the last few weeks, the situation has worsened dramatically, with a Taliban directive that women and girls must fully cover themselves in public, including their faces, and leave home only in cases of necessity. International investigations, witness testimony and video evidence indicate that women human rights defenders and others protesting against the restrictions and violations have been subject to home invasions, threats, abductions, enforced disappearances, and assaults with electric devices and chemical sprays.
On 17 May 2022, the Taliban dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, cutting off a crucial source of support for Afghans facing violations of their human rights, including women and girls experiencing gender-based violence.
On 26 May 2022, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan concluded his country mission by describing recent measures as ‘fitting a pattern of absolute gender segregation…aimed at making women invisible in society’.
This is the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world today, and the most serious women’s rights crisis since the Taliban took over Afghanistan the last time in 1996.
Consistent with the mandate conferred under General Assembly resolution 60/251 that the Human Rights Council address situations of gross and systematic human rights violations, it is imperative that the Council consider and take action on the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan in a manner reflecting the gravity and urgency of the situation. At the Council’s forthcoming 50th session the High Commissioner will provide an oral update on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, followed by an interactive dialogue. In our view, this interactive dialogue, which will consider the situation in the country in general, should be complemented by an urgent debate providing a dedicated focus on women’s and girls’ rights, gender equality, and the situation for women human rights defenders in the country.
The purposes of an urgent debate could include:
- To unequivocally condemn the huge regression in the recognition, protection and realisation of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan;
- To express solidarity and support for women and girls in and from Afghanistan, including women human rights defenders who continue to advocate for equality and non-discrimination despite the threats and risks;
- To provide a platform and opportunity for women human rights defenders from Afghanistan, together with other independent civil society actors, to share their experiences, expertise, recommendations and demands;
- To provide a platform and opportunity for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan to brief the Council on the preliminary findings and recommendations from his country visit of 15 to 26 May; and
- To request that the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan and the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls prepare a report on the situation to be presented and discussed at the Council and ensure that they are adequately resourced to do this.
Recognition and protection of gender equality is both a human rights obligation and essential to achieve peace, justice and sustainable development in Afghanistan. These grave and systematic violations of women’s rights demand an urgent and proportionate response. It would be unacceptable for the June session of the Council, traditionally the session focused on gender-related issues, to pass without dedicated attention and action on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. We consider that an urgent debate and substantive resolution are part of an appropriate response and urge you to take and support action in this regard.
- Afghan Women's Educational Center
- Aid Afghanistan for Education
- Amnesty International
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Center for Reproductive Rights
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Civic Participation
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
- Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights
- DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
- Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
- Freedom Now
- Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
- Global Justice Center
- Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP)
- Human Rights Watch
- International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Malala Fund
- OutRight Action International
- Social Association for Development of Afghanistan
- Women & Children Legal Research Foundation
- Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
- Women's Refugee Commission
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
16 Days of Activism - Women in Solidarity during COVID-19
16 Days of Activism, running annually from 25 November to 10 December, comes at the end of a year that saw a global pandemic affect families, economies, and every aspect of society worldwide. All around the globe, women stepped up when governments and businesses failed to act. After a tough year, this 16 Days global civil society alliance CIVICUS is celebrating the inspiring stories of women: activists involved in protest, women human rights defenders behind bars, and women’s organisations across the globe working to mitigate rising levels of gender based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists Fuel Global Movement to Fight Violence Against Women
By Aarti Narsee, civic space researcher at CIVICUS
This year marks 30 years of fighting to live free of gender-based violence through the 16 Days of Activism campaign, which commences every November 25 on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Since 1991, organizations and countries around the globe have come together to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. However, the numbers paint a disturbing picture on the situation for women and girls around the world, with UN Women estimating that one in three women aged 15 years and older have faced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, nonpartner, or both at least once in their lifetime. This does not account for the other forms of violence that women and girls face, such as being denied reproductive choice, being subjected to violence on online platforms, or being denied the right to education or work.
Read on: Women's Media Center
Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, a risky fight against powerful enemies
CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.
1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.
Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.
On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.
The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.
While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.
Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.
Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.
Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.
2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.
Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.
3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.
We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.
4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.
For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.
Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.
Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.
In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.
5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.
In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.
The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.
Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).
Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.
The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.
6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?
The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.
A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.
In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.
Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.
7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.
Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.
Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.
The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Open-source monitoring reveals both the clampdown on women’s rights and the impact on their lives’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Anouk Theunissen and Humaira Rahbin, researchers with Afghan Witness, and Meetra Qutb, Afghan Witness’s communications specialist.
Afghan Witness is a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan. It seeks to provide reliable data to international organisations, governments, the media and civil society and to create awareness about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Its team includes people on the ground as well as international researchers, analysts, journalists and experts. Most of its team members’ identities are kept confidential for safety reasons.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’
CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms
What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.
Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.
Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.
What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?
In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.
The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.
Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.
Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?
To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.
How have you been supporting civil society and activists?
The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.
Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.
What do you think of the response by the international community so far?
Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.
On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.
What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?
Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.
The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.
For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.
Civic space inAfghanistan is rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Afghanistan: Assault on peaceful protests highlight deteriorating space for civic freedoms
Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns the excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests in Afghanistan. Such actions highlight the deteriorating space for civic freedoms in the country and the need to ensure independent mechanisms to hold Taliban authorities accountable.
Afghanistan: Grave violations to civic freedoms and ongoing impunity show need for robust international mechanism
Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue on the Special Rapporteur’s report on Afghanistan
Delivered by Horia Mosadiq
CIVICUS and the Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization thank the Special Rapporteur for his first report. The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated.
Since the Taliban takeover, escalating restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the country have exacerbated the danger facing human rights defenders. They live in a climate of fear, facing harassment, threats and violence. Those who have criticised the regime have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Women human rights defenders have been abducted by the Taliban with impunity.
Crackdowns against protesters continue without accountability. Thousands of people, especially women, who took to the streets across the country to protest against the Taliban were subjected to excessive force, gunfire and beatings by the Taliban authorities, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters.
There have been countless raids of civil society offices, often to intimidate, and some groups have had their bank accounts frozen. The dissolution of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission this year symbolises the complete disintegration of accountability mechanisms in the country.
While grave violations continue and impunity remains rampant, we call on States to urgently take steps to create a more robust international accountability mechanism to complement the work of the Special Rapporteur.
We further call on States to provide Afghan human rights defenders with financial, diplomatic and political support, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes, and to apply pressure on the Taliban to create a safer space for human rights defenders in Afghanistan.
We thank you.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Afghanistan: International community must expedite discussions towards a robust accountability mechanism
Statement at the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Debate on OHCHR report on Afghanistan
Delivered by Horia Mosadiq, Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO)
Thankyou Mr. President,
CIVICUS andSRMOwelcomes this new reporton the situation of human rights in Afghanistan andexpress our grave concernthat morethantwo years after the Taliban takeover, there has been a failure by the international community to ensure serious and sustained attention tostem the systematic assault on civic space in the country.
In March,Afghanistan’s civic space rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’. Over the last year, activists, especially women human rights defenders and journalistshavecontinued toface arbitrary arrests,detention and ill-treatment by the Taliban. Education rights activist Matiullah Wesa and reporter MortazaBehboudi remain in detention. NGOs have also faced asset seizure and licence suspensions because they were led by women orhadwomen employees.
It has become increasing difficult to hold protests in Afghanistan due to harassment,arrests and ill-treatment. Despite this, scores ofbravewomendemonstrated in July, their bravery was met with gunfire, water cannons and beatings.
The international community must speak up and urge the de facto authorities to respect fundamental freedoms and to reverse their ban on women working andfromeducation.
Proactive steps must be taken toprovide support and protection to human rights defenders at risk, including those in exile.
We also urge the Council todo more to hold the Taliban accountable fortheir abuses and discriminatory policies, gender apartheid andexpedite discussions towards a more robust international accountability mechanism.
We thank you.
Afghanistan: International community must urge Taliban to lift ban on women’s access to employment
CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, is appalled by the decision of the Taliban to ban women from employment in local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The move is discriminatory and regressive and will have a detrimental impact on women’s rights and the crucial work of civil society in the country. The international community must condemn this and urge the Taliban to lift the ban immediately.
Afghanistan: Keep the pressure on the Taliban to create a safer space for women, HRDs, and journalists
Statement at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Debate on the High Commissioner’s update on Afghanistan
Delivered by Horia Mosadiq
CIVICUS and Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization thank the High Commissioner for her update.
We remain deeply concerned with the escalating restrictions to fundamental freedoms, threats against human rights defenders, and curtailment of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban assumed power, women, and girls in Afghanistan are increasingly restricted in their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and even movement. It has become the only country in the world to prohibit girls’ education. The Taliban issued a directive on 7 May mandating women and girls to fully cover themselves in public and leave home only in cases of necessity. Women human rights defenders have been subjected to numerous human rights violations, including abductions, enforced disappearances, and assaults with impunity.
Last month, the Taliban dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. This act symbolizes the complete disintegration of accountability mechanisms in the country.
We welcome the scrutiny of the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, especially in the context of his recent visit to the country, which is an important step towards any future accountability. The crisis facing women and girls merits further investigation. We call on the Council to ensure both adequate support to the Special Rapporteur and to stand ready to take further action, on both prevention and accountability initiatives, as the situation deteriorates.
We further call on States to provide Afghan human rights defenders with financial, diplomatic and political support, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes, and to apply pressure on the Taliban to create a safer space for human rights defenders and journalists in Afghanistan.
We thank you.
Afghanistan: Systematic violations of women's and girls’ rights demand an urgent and proportionate response
Statement at the 50th Session of UN Human Rights Council
Urgent Debate on Afghanistan
Delivered by Horia Mosadiq, Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization
CIVICUS and Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization welcome the holding of this Urgent Debate.
The situation for women and girls in Afghanistan is absolutely critical. Since the Taliban took power, the rollback of the rights of women and girls has been swift, unprecedented, and in some cases deadly.
Women and girls are increasingly restricted in their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and even movement, and the situation is worsening.
Women human rights defenders fought for participation and human rights in the fragile peace process ongoing before the Taliban takeover, at significant risk and with insufficient support. With systematic oppression now in place and risk magnified to an unimaginable extent, such international support is more critical than ever.
The grave and systematic violations of women's and girls’ rights demand an urgent and proportionate response, to protect those on the ground and to hold the Taliban accountable for abuses. There needs to be a clear sign that the international community takes seriously this situation. We urge the Human Rights Council to take action that will materially support women human rights defenders and those they protect.
We further call on States to provide Afghan human rights defenders with financial, diplomatic and political support, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes, and to apply pressure on the Taliban to create a safer space for human rights defenders and journalists in Afghanistan.
We thank you.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Afghanistan: the Council must expedite discussions towards a more robust international accountability mechanism
Statement at the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan
Delivered by Horia Mosadiq, Afghan human rights activist
Thank you, Mr. President,
We express our grave concern over the ongoing discriminatory and regressive treatment against women and girls as well as the targeting of human rights defenders and civil society in the country. The recent ban on higher education and employment in NGOs is only the latest clear example of the Taliban’s concerted plan to crush women’s rights and role in Afghan society.
The ban on access to employment in NGOs for women has significantly impacted the work of local NGOs to provide service and support for women, children and marginalised groups. It has also prevented the delivery of humanitarian support and other life-saving aid to those in need.
Those denouncing these restrictions have been harassed and attacked. Peaceful protesters, especially women rights activists, have been subjected to increased restrictions and violence and press freedom has further deteriorated. The widespread impunity for these violations has contributed to an increasing climate of fear since the Taliban takeover.
The international community has not done enough to hold the Taliban accountable for their abuses and discriminatory policies and it needs to act now to avert a further escalation of the crisis. Particular attention should be directed to the threats and harassment against women human rights defenders as described in the Special Rapporteur’s report.
We call on the Council to publicly call out the Taliban for the ongoing human rights violations and expedite discussions toward a more robust international accountability mechanism.
We ask the Special Rapporteur, what should the Council do to adequately and promptly support civil society, especially women rights activists operating within the country?
We thank you.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor