women's rights

 

  • Poland: Escalating threats to women activists

    Investigate, Protect Rights Defenders, End Hateful Rhetoric

     

  • Polish government must stop violent crackdowns on protesters

     

    Przeczytaj oświadczenie w języku polskim

    Polish law enforcement and military, deployed today across the country, must refrain from using excessive force against protesters who have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the Polish government under the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party.  

     

  • SAN MARINO: ‘There was an overwhelming demand for women to gain the right to choose’

    CIVICUS speaks with Sara Casadei, vice-president of Noi Ci Siamo San Marino (‘We are here San Marino’), about the referendum on abortion rights held in San Marino on 26 September 2021. Noi Ci Siamo San Marino is a volunteer initiative aimed at informing, supporting and empowering young people through recreational and socio-cultural activities. It advocates for the rights of disadvantaged young people and has focused on bullying, cyberbullying and gender-based violence, as well as campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in San Marino.

    Sara Casadei

    What was the situation of women’s rights before abortion was legalised in San Marino?

    Generally speaking, women in San Marino have always had the same rights as in Italy, except for the right to interrupt pregnancy. Before abortion was legalised by referendum in September 2021, San Marino was one of a few European countries where abortion was illegal. But women in San Marino enjoyed all other rights, including the right to vote and occupy decision-making spaces.

    Before the referendum, abortion was a criminal offence punished with between three to six years in prison, regardless of the reasons leading to the abortion. Punishment applied to all people involved: the woman seeking an abortion and all those contributing, including doctors. That is why women would typically travel to Italy to have abortions, which is inconvenient and costly – and over the past few years, it also became more difficult as many Italian doctors are refusing to perform abortions.

    Can you tell us about the process leading to the referendum vote?

    The process started by the initiative of the Unione Donne Sammarinesi (Women’s Union of San Marino, UDS). The organisation had spent almost two decades advocating for the legalisation of abortion, but its proposals had been systematically vetoed by conservative governments, so they felt they had no other choice but to resort to this direct democracy mechanism and ask citizens directly whether they agreed with legalising abortion.

    To trigger this mechanism, there was the need to gather the signatures of three per cent of registered voters. The UDS led the collection of signatures along with the RETE movement (Movimento Civico Rinnovamento – Equità – Transparenza – Ecosostenibilità), a political party formed by environmental, cultural and civic rights activist groups. The signature collection campaign was conducted in March 2021 and gathered a lot more support than required. Advancing this right was the people’s will, rather than just the UDS’s. It was an overwhelming demand for women to gain the right to choose.

    Noi Ci Siamo San Marino supported the whole process, from the signature collection to the referendum campaign, in which we made several calls for our target audience – San Marino youth – to vote ‘yes’ for their own sake and that of future generations. We were up against the opposition of the Catholic Church and the ruling party, the Christian Democrats. The fact that 77 per cent of citizens, many of whom are Catholics and support the ruling party, voted ‘yes’, shows that people’s views have evolved faster than those of their political and religious representatives.

    What’s next?Will recognition of this right be a gateway to the achievement of further rights?

    The referendum requires action on the part of the government. On the basis of the referendum results, legislators must draft an abortion rights bill within six months. The referendum question referred to on-demand abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy and to later abortions in cases of foetal malformation or when the pregnant person’s health is at risk. But the final law does not necessarily have to stick to that.

    I wouldn’t say that the legalisation of abortion will lead to other women’s rights. But we do expect the inception of related services, such as medical and psychological assistance both before and after pregnancy interruption, as well as sex education and teenage pregnancy prevention in schools.

    Civic space in San Marino is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Noi ci siamo San Marino through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages.

     

  • Saudi activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul spends 1000+ days in prison: Masana Ndinga-Kanga

    Prominent Saudi female activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for women's right to drive, was sentenced to more than five years in prison in December 2020, after having already spent two years in detention. She is probably one of Saudi Arabia's most famous human rights defenders. She and other activists were detained in 2018 on charges including contacts with organisations hostile to Saudi Arabia. She was eventually convicted of various charges, including trying to harm national security and advance a foreign agenda. As she spends her 1000th day in prison activists from around the world are campaigning for her unconditional release. Masana Ndinga-Kanga the Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Lead at the global alliance of civil society organisations, CIVICUS, told SABC News that al-Hathloul's case is symbolic of the repression and silencing that women in Saudi Arabia face when they dare to speak out for their human rights.

     

  • Sudan: Free women detainees!

    CIVICUS joins civil society groups in calling for the immediate release of Sudanese women human rights defenders in detention, and accountability for the crimes committed against them.

     

  • SYRIA: ‘The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare’

    CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Syrian civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with Maria Al Abdeh, executive director of Women Now for Development (WND), a Syrian civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fostering a democratic, free and just society in which women can play meaningful roles and reach their full potential.

     Maria Al Abdeh

    What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Syria?

    The pandemic has definitely had a disproportionate impact on Syrian women and girls. Champa Patel and I analyse these impacts in a recent paper, ‘COVID-19 and Women in Syria‘. Under the pandemic, women’s health issues were taken less seriously, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, such as pregnancy. Women lost access to hospitals – access that was already diminished by war and displacement. The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare services and facilities.

    We have also seen a huge psychosocial burden on the Syrian women we interviewed. Women spoke about the panic their children experienced when schools closed. In children’s minds, school closings are linked to bombings and displacement, so when schools closed yet again it triggered traumatic memories. Mothers had to calm their children and explain there were no bombs but there was now a new danger, the pandemic. Displaced women also reported on the traumatic impact of displacement on their mental health.

    Additionally, most interviewees told us that they were giving more tasks to girls than boys. But we found something interesting: during the first months of the pandemic, when fear was at its highest, Syrian girls were quite creative in finding ways to support their community, such as by organising activities for children in camps.

    Other women reported that it was challenging to keep their families healthy, which according to established gender roles is a woman’s job as a caregiver. The pandemic clearly took a toll on everyone, but as is also the case with violence and conflict, it had intersectional effects that made it worse for women.

    The pandemic worsened an economic situation that was already fragile. Eighty per cent of Syrians are below the poverty line and 60 per cent of households are led by women. As a result of the pandemic, an additional economic burden was placed on women’s shoulders. For the sake of their husbands and children, women are the last ones to eat, which has huge health consequences. Even those who do not live in camps usually have no way of storing food, so they can only afford food when the breadwinner brings money in every day.

    While the conflict in Syria may have already altered women’s roles in both family and society, the pandemic has reinforced an unjust gender divide.

    How has civil society, and WND more specifically, worked to support Syrian women during the pandemic?

    Civil society has supported women in many ways, from raising awareness to providing humanitarian aid and psychosocial support. Most of this support, however, was provided during the first year of the pandemic. As time passed, the pandemic itself stopped being a priority for Syrians, who instead focused on its economic impacts. Despite the growing death toll of the pandemic inside Syria, priorities changed.

    As for WND, our main areas of work are protection, empowerment, participation, research and advocacy. The research we conducted during the first months of the pandemic informed our programmes, which we modified to match the needs of Syrian women in the new context. As a result, we supported more small businesses led by women.

    We also reinforced our psychosocial support programme and we shifted our empowerment programmes online – which we had done before in response to bombings, but only for shorter periods. By shifting online, we were able to reach further. On the negative side, we lost personal contact with women, and could not reach the most vulnerable ones, who have no access to technology.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Syria? What would need to happen for them to be effectively tackled?

    This is quite a difficult question. Rights, freedom and dignity are a very basic need for all Syrians, both women and men. But for women, there is a huge list of unfulfilled rights.

    The war has deepened inequalities and reinforced patterns of violence. Gendered impacts need to be taken into account in any discussion around accountability, justice or peace. This is why, as women and feminists, we are calling for transformative gender justice, which means addressing the root causes of harm and crimes to prevent their recurrence.

    Take for example enforced disappearances. This is huge issue in Syria, where more than 100,000 men and women – but mostly men - have forcibly disappeared. In addition to loss and psychological pain, many women have had to deal with an unjust law that deprives them of custody of their children or access to their husband’s property. Many women whose husbands had gone missing told us that education was their biggest need, as they had to take care of the whole family by themselves and were not well prepared.

    Another example is the condition of female detainees. Some have been killed by their families after getting out of detention centres because they were viewed as ‘dishonoured’ for being raped. Instead of being considered victims, they were treated as sinners. 

    But our basic rights won’t be realised as long as the Syrian regime remains in power. The pandemic was just another indicator that the Syrian regime doesn’t care about its people, who were left on their own, without even basic medical care.

    For gender inequality to be tackled effectively, the war needs to end and criminals mustn’t be allowed to take over the country. We need the kind of peace that brings democracy and accountability. Unfortunately, crimes and human rights abuses are currently being committed not only by the Syrian regime, but by other parties in the conflict as well.

    So-called ‘honour crimes’ against women are on the rise because the violence and impunity of war have started to take root in society. The Syrian authorities couldn’t care less about tackling these violations. The gender impact of war is not even considered and women’s perspectives are not taken seriously at any level. That’s why WND works so hard to highlight the impact of conflict and displacement on women as well as their perspectives through a feminist lens, and insists on the importance of including women at all levels of decision-making. 

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

    For this year, WND has decided to celebrate our success following years of war and the pandemic. This IWD, our organisation’s focus will be on shedding light on acts of solidarity by Syrian women’s CSOs, as a feminist approach to empower women, claim space and fight violence.

    On 11 March we will hold an online seminar, ‘The Power to Change: Women and Feminist Organisations as Transformative Actors in Syria’, which will revolve around the findings of a report recently published by WND, Global Fund for Women and Impact.

    Civic space in Syria is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Women Now for Development through its website and follow@WomenNowForDev on Twitter.

     

  • Take Action: 16 campaigns tackling women’s rights and gender inequality

    Across the world, brave and resolute women rights defenders are taking action on everything from advocating for equality, access, and justice, to standing up to corruption, environmental violations, and even persecution of fellow activists. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic made already difficult operating environments even worse: an increasing number of governments have used COVID-19 as a smokescreen to implement repressive measures that strangle civil society, as well as roll back progress made for gender equality and reproductive rights. Yet, the fightback continues. Here are 16 people-powered movements and campaigns to add your voice to this 16 Days of Activism.

    1. #Lifeinleggings

    #Lifeinleggings is one of the winners of this year’s Nelson Mandela - Graca Machel Innovation Awards. This campaign was founded in 2016, speaking to gender-based issues and discrimination faced by women and changing the mindset and the lives of women in the Caribbean. The campaign started with the hashtag #LifeinLeggings in virtual spaces as a safe space for women who experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault. It was a call of solidarity and empowerment to speak across social media platforms. While the hashtag spread in the Caribbean and the diaspora, they transferred the conversations to the physical spaces. They transformed it into a grassroots movement called for social transformation and committed to dismantling the rape culture within the Caribbean through advocacy, education, empowerment and community outreach and forward to dismantling the patriarchal system that affects both men and women.

    Be part of the transformation and spread the word about#Lifeinleggings

    2. #OrangeTheWorld Campaign 

    Each year, the United Nations invites people to Orange the World, in support of ending Violence Against Women. Civil society and women's rights organisations, governments, schools, universities, the private sector and individuals host orange themed events - film screenings, exhibits, radio shows, etc - to raise awareness and get people talking. The campaign helps share knowledge and innovations, amplify stories, and promote women and girls' leadership. COVID-19 has triggered a rise in gender based violence and women's rights violations,  making this campaign more important than ever.

    Join the movement, take action and orange the world. 

    3. Drop Case 173 

    In Egypt, Case 173 of 2011, also known as NGO Foreign Funding Case, continues to undermine women’s rights and civil society organisations working towards defending human rights. After a decade of the systematic targeting of organisations and persecuting activists, women human rights defenders, and feminists, Egypt refuses to close the case entirely and stop the judicial harassment of women’s rights defenders like Magda Adly, Suzanne Fayyad, Aida Seif ElDawla and Azza Soliman. 

    #DropCase173,a campaign led by regional and international feminists, women’s rights and human rights organisations, calls on the Egyptian state to dismiss cases against civil society activists and organisations persecuted under Case 173 and immediately drop the charges and lift any travel bans and asset freezes against them. 

    Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Egypt should not be silenced and harassed for carrying out their work, call on the government to #DropCase173 

    4. GHANA: Reject the anti-LGBTI+ bill

    While some progress has been made in a number of countries towards LGBTI+ rights, the rights of this community continue to be under threat in many parts of the world. Ghana, is one such example. The government of Ghana has brought forward the “Family values” draft bill that would criminalise the country’s LGBTI+ community and its allies. If passed the bill will amongst many other things discriminate LGBTI+ community and criminalise the promotion and funding of their activities.

    This bill and many others that criminalise rights of people based on their gender stands to reverse the remarkable gains made over the years in LGBTI+ equality. In order to achieve equality and inclusivity we need to step up the struggle for LGBTI+ rights, especially in countries like Ghana. Here’s a first step you can take, show solidarity by signing a petition calling lawmakers to reject this bill

    5. Stand As My Witness 

    High numbers of women human rights defenders are facing persecution for their activism, making the global Stand As My Witness campaign mportant to support right now.

    Launched in 2020, the campaign calls for the release of human rights defenders jailed as a result of their work and who they are.  The campaign  is currently calling for the release of Teresita Naul- an advocate for the rights of poor and marginalised people,  María Esperanza Sánchez García - a Nicaraguan human rights defender targeted for her civic activism, and Sudha Bharadwaj - a human rights lawyer who defends Indigenous people’s rights, and many more.  The #StandAsMyWitness campaign urges people to write letters on behalf of the defenders, sign a petition rallying for their freedom, and share the defenders’ individual stories on social media using the hashtag #StandAsMyWitness

    Find out more about the campaign and how you can get involved here

    6. Free Saudi Activists

    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a long history of forcefully silencing men and women who dare to stand up to the country’s unjust laws and patriarchal gender norms. The crackdown on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Saudi Arabia continues to worsen, with the CIVICUS Monitor rating the state of the country’s civic space as closed.

    On 15 May 2018, a few weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on women driving, authorities launched a large-scale coordinated crackdown against women human rights defenders in the kingdom. Tens of prominent WHRDs, among many others, have since been arrested. Saudi authorities targeted WHRDs who fought to lift the country’s driving ban on women, and those calling for an end to the male guardianship system, which requires women to get permission from a male relative to travel, marry or work. While some women's rights activists, including Loujain al- Hathloul,  who spoke against this system have been released, some remain in jail and others continue to have travel bans and asset freezes imposed against them. 

    Stand in solidarity with women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, sign this petition today. 

    7.FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders

    Women are under-represented in leadership positions in many sectors including the social impact sector. FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders is an initiative established to advocate for Feminist Leadership and accelerate gender equity in the social impact sector by monitoring the proportion of women in leadership and advocating for Feminist Leadership. Recently, FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders hosted 8-week-long series where they explored many topics around Feminist Leadership, from accountability and authenticity to collective leadership and sisterhood.  With the belief that “true and lasting transformation is not a matter of checking boxes, but rather the sum of small changes we live and breathe in our everyday life”, the initiative continues to take tremendous strides towards ensuring that more women are in places of leadership. 

    Join the movement and be an advocate for Feminist Leadership.

    8. #JusticeForFikileNtshangase

    On 22 October 2020, Fikile Ntshangase, a grandmother in her sixties, and an activist from the Mfolozi Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) who resisted and spoke out against the activities and expansion of the Tendele anthracite mine on her community's doorstep, was murdered in her home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Despite many public outcries from civil society actors and world leaders, her family are still waiting for her murderers to be apprehended. Fikile joins a long list of environmental defenders who have been brutally killed for defending their community’s land and environment. 

    This campaign draws our attention to the plight of many environmental women human rights defenders who are killed with impunity around the world. Sign this open letter calling for #JusticeForFikileNtshangase

    9. She Changes Climate 

    From the sinking small islands to drought-stricken villages, women bear the lion’s share of the burden of the climate change crisis. It is for this reason and many others that now more than ever, women, women’s rights activists and organisations are calling for meaningful inclusion in climate decision making processes. #SheChangesClimate was launched in November 2020 with a #5050 vision to address women leadership in decisions and policymaking related to the climate crisis. 

    The campaign calls for greater representation of women, in all their diversity, at the top levels of all future climate delegations. In the lead up to and during this year’s COP meeting, #SheChangesClimate actively ensured that gender imbalance of decision-making didn’t go unnoticed. There is no denying that we need urgent solutions to the climate change crisis, for #SheChangesClimate, the need for women's voices and insights in the climate discussions is equally important.

    Together, let’s call for women’s participation in climate decision making processes : She Changes Climate 

    10. #FreeViasna Campaign

    Tatsiana Lasitsa and Marfa Rabkova, the two WHRDs among other members from the Viasna group in Belarus, are currently in prison. Since 2003, the Belarusian authorities have been harassing Viasna because they have been actively monitoring and documenting human rights violations. The reprisals against Viasna are a part of the broader repression and the systematic silencing of the civil society in Belarus. More than 200 civil society organisations have been shut down or in the process of being closed down. 

    The #FreeViasna Campaign was launched in September 2021 by a group of international human rights organisations. They demand the release of Viasna members and hundreds of the victims of politically motivated prosecutio. Further to this, the campaign calls on the government to respect and protect human rights defenders' work and ensure the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression of all people in Belarus.

    The members of Viasna and other human rights defenders need your action, support #FreeViasna

    11. #TurkeyTribunal

    Erin Keskin, a lawyer and a human rights activist in Turkey, who dedicated her life to amlifying the voices of women and exposing abuses happening to them in Turkish prisons. Keskin has been among many other activists and human rights defenders, arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to numerous lawsuits related to her human rights activity and now she is one of the leading witnesses in the Turkey Tribunal.

    The Turkey Tribunal was founded in 2020 to document and investigate the increasing number of human rights violations committed by the Turkish government towards activists, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders. This tribunal aims to break the silence by providing information, raising awareness towards the issue, and mobilising the international community. 

    Learn more about this campaign here.

    12. #FreeNasrin Campaign

    Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer and a human rights defender, has been sentenced to 33 years of prison and 148 lashes for defending women’s rights in Iran. Sotoudeh, PEN America’s 2011 Freedom to Write Award honoree and a co-winner of the European Parliament’s 2012 Sakharov Prize, is one of Iran’s most prominent voices. She has been harassed and targeted by the Iranian government, imprisoned multiple times. In June 2018, she was incarcerated on national security-related charges levied after advocating on behalf of women detained for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law. 

    This campaign calls on Iranian authorities to drop all charges against Sotoudeh, release her and stop their harassment of her family, allow their access to their finances and drop charges against her daughter. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners currently held in Iranian prisons on unjust charges. 

    Amplify the voice of Nasrin and hundreds of WHRDs in Iran, sign the petition.

    13. #StrajkKobiet

    Around the world, women and girls face extreme barriers to accessing legal abortions. This is no different in Poland. In October 2020,  Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal imposed a near total ban on abortion, sparking mass protests, most of which were organised by the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement. Strajk Kobiet has worked relentlessly to stop the various initiatives proposing an almost complete ban on abortion in Poland. A year on, many women human rights defenders who took part in the protests continue to face an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment. Among many others, Marta Lempart, co-founder of Strajk Kobiet has become a target of repeated threats for leading demonstrations supporting legal abortion and women’s rights. Despite this, Strajk Kobiet continues to bravely campaign for women’s rights in Poland.

    Check their website to know more about their work of defending women’s rights:Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet 

    14. Justice forMarielle Franco

    It has been 3 years since the murder of one of Brazil's most courageous social leaders, Marielle Franco and to this day no one has been brought to book. On 14 March 2018, Marielle was brutally assassinated on the streets of Rio de Janeiro shortly after leaving a gathering of young Black activists.  

    We remember Marielle for bravely mobilising for social and economic change in the lives of people living in Rio’s favelas and for unapologetically advocating for women and LGBTI+ rights.

    Recognise the work of Marielle, remember her story and call for her justice.

    15. #StandWithThe6 

    Shatha Odeh, a prominent Palestinian healthcare expert, and the Middle East and North Africa regional coordinator of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) was detained by Israeli security forces on July 2021. The Israeli campaign against Shatha extended to further criminalise 6 prominent Palestinian civil society organisations by targeting and labelling them as "terror organisations". Among the targeted is the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC), a feminist grassroots organisation which has been defending women's rights since 1980. 

    The decision puts at risk the legitimate and fundamental work of hundreds of human rights defenders, activists and organisations documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy campaigns for freedom, justice and equality and providing tools for protection as well as legal social and health/medical support for Palestinian citizens. 

    #StandWithThe6 is launched to build solidarity with the Palestinian civil society, pressure the international community, policymakers, and representatives to take the needed measures, and stand with the Palestinian civil society against the Israeli assaults on human rights and human rights defenders.

    Stand with Palestianian civil society, #StandWithThe6

    16.Write for rights Campaign

    Write For Rightsis a campaign run by Amnesty International yearly over the months of November and December. The campaign encourages individuals to write messages of solidarity to activists, organisations and movements that have suffered injustice and abuse. 

    This year, the Write for Rights campaign is asking that you stand in solidarity with 10 human rights defenders and activists. Among them, 15-year-old Janna Jihad who is facing death threats and intimidation for her work speaking up for human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 22-year-old Rung who is is facing life in prison for speaking out for freedom and democracy in Thailand and Ciham Ali who has been missing for over 8 years and was last seen taken by the Eritrean authorities while trying to leave the country.

    Follow this link: Write a letter, sign a petition and protect their rights today.

     

  • The aid sector must enforce standards, rebuild trust to survive abuse scandals

    By Anabel Cruz, Chair of the Board of CIVICUS

    Critics are using the recent scandals to delegitimise aid and humanitarian efforts. We, in civil society, must all be prepared to have this debate - seriously and honestly.

    Read on: Thomson Reuters Foundation News  

     

     

  • TUNISIA: ‘The official response has failed to consider the gendered aspects of the pandemic’

    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, 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 and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) speak to Ramy Khouili, director of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, ATFD). Founded in 1989 by the autonomous feminist movement in response to state feminism, ATFD promotes gender equality in all areas, from the political sphere to socio-economic rights, including women’s sexual, bodily and reproductive rights, and fights against all forms of discrimination and violence against women.

    Tunisia Interview

    What is the situation of women’s rights in Tunisia? How much has been achieved so far?

    About a month after independence in 1956, the Code of Personal Status was enacted. Up until now, it is still seen as the most progressive and revolutionary personal status code in the region because it abolished polygamy, instituted civil marriage and abolished repudiation and many forms of degradation of women. Ever since then, we had a very peculiar situation, as state feminism prevailed in the public sphere. We lived under a dictatorship for almost 50 years, but Tunisia was always praised as a good example when it came to women’s rights in the region. That praise took women hostage, denying them the right to real equality. So an autonomous feminist movement was founded and it made it its mission to denounce that the situation was not as good as the regime presented, which caused it a lot of trouble.

    Following the 2011 revolution there was a comeback of Islamist and conservative groups, and women’s rights were thus threatened. Between 2011 and 2014, during the process to draft a new constitution, the Islamist majority tried to impose a new concept of ‘complementarity’, instead of equality, between women and men. It took a lot of efforts from civil society organisations (CSOs) and street mobilisations to challenge this. As a result, Article 21 of the Tunisian Constitution now clearly states that women and men are equal before the law and prohibits any form of discrimination.

    It took a social movement to come up with a Constitution that is widely hailed as the most progressive in the region. A last-minute addition, Article 46, recognises the role of the state in fighting violence against women, establishes that the state has a responsibility to promote and protect the rights of women and prohibits any regression in women’s rights.

    Since then we have achieved many further legal changes. An anti-human trafficking law was passed in 2016 and an anti-violence law was approved in 2017, which was the first of its kind in the region and was mostly written by civil society activists and feminist organisations. In terms of political representation, the law on political parties enacted in 2011 established that all electoral lists must have gender parity. 

    What challenges remain?

    On the ground, the situation is different from the law, as inequalities are still very present. Many discriminations persist in practice. Statistics are alarming. Half of all women have been victims of some form of violence. Socio-economic crises have worse impacts on women than on men. Among women, the unemployment rate is almost double the rate for men. Women’s access to land is limited: only four per cent of women own land, although they make up almost 90 per cent of the agricultural labour force. 

    For a long time, Tunisia was known as the good example when it came to family planning and reproductive health, as family planning and reproductive health programmes were established in the 1950s and 1960s, and women were granted abortion rights in the early 1970s, even before many European countries. But since the revolution, we have noticed that state authorities have taken a step back when it comes to social services, especially in the areas of education, health and sexual and reproductive health. Access to contraceptives and abortion is becoming more limited, and unmet needs in terms of sexual and reproductive rights are increasing, which is alarming.

    In 2019 we submitted, along with other Tunisian CSOs, a shadow report tracking progress towards the goals of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and laying out the challenges ahead. Our report presented a very different view from the Tunisian government’s. One of our biggest concerns is that Tunisia is a Muslim-majority country and that when the Beijing Platform for Action and Action Plan were adopted, the state of Tunisia submitted a declaration – common to other Muslim-majority countries – saying that it would not commit to any measures that might contradict the values of Islam. Article 1 of the new Constitution states that Tunisia is a Muslim country. That declaration is still in place. Although the state of Tunisia has lifted most of its reservations on the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, it didn’t lift its reservations on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. So challenges remain both in law and practice.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those challenges, and what is civil society doing to address them?

    At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the ATFD issued a warning to the Tunisian authorities stating our concerns about the period of lockdown, when many women would have to stay at home with their aggressors. We were right, as the number of instances of gender-based violence kept rising under lockdown. The Ministry of Women Affairs said that the amount of calls received through the emergency phone line set up by the government had multiplied fivefold. In our counselling centres we also witnessed a peak, as the number of women who were victims of violence and sought our help increased. The situation got more difficult as people started getting more aggressive. But at the same time, it became much more difficult to go to a police station or seek health services, so access to services decreased. Women have felt isolated and compelled to continue living with their aggressors during lockdown.

    Most of the courts were also closed during lockdown and we had to lobby with the high council of the judicial system and the Minister of Justice to include cases of violence against women amongst the emergency cases they were tackling during lockdown. Fortunately, they accepted. 

    Access to sexual and reproductive health services was also affected because women could not get out and seek these services for fear of the virus. We had to collaborate with the Minister of Health and Women Affairs to find solutions for this situation and we are now trying to find a way to ensure the continuity of reproductive health services.

    In addition, the socio-economic rights of women have been further impacted upon. Due to the economic crisis that came with the pandemic, many women lost their jobs, or are not getting paid. Many women in Tunisia work in the informal sector so they could not continue their work and were left without any income. This is affecting their ability to take care of themselves and their families. We have been working with a group of women domestic workers on a study about the situation of domestic workers in Tunisia. The situation is really alarming because domestic workers cannot work during lockdown and have no other source of income. Although the informal sector represents a large part of the economy, the relief measures adopted by the government only apply to the formal sector. In addition, government aid was given to families, but according to Tunisian law it is men who are the head of the family, so money goes mostly to men. In cases of conflict, violence or separation, women won’t have access to government aid.

    We have done a lot of advocacy with the authorities because the official response has failed to consider the gendered aspects of the pandemic. We have worked with most ministries. We met with most ministerial departments to raise awareness. We sent policy papers and open letters. We continued to deliver services in our counselling centres, which are still operating. We also adapted these services to be delivered by phone. We launched a campaign on violence against women during the pandemic, which was followed by thousands of people and was a big success. As a result, the Middle East and North Africa region department of Facebook got in touch with us and now we are working in partnership with them to increase audiences for future campaigns. We will also establish communication channels with Facebook to report violence and hatred on social media.

    What restrictions on the freedoms to organise, speak up and protest have you faced during the pandemic, and what are you doing to overcome them?

    We haven’t faced restrictions from the government, although our presence in the public space has been affected because it is not possible to hold demonstrations. Demonstrations are something that we are used to doing, because it works to occupy the public space and say, ‘we are here and we are asking for this and that’. This is something we now cannot do, but we are moving to a new phase of the lockdown and it might soon start to get a little easier, so we are thinking of new ways to protest while respecting social distancing. We are reflecting on how to adapt our mobilisation tactics. We are focusing on social media as well as traditional media to communicate our messages and talk about the problems we face, to reach out to the highest possible number of people. We are also attempting to diversify our ways of communication to reach out to different categories of target groups.

    We are also establishing a coalition with the journalists’ trade union, the Tunisian League of Human Rights and other organisations to work on the human rights impacts of response to the pandemic.

    Many donors and partners have been very flexible because it was obvious that we could not continue acting as if nothing had changed. We had to adapt many of our activities, postpone others and relocate budget towards social aid. Most of our partners were very understanding and we have had good discussions with them to readjust our plans to the situation created by the pandemic. However, we also had issues with donors who decreased salaries for this period.

    Besides tackling the urgent issues, we are also in a process of reflection internally and with our partners and allies. We want to see some positive change as a result of the pandemic. We want a more just and equal society in which everyone feels included. The pandemic has revealed some underlying issues that the government chose to ignore for a long time, but that now will need to be addressed, such as a failing healthcare system.

    What support does Tunisian civil society need from the international community?

    The main form of support is to work together. We have to work together because we have the knowledge from the ground, while international organisations have bigger networks and are able to work in a variety of contexts and have access to international mechanisms and the ability to influence the international agenda. For an effective partnership, we must work together to influence both the national and the international levels. The pandemic has shown us that some of the big issues cannot be tackled at the national level, but that we should also work at the international level and in collaboration with regional networks. If the two are put together I think we can achieve greater impact. 

    Civic space in Tunisia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with theTunisian Association of Democratic Womenthrough itsFacebook page and follow@atfd_tunisie on Twitter andfemmes_democrates on Instagram.

     

     

  • TURKEY: ‘If we withdraw from Istanbul Convention, it means we don't believe in gender equality’

    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.

     

  • UK: ‘For women to be respected, police reform is necessary but not sufficient’

    CIVICUS speaks with Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, policy lead at the Co-operative Party and councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. 

    Reclaim These Streets was formed in March 2021 to speak up against street harassment of women and girls, educate boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenge the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced.

    Anna Birley

    What prompted you to organise and how did Reclaim These Streets get started?

    I live in south London, close to the place where Sarah Everard was last seen before going missing on 3 March 2021. Over the following week, posters appeared on every bus stop, lamppost, tree – her face was everywhere. We were in lockdown, activities were very limited, so when you went for a lunchtime walk with the one friend you were allowed to meet under lockdown regulations, you would see her face everywhere.

    My friends and I realised we all felt scared. New details about Sarah’s disappearance were coming out every day and we put ourselves in her shoes, tried to imagine where she could have been, what she could have done, what could have happened to her. In our lunchtime walks, we found ourselves trying to retrace her steps. As we spoke with other local women, we realised we were all thinking twice about everything we did, changing our lives simply because we didn’t feel safe in public spaces.

    For a couple of days, the police were door-knocking all over the area, not just trying to get information about Sarah but also giving women advice to stay safe. They were not telling men not to be predators – they were telling women not to go out after dark, not go out alone, to take extra precautions. That’s when our worry and our fear turned into anger.

    On 10 March I texted my friends – we needed to do something together in solidarity, but also in defiance. We wanted to challenge the idea that we had to lock ourselves down, impose curfews on ourselves because male violence made it unsafe for us to be out there, because if we didn’t take enough precautions, we – not our aggressors – would be the ones to blame.

    I set up a Zoom call in which we organised a Facebook event and looked up the regulations on COVID-19 and assemblies. We initially wanted to do a walk along the route Sarah had taken, but you need to get permission to march, but not for a stationary protest. We didn’t have time to request a permit, and we also didn’t like the idea of having to ask for permission for us as women to express our anger together, so we went for the stationary vigil. We chose Clapham Common because it is a huge open space allowing for social distancing, and also because it was one of the last places where Sarah had been seen alive. We did it at sunset so women could take back the park after dark.

    We let both the police and the council know – I and another organiser are local councillors – because we wanted the event to be safe. We wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or counter protests, and that women would be able to feel safe walking back home after the vigil.

    The name, Reclaim These Streets, echoed that of the Reclaim the Night movement, which formed in Leeds in the late 1970s when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large and the police told women the same things they were telling us now – to stay home for our own good and take extra precautions. We felt angry that we still had to fight the same battles over and over. Several decades had passed but the culture and the victim-blaming approach had not changed.

    What obstacles did you face in organising and mobilising?

    In March 2021, when we planned the vigil for Sarah, the UK was subjected to COVID-19-related public health regulations, and the police used these to try to prevent us mobilising. They said that we needed their permission, which wasn’t true. They threatened us, as organisers, with a £10,000 (approx. US$13,600) fine each, and with arrest under the Serious Crimes Act, on the basis that we would be inciting others to break the law. The Serious Crime Act is used against terrorists. Being charged under it would, among other things, prevent me holding public office again, effectively ending my career.

    The police did nothing to facilitate our human right to protest. We tried to engage with them, because we wanted to know if they had intelligence that would help us keep women safe. We wanted to make sure that the policing would be sensitive to the need to build trust after a serving police officer was arrested for Sarah’s rape and murder, and to know that it would be proportional – for example, ensuring women wouldn’t be kettled or pushed into a close crowd when there were social distancing measures in place.

    We started organising on a Wednesday, and by Thursday night, after receiving threatening emails and having a series of pointless meetings with police, we instructed lawyers and crowdfunded for a judicial review. The police insisted that there was a blanket ban on all gatherings; they couldn’t seem to differentiate between a birthday picnic and a protest. From what we could tell, they declared our vigil unlawful without conducting any risk assessment in which they considered our human rights under articles 10 and 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act concerning freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

    The judge agreed with us that a risk assessment be done and that it should take human rights into account, but the police said they had done it and the judge took them at face value. We met with police straight out of the judgment and proposed to do a staggered event over a longer period of time, and asked if we could make any changes to make the event more acceptable. But they wouldn’t budge, and while we were still at the meeting they issued a press release warning people it was unlawful to attend.

    The vigil was supposed to be happening the next day, and nobody was able to confirm whether we would still be liable for a £10,000 fine if someone turned up even if we cancelled it. On top of this, at least 34 additional vigils had been organised all over the country. We felt responsible because we had told those wishing to replicate the event that the law allowed for ‘reasonable excuse’, and that this included our human right to protest. Now they could be subjected to significant fines and life-changing judicial processes for organising these events.

    Despite the event being cancelled, women kept coming in throughout the day, bringing flowers, paying their respects. Even the Duchess of Cambridge came. Crowds grew in the evening, and right after sunset police moved in, pushing women together, manhandling some and pinning them to the ground.

    We went back to court and now expect the judgment. We demanded to see the risk assessment that was supposedly conducted and insisted on the priority of human rights and the principle of proportionality. We hope our case sets a precedent and helps other people challenge arbitrary police decisions. For instance, there is a nurse in Manchester who was given a £10,000 fine for holding a solo protest – we hope this can help people like her too.

    What do you think are the root causes of misogynistic policing?

    Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age. 

    The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.

    Take the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, who was strip searched and humiliated in a police station in 2013 – this was basically state-sanctioned sexual assault. The officers involved were assessed by a tribunal of their peers that found them to have behaved in an exemplary manner; some were even promoted. Dr Duff didn’t give up despite being gaslit by the police for eight years: she went to court and was able to access the CCTV and demonstrate the appalling treatment she had experienced. That’s the only reason she got an apology or any recognition at all.

    What changes are needed in police culture and policing practices?

    Because it turned out that it was a police officer who was responsible for Sarah’s death, and because so many revelations of police misconduct and impunity followed, the police ended up occupying a more central place in our work than we had anticipated. But our focus is on women’s safety rather than on police reform. We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.

    This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. For instance, if you drop litter or a cigarette butt, or you leave your car idling, you will be fined. But if you follow a girl in her school uniform walking home from school, pull your car up next to her, drive at the same speed as she’s walking and make sexually explicit comments at her, as long as you don’t solicit sex from her you are not breaking any laws – unless you idle your car for too long, that is. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.

    Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.

    As part of that, we have reflected a lot about the fact that we mobilised about a white woman – because she has kidnapped and murdered in our neighbourhood, but still, we were not aware at the time of other women whose cases had been treated differently because they were Black. We made a conscious decision to use our platform and privilege to raise the voices of women who would otherwise not get the same support and attention from the media and public institutions.

    What concerns do you have about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently in the UK parliament?

    Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls that they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more. 

    The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.

    What’s your reaction to the resignation of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?

    Our first reaction was of surprise – I don’t think even the Home Secretary knew she was resigning. But we were pleased she stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Metropolitan Police. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.

    Of course, this is a problem for many police forces across the UK, and other police leaders should also reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.

    But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.

    We also hope that this will pave the way for the Angiolini Inquiry – a review into the investigation and prosecution of rape in London – to widen its scope and look into institutional misogyny instead of writing the problem off as a ‘bad apples’ issue. The inquiry needs to be made statutory too – so that it is led by a judge rather than a politically appointed chair, so that the police are required to comply and cannot close ranks, so that victims are at the heart of the inquiry and get legal support to contribute, and so that the recommendations have to be taken on board.

    It's been almost a year since Sarah went missing, and at the time everyone – politicians, police, the media – said ‘never again’. It was supposed to be watershed moment. And then nothing. I can barely point to a single tangible improvement that has happened since. Safety hasn’t improved; nor has police culture. We are disappointed in the last 12 months, but we expect institutions to do better over the next 12 months.

    Civic space inthe UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Reclaim These Streets through itswebsite and follow@ReclaimTS on Twitter. 

     

  • USA: ‘Extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades’

    CarolineDubleCIVICUS speaks with Caroline Duble, Political Director of Avow – Unapologetic Abortion Advocacy, about the current backlash against women’s rights in the USA, and in Texas in particular, as well as the activist responses. Avow is a civil society organisation that works to secure unrestricted abortion access for every Texan, following the vision of a society in which every person is trusted, thriving and free to pursue the life they want.

    How did we get to the point where abortion has been almost completely banned in Texas? 

    For people just now hearing about this cruel ban, which prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, it can be hard to believe that something so extreme could ever be passed into law. But as Texans who have been long fighting for abortion access, we know that extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades. This is clear if you look at the full timeline of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion procedures that were passed in Texas since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, which determined that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government interference. They have been relentless, deceitful and cruel in their attempts to push care out of the reach of Texans who need it. 

    How is this different from previous, less successful attempts to ban abortion in other states? 

    Unlike bans in other states, which are enforced by state officials, this bill – known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8 – gives the public unprecedented authority to enforce the ban. It allows anyone – including anti-abortion activists who have no connection to the patient – to act as vigilante bounty hunters and to take to court doctors, health centres and anyone who helps another person access abortion, with the incentive that they will collect US$10,000 for each abortion. In other words, Texas is trying to evade judicial scrutiny and accountability in the courts by encouraging private citizens to do the dirty work for them. But SB8’s legal manoeuvring does not change the fact that banning abortion at six weeks is unconstitutional, and even more importantly, it is unjust and wrong.

    What have been the immediate consequences of the ban, and how are people protesting?

    SB8 is working as intended. Since the law went into effect on 1 September, it has decimated our already vulnerable care infrastructure and has left Texans who need access to care and support services scared to reach out for help, and advocates afraid to help them. Under this law, Texans are being denied the abortions they want and need. Many people are trying to scrape together thousands of dollars to travel out of state, take time off work and arrange childcare and transportation.

    Many Texans are self-managing their abortions, which can be extremely safe but only if the pregnant person has access to information and resources. And tragically, countless Texans are being forced to carry pregnancies against their will. Of course, this is falling hardest on Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, undocumented people and low-income Texans, who are facing the most severe barriers to accessing care out of state and disproportionate harm from this law.

    People are protesting by funding abortion. Texas abortion funds have collectively raised well over US$3 million since 1 September, and those funds will largely be used to get people out of state. People are also literally protesting! Check out #BansOffOurBodies to see protest footage from around the country, and particularly the marches for reproductive rights that took place on 2 October. And of course, people are learning about self-managed abortion, because abortion bans don’t curve the need for abortions.

    What tactics is Avow using in its work to prevent regression and expand sexual and reproductive rights? 

    Avow will continue to fight unapologetically for unrestricted abortion access for all Texans, for any reason. Abortion is essential healthcare, and it should be readily accessible to anyone in our state who needs or wants one. We’re leading this movement and changing the culture with an unapologetic abortion-forward mindset, through community-building, education and political advocacy.

    We work to portray abortion in a positive light because abortion is safe, common and normal, although you wouldn’t know that because abortion stigma keeps people from sharing their stories. We are committed to changing the conversation about abortion to reflect that reality. For too long, anti-abortion extremists have dictated how we’re allowed to talk about abortion; by spreading lies and medical inaccuracies they have controlled the narrative so much that even abortion rights supporters don’t feel comfortable saying the word and prefer to use euphemisms such as ‘women’s rights’, ‘reproductive health’ and ‘choice’. This has allowed stigma to permeate abortion care and ultimately shame people who have had abortions, and feeds into a narrative about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abortions. But we refuse to judge a person’s reason for getting an abortion, and instead support them once they have made their decision. 

    Looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, Avow is preparing to hold anti-abortion legislators accountable through digital ads, on the ground organising and voter mobilisation. We are also pushing the federal government to do more to protect abortion rights by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which seeks to establish a statutory right for healthcare providers to provide abortion care, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive that care, free from medically unnecessary restriction. We are also calling on them to repeal the racist Hyde Amendment, a 1980 legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. We will also continue our work to bust abortion stigma by helping people talk about abortion openly and what access means to them.

    What are the prospects of the ban being overturned?

    It is deeply concerning that the Supreme Court did not block this law before even having a hearing. For nearly 50 years the Supreme Court has affirmed that the Constitution guarantees the right to an abortion, but in Texas we are now living under a different reality. Many people assume the Supreme Court is an objective legal body, but justices are appointed by presidents, and presidents have political agendas. The Supreme Court’s refusal to block SB8 from going into effect is simply more evidence of what we’ve known for years: the courts will not save us. It is necessary to pass federal legislation to secure unrestricted abortion access and funding for everyone in this country. 

    With that being said, we are grateful that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking legal action to fight SB8. The DOJ is requesting a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in a federal court based in Austin, capital of Texas. If granted, this restraining order would stop the State of Texas, including private parties who would bring suits under the law, from implementing or enforcing SB8. This is a necessary first step in what we expect will be a long court battle to stop this law. A restraining order should absolutely be granted because the law is clearly unconstitutional and because Texans need access to abortion care while the law makes its way through the court system.

    What kind of support do abortion rights groups in the USA need from their peers around the world?

    The best thing that folks outside of Texas can do for us is support us by contributing to Texas abortion funds and political advocacy organisations, and by uplifting our message. Also, look more closely at how abortion bans and stigma impact on your own community. Instead of boycotting Texas businesses, pass local ordinances that provide practical support funding for people in your region seeking abortions.

    Civic space in USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Avow through itswebsite,Facebook orInstagram page, and follow@avowtexas and@CarolineDuble on Twitter. 

     

  • We are tired, so we must take turns to rest: Women's advocacy during crisis

    womens rights are human rights

    Source: Wikicommons

    By Masana Ndinga-Kanga, the Crisis Response Fund Lead and Advocacy Officer for the Middle East/North Africa region at CIVICUS

    In recognising how moments of crisis heighten already existing inequalities, it is worth reflecting on how women activists have been able to conduct advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time, as advocacy meetings have predominantly moved online within the context of a gendered digital divide, the consequences for women activists and their ability to work are yet to be fully understood.

    Read on Advocacy Accelerator

     

  • Why we need more women leaders in civil society worldwide

    By Helene Wolf, Chair, FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders

    Half of the delegates at CIVICUS’ International Civil Society Week (April, Belgrade) were women. This is a great achievement and shows the major role women play in civil society as activists, staff members and changemakers. At a time when we are witnessing a backlash against women’s rights and women are disproportionately more affected by climate change, inequality, violent conflict and poverty, civil society at large stands in solidarity with women around the world.

    Yet, the majority of civil society organisations (CSOs) are led by men. Based on the first FAIR SHARE Monitor we researched and published this year, we now know that most international CSOs have a significant gap of women leaders in comparison to the number of women on their staff.

    Most CSOs include gender issues in their programming and advocacy but a talented woman working in a CSO is less likely to take on a leadership position than a man. We advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where gender equality is featured prominently (SDG 5) but do not address our internal barriers for women to fulfil their leadership potential. Altogether, it means that many CSOs do not yet live up to the demands and standards we expect from governments and companies within our own organisations. This puts our credibility and ultimately our impact on women’s and girls’ rights at risk.

    That is why we did not only collect the data on women leadership but also asked CSOs to sign a commitment to achieve a FAIR SHARE of women leaders within their organisations by 2030 at the latest. CIVICUS has been one of the first signatories. We are now calling on all CSOs, small and large, from the Global South and North, whether they explicitly work on gender issues or not, to join the pledge to achieve a FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders by 2030. 

    Watch Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International, speak about why he committed to a FAIR SHARE.

    We know this is a big task and that CSOs work in very different contexts that may support or block women from taking on leadership positions. We know that different organisational set-ups and working environments call for different measures to increase internal gender equality. We also know that we need to increase the number of women, cisgender, transgender, intergender people from all ages, nationalities as well as social and economic backgrounds. That is why we want to create a global movement around the objective of FAIR SHARE that learns and works together to take on this large challenge.

    We will not only monitor progress but want to develop a community together with the committed organisations that designs and drives the necessary changes together. This community has to be based on the principles of inclusivity, intersectionality and solidarity. As a newly founded organisation, we aim to put the principles and values of feminist leadership into action because we believe in the power of cooperation, dialogue and transformative change. To achieve this, we need as many different voices, experiences and perspectives in the room as possible and we invite all CIVICUS members to become part of this conversation.

    To join FAIR SHARE, all CSOs are invited to sign our letter of commitment and submit their data on women leadership. As our community grows, we want to develop national FAIR SHARE Monitors and are looking for partners to develop the appropriate concepts and implementation. Please contact us at with any questions, ideas or to become part of the FAIR SHARE movement.

    Helene Wolf is the Chair and Co-Founder of FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders e.V. Before starting FAIR SHARE she served as Deputy Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre for eight years. She has two sons and lives in Berlin, Germany.

     

  • Women’s groups fight back as gender-based violence surges during the pandemic

    By Inés Pousadela

    Barely weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns arose about the safety of women trapped indoors with their abusers, and data showing spikes in gender-based violence (GBV) quickly reached the news headlines. But women’s rights organizations all over the world had already anticipated the worst. They knew that economic downturns, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks tend to have disproportionate impacts on women — women would experience the effects first, worst, and for longer. For decades their work had focused on the ways in which decisions made by governments, and government failures, disproportionately impact women, and they realized right away that this pandemic would be no exception.

    Read more: Women's Media Center 

     

  • Women’s rights defenders must be immediately and unconditionally released!

    Arabic

    Letter by civil society organisations calling for the release of Saudi women's rights defenders

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights’

    Teresa Fernandez ParedesAs 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 toTeresa Fernández Paredes, a lawyer specialising in International Public Law and one of Women's Link’s Managing Attorneys. With offices in Colombia, Kenya and Spain, Women's Link defends and promotes women's rights and seeks to create structural change through strategic litigation.

    What does Women's Link do, and what are its main areas of work?

    Women's Link is an international organisation that uses the law - most of us are lawyers - to promote structural social changes that advance the rights of women and girls, and especially of those in the most vulnerable positions, such as migrant women or women who find the exercise of their rights restricted due to their ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status, among other factors.

    We work from our headquarters in Madrid, Spain and have offices in Bogotá, Colombia and Nairobi, Kenya. We apply a gender and an intersectional analysis to the law in order to expand and improve the rights of women and girls. We work in some areas, such as sexual and reproductive rights, where we collide head-on with anti-rights groups. We also focus on human trafficking, and especially on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation or domestic servitude and the violations of their rights suffered by women in migration or transitional justice contexts. We also focus on discrimination, as a cross-cutting issue. We use several strategies: in addition to strategic litigation, we conduct judicial training and produce publications, among other things.

    What are currently your main areas of work in Latin America?

    One of our main lines of work in Latin America is access to sexual and reproductive rights, broadly understood. In the context of the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis, we are working on the link between migration and lack of access to these rights. We examine issues such as the effects of irregular migration status on the enjoyment of these rights, and the situation of border areas as spaces that are not ruled by law.

    Working in Venezuela has been a great challenge, given the country’s current situation. What we do, here and in all cases, is apply international legal standards to the local context. But it is important to bear in mind that generally speaking, law - and not just domestic legislation, but also international human rights law - is very centred on men. Over the years, norms and regulations have been developed around the image of the white man as a universal subject.

    Our approach to the law is to stretch it to accommodate the experiences of women, because within the human rights framework, women's issues are often left aside. In the context of Venezuela, we work a lot with the inter-American human rights system. For example, we recently requested a precautionary measure for a maternity clinic where many mothers and children had died. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued the precautionary measure, but in the current context it would seem difficult to implement it. However, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the specific situation of women and girls. And all this work also helps encourage understanding why women leave Venezuela: what drives them, as women, to migrate; and what needs they have when they are in transit and when they arrive at their destination.

    In addition to working in Venezuela, several of our projects focus on ensuring that women’s lived experiences and voices are heard in the context of the peace process in Colombia. We do this mainly from our office in Bogotá, and always jointly with community organisations, so as to try to make heard the voices of people at the margins who are not reached by decision-makers.

    Over the past years anti-rights groups have been on the rise, in Latin America and beyond. Have you faced backlash from these groups in the course of your work?

    The context in which we work is strongly marked by the rise of anti-rights groups that say they are mobilising against what they call ‘gender ideology’. But this is not a new phenomenon: anti-rights groups have been busy building connections and expanding since the 1990s. They have a lot of money and there is one thing they do better than groups on the left: they are very effective in creating connections and coalitions among themselves; even when they work on different issues they are able to find common ground. For instance, all of them have coordinated to place the gender ideology theme on the table and raise it everywhere, as a result of which something that was not even a concept ended up as a global issue. They have managed to position this on the agenda, which is more difficult to do for groups located on the left, where there is more discussion around the issues and it is more difficult to coordinate and speak with one voice. That is why we still do not have a unique and conclusive response to the attacks we face in the name of gender ideology.

    Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights. And they are doing it by using the same discourse that has been successfully used by human rights groups. They talk about human rights and they position themselves as victims. They even depict feminists as diabolical agents, giving feminism more power than you would think it has. Due to the fact that Women's Link is based in three regions, we can clearly see that the same strategies are being used in different places. These groups are using coordinated strategies, they have lots of money and they enjoy global support. As they use the language of human rights, they have increasing legal representation, and they have begun to occupy spaces in strategic forums, where decisions are made, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

    How can progressive civil society act to curb these advances?

    Faced with these attacks it is important to act quickly through the law. We must continue working to strengthen the human rights framework and shield rights against these attacks. We must design not just defensive strategies, but also proactive strategies to expand the human rights framework, or at least to take away some of the spaces in which anti-rights groups move.

    There are still unresolved discussions we need to work on, such as the tension between the freedom of expression and hate speech. Paradoxically, in order to spread their message anti-rights groups are leaning on one of the left’s favourite themes, the freedom of expression.

    However, if we want to create lasting social change we cannot remain in the realm of the law and the courts. What we need are cases that cause people to mobilise, generate public debate and produce real social change. In that sense I see positive developments, like the #MeToo movement and the so-called Green Tide in Argentina. That is, we are seeing two opposing processes: on the one hand, anti-rights groups are growing; on the other, strong mobilisation around these issues is happening from the ground up and with a strong youth component. Such was the case with the Green Tide, which created unprecedented mobilisation while a proposal to legalise abortion was being discussed in the Argentine Congress. No doubt the two processes are very likely connected, and one is a consequence of the other.

    These social movements are good reason for hope. In the face of attempts to cut back on acquired rights, there is a very active movement that says, look, this is an acquired right, you cannot take it away anymore. There is no going back: looking forward, you can only expand the rights framework, but you cannot diminish it.

    In addition to attacks from anti-rights groups, what other challenges do civil society promoting women’s rights face?

    For grassroots organisations, lack of resources can be a great limitation. And in contexts of great urgency, such as those of massive movements of people, we are presented with the challenge of how to coordinate our work with that of grassroots organisations.

    Women's Link is dedicated to identifying structural situations where women's rights are violated and to designing legal strategies to generate structural, transformative change. Meanwhile, grassroots organisations - for example, those in border areas between Colombia and Venezuela - are increasingly taking on, in conditions of urgency, functions that should be performed by the state. In these contexts, most of the response is coming from civil society organisations.

    These grassroots organisations are responding to a very serious situation, and the needs of the women they work with are very urgent, and yet all we can do at Women's Link is support them through strategic litigation, which usually takes a long time.

    Difficulties of working with scarce resources aside, it is vital to build relationships, connect and coordinate, because the potential contribution that Women's Link has to offer would be useless if it weren’t for the work that is being done by grassroots organisations and for the voices and support of women themselves.

     

    Get in touch with Women’s Link through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@womenslink on Twitter.

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘At this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach equality’

    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, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making, 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 single country has yet achieved gender equality.

    CIVICUS speaks with Serap Altinisik, Head of Plan International’s European Union (EU) Office and EU Representative. Previously, in her role as Programme Director at the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), Serap led EWL’s 50/50 Campaign, ‘No Modern Democracy without Gender Equality’, across Europe. She also recently became a member of the CIVICUS Board.

    Serap Altinisik

    A quarter of a century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into real changes? What needs to be done now so that Goal 5 on gender equality of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is achieved by 2030?

    2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most visionary agenda for girls’ and women’s rights. 2020 also marks the countdown of a decade left to achieve the SDGs.

    Over the past decades there has been some clear, measurable progress towards gender equality. For example, 131 countries have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in support of gender equality, maternal mortality has decreased by at least 45 per cent, primary school enrolment for girls and boys has almost equalised and approximately 25 per cent of seats in national legislative bodies are held by women, a number that has doubled over the past few decades.

    However, 25 years after UN member states committed to achieving gender equality and five years into the SDGs, no country has fully achieved the promise of gender equality. If governments continue at this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach that goal.

    To achieve SDG 5, I agree with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called for a decade of action on meeting the SDGs, and wants to make this the century of gender equality. Retrospectively, gender inequality is one of the things that will shame us the most about the 21st century.

    Governments have to invest in consistent gender equality, which consequently means not only enacting laws and regulations but also implementing gender-responsive budgeting consistently. Research shows that where investments are consistent, girls’ and women’s rights are on the rise. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. When adopting regulations and laws, governments need to use a life-cycle approach to address the specific needs of women in each stage of a woman’s life. If we wish to measure and increase progress and learn from data, then data has to be disaggregated according to age, gender, disability and ethnicity, among other things.

    Nonetheless, the most persistent factors that are holding back girls and women to lead, decide and thrive equally as boys and men are social norms, stereotypes and sexism. Studies and experiences of girls and women showcase that household-level practices in many countries subordinate women even when they are educated, even when they are in the workforce and even when they serve in government. Given that the personal is political, as the slogan from the feminist movement of the 1960s put it, gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights have to be a priority in politics, economics, practices and social norms – and this starts at home. It cannot be an add-on if the goal is to achieve the promise of gender equality fully by 2030.

    Looking back on 2019, what would you say have been the main successes and challenges in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights?

    The rise of authoritarian leaders and the establishment of right-wing governments are preparing a fertile ground for violence and discrimination against girls and women. Therefore, we have seen pushbacks, with attacks on hard-won gains in girls’ and women’s rights in both the global north and global south in recent years. Conflict and humanitarian crises have become more complex and protracted over the past years, and women and girls have found themselves facing the most risks. Unfortunately, discrimination, poverty and violence are still in the lives of girls and women worldwide. It seems that misogyny accompanied with racism is on the rise, while the space for civil society is being increasingly crushed.

    Yet across the world girls and women are raising their voices, collaborating and showing solidarity, and are not willing to wait for change and gender justice any longer. In this, women’s rights organisations and feminist leaders are playing a vital role!

    I am aware that by only mentioning a few successes, I might not do justice to so many other success stories. Nevertheless, for me the main successes have been diverse and inspiring, such as, for example, the first ever woman leading the European Commission since its existence; Sudan's female protesters leading the pro-democracy movement; young women leading the environmental movement; girls and women resisting across the continents. They are challenging the status quo and are at the forefront in highlighting that another world is possible.

    Their actions are changing not only laws and regulations and bringing new deals to the centre – such as the European Green Deal by the EU and the ambition to have equal representation across EU institutions – but they are also shifting social norms and are contributing to the ‘new normal’ in which girls and women can shape the world, too.

    You have been personally involved in theFair Share initiative. What would be a ‘fair share’ of women representation and female leadership, and why is it important that we achieve it?

    Fair Share of Women Leaders is a civil society organisation that seeks to test and showcase new forms of governance that reflect feminist values and principles and overcome some of the pitfalls of power imbalance, hierarchy and bureaucracy of traditional governance mechanisms. We push for proportionate representation of women in leadership roles in the social sector – a goal that we want to achieve by 2030 at the latest.

    Although women make up nearly 70 per cent of the global social impact workforce, they hold less than 30 per cent of the top leadership positions in their organisations. This lack of diverse voices in key decision-making positions undermines the impact organisations have towards achieving SDG 5. In the wake of #MeToo and a number of sexual abuse scandals in civil society, many organisations have had to rethink their strategies. Our sphere needs to start systematically promoting women’s leadership as a lever of change.

    Of course, I have to acknowledge that a lot is positively changing within civil society. Some civil society organisations have committed to developing an organisational and leadership culture that values gender equal representation, diversity and participatory decision-making, but we have still ourselves a long way to go to achieve gender equality. We have to live up to our values if we want to be legitimately asking for positive change in the world. We have to be the change if we wish to see it.

    To push for this change, Fair Share monitors the number of women in leadership to hold civil society accountable, promotes feminist leadership and mobilises men and women to create feminist organisations, and seeks to create opportunities for women from diverse economic and social backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities who are currently less likely to be in leadership positions.

    Get in touch withPlan International and itsEuropean Office through its websites, and follow@PlanEU and@SeeRap on Twitter.

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life’

    Maria Angelica Penas DefagoAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recentGlobal Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.

    Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?

    We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.

    With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.

    A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.

    During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.

    In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.

    Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?

    As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.

    The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.

    What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?

    Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.

    For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.

    The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.

    If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.

    Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?

    The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.

    In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.

    I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.

    In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.

    What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?

    Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.

    To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.

    Get in touch with María Angélica through herFacebook page and check her work onResearchGate.

     

  • YEMEN: ‘Women are completely absent from decision-making bodies; politically we don’t exist’

    CIVICUS speaks about gender inequalities in Yemen and the role of Yemeni civil society in tackling them with Bilkis Abouosba, founder and chairperson of the Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2008 to support women’s political participation. Bilkis Abouosba is former vice-chair of the Supreme National Authority for Combatting Corruption in Yemen.

    Bilkis Abouosba

    What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Yemen?

    Yemeni society had been going through a terrible humanitarian crisis since 2015, when war broke out, resulting in unprecedented numbers of casualties and refugees and millions of displaced people. The pandemic only added fuel to the fire. The war had already had a catastrophic effect on the education and healthcare sectors, among others, and the pandemic made the situation worse. It impacted on society at large, but specifically on women.

    Due to the war, women’s political participation in decision-making bodies decreased; for the first time, relevant political bodies had no female representatives at all. Politically, Yemeni women do not exist, as they are completely absent from the decision-making process. This preannounced a bleak future for Yemeni women.

    Many female political leaders had to flee the country. On the positive side, it has been noted that women’s participation in online events has risen despite Yemen’s poor internet infrastructure and frequent power cuts. The internet has offered Yemeni women, especially those living in rural areas, a venue to participate and express their views around peacebuilding. First, it helped break down societal barriers on women’s participation in political events, and then it helped bypass pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings. The internet brings the world closer to Yemeni women and Yemeni women closer to the world.

    On the economic front, after war began many women became their families’ primary breadwinners, but when the pandemic broke out many lost their jobs or could not go to their workplaces. Moreover, enforcement of COVID-19 regulations was selective and discriminated against women. For instance, hair salons for women had to close but their counterparts for men remained open, which negatively affected female owners of small businesses.

    How has civil society, and Awam Foundation more specifically, supported Yemeni women during the pandemic?

    In the absence of government policies to help people cope with the pandemic – especially in the north of Yemen, where public officials didn’t even acknowledge the reality of COVID-19 – many lost their lives. But CSOs immediately stepped in and played a significant role. Many women-led CSOs, including Awam Foundation, launched COVID-19 awareness campaigns and distributed facemasks among locals and people living in rural areas.

    In the early months of the pandemic, CSOs shifted their focus into combatting COVID-19. They relied heavily on online communication to reach affected communities. I was part of an international group fighting COVID-19 that registered available Yemeni doctors for consultation inside the country as well as abroad.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Yemen? What would need to happen for them to be tackled effectively?

    In my opinion, our biggest loss is in the area of political rights and participation in political decision-making processes and opinion formation. For the first time in 20 years, the current Yemeni government was formed with a total absence of women. Women’s exclusion has spread further across sectors, including in peacebuilding efforts.

    Political negotiations between rival groups have been held without female representation. Only one woman took part in the last round of negotiations in Stockholm, which resulted in an agreement brokered by the United Nations (UN) between the Yemeni government and the Houthi group Ansar Allah.

    But public opinion polls on the peace process have in fact included a small sample of Yemeni women, and since 2015 both UN Women and the office of the UN special envoy have created mechanisms for Yemeni women’s inclusion, such as the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security (known as ‘Tawafuq’), a consultative mechanism consisting of a group of 50 women consultants, and a group established in 2018 comprising eight women, among them me, also aimed at channelling female voices to international society. However, neither the current nor former UN special envoys have made use of these groups to bridge gender gaps, as planned. Women are still not part of UN-supported peace negotiations.

    Despite this, several feminist coalitions have been formed during the transition period, including the Women Solidarity Network, which I played a key role in establishing. These coalitions succeeded at transmitting women’s voices to international organisations, including the UN Security Council. We advocate for the implementation of UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in the Yemeni context. This means that women must be included as equal partners in any upcoming round of peace negotiations.

    The government just made a step forward concerning the implementation of UN Resolution 1325. On 8 March the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour announced the institutional structure and terms of reference of a national plan to implement the Resolution. 

    But overall, we are still concerned about setbacks on women’s rights in Yemen. Women cannot move freely anymore; they’re required to have a male companion to move from one place to another or to apply for a passport.

    What would need to happen for gender inequality to reduce in Yemen?

    International organisations can significantly help narrow the gender gap in Yemen by bringing Yemeni women to the negotiation table. As a result, women’s participation in the political process will grow in the post-conflict period.

    As CSOs we are doing our part by holding workshops on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. In 2021, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women discussed Yemen’s report – a report Awam Foundation contributed to, and which revealed huge gender inequalities. We are now developing mechanisms aimed at narrowing these gaps.

    Although political rivals continue to refuse to integrate women until after the war ends, we continue working in this regard. On International Women’s Day, we highlighted the need to include women in the peace process and shed light on the toll of gender-based violence on Yemeni women. I am sure our efforts will finally start to pay off.

    Civic space in Yemen is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Awam Foundation for Development and Culture through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @FoundationAwam on Twitter.