Rollback of Women's Rights: Not Just in Afghanistan

Polygamy, stoning of adulterers, virginity testing, and laws that protect batterers are on the rise in increasingly conservative nations.

An Afghan law that protects perpetrators of domestic violence, new sharia criminal laws in Brunei that allow stoning, sexual assaults in Arab Spring countries, and proposed "virginity tests" in Indonesia.

These are just a few examples of a rollback of women's rights in recent years, even where revolutions and political transitions have been hailed in the West.

Soon after it arrived on his desk, President Hamid Karzai sent Afghanistan's controversial new domestic violence law back to parliament, demanding changes.

But the law, which its detractors say makes it nearly impossible to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence, remains a threat to women in a society where women's rights appear to be eroding as Western powers retreat.

"There are two major problems with this law, and the government has shown a willingness to fix only one of those problems," says Heather Barr, senior researcher for Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch, which investigates human rights abuses worldwide.

It's still unclear what the government might do to amend the law, but Barr points to two particular areas of concern.

The first is to clarify that relatives of a battered person will be allowed to give voluntary testimony, and the second is to restrict exemptions on testimony only to spouses, not all relatives. Even with those changes, she says, "this law will still cause significant damage to women who have experienced abuse and are seeking help from the justice system."

The law itself has drawn immense public attention. But it is the backdrop to the law that represents a broader rollback on women's rights in Afghanistan and other countries now facing political upheaval, war, and security transitions.

In Afghanistan, that backdrop includes the 87 percent of women who have already experienced some form of violence, the less than 2 percent who own land, and the concern that as elections approach in April, "any advances in women's rights will be traded away in post-election reconciliation," says John Hendra, secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women (see Q&A below).

Worsening Conditions for Women

"We've seen a rollback of women's rights in Arab Spring countries like Egypt, where women have been at the heart of the civil society movement pressing for the rights of all Egyptians from the beginning of the transition process," Hendra says.

"We're extremely concerned by reports of the high prevalence of sexual assaults against women in public spaces. Rates of violence and harassment are extremely high," he added. Women's rights groups confirmed 186 sexual attacks on women in Cairo's Tahrir Square during one week in June and July 2013.

War-torn countries like Sudan and the Central African Republic have seen escalating violence against women and girls.

Even in countries that have undergone political changes hailed in the West, such as the end of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya, there have been unforeseen consequences for women.

Libya's Supreme Court has effectively lifted restrictions on polygamy requiring a first wife's consent, and the country's religious leadership has called for a ban on women marrying foreigners and for greater use of the hijab, or head scarf, says Tripoli-based Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch. "I've also seen more harassment of women. There has a been a complete breakdown in law and order. There are no safeguards now: They can't exactly go to the police."

In Indonesia, where the rise of democratic elections and the decentralization of power in post-Suharto Indonesia has handed more power to conservative Islamic politicians, there are similar changes afoot.

According to Indonesia's official Commission on Violence Against Women, as of August 2013 Indonesian national and local governments had passed 60 new discriminatory regulations so far that year. These included dozens of local bylaws requiring women to wear the hijab, and others permitting female genital mutilation or banning women from straddling motorcycles.

Mandatory virginity tests have been proposed in several parts of the country, and blog posts debate the trials and tribulations of virginity testing for women hoping to join the police and military.

Della Syahni, a journalist for Indonesia's news outlet, says, "I've had friends tell me they were tested when they wanted to become stewardesses, or enter certain government schools." (A regional educational chief was widely criticized last fall for suggesting high school girls undergo testing.)

Another majority Islamic Southeast Asian country, oil-rich Brunei, will see new criminal sharia laws going into effect this spring that, among other things, allow the stoning of adulterers.

Bright Spots

Historic gains in women's rights have been made in some countries, such as Kenya, Mexico, and Tunisia—the birthplace of the Arab Spring—with new rights for women enshrined in their constitutions. Tunisia has been hailed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as "a model for others in the region and around the world."

El Salvador has led the way among Latin American countries in fighting gender-based killings of women, and the international community has been buoyed by Afghanistan's willingness to reexamine its new domestic violence law.

But as Catherine Russell, ambassador-at-large for global women's issues at the U.S. State Department, pointed out in remarks last December, strengthening women's political participation in 2014 will be key.

"Today," Russell says, "only 21 percent of the world's parliamentarians are women. There are 21 women either serving as head of state or head of government. Only 17 percent of government ministers are women, with the majority serving in the fields of education and health. These numbers are too small. These are the places where decisions get made, and simply put, there aren't enough women in them."

Q&A With UN Official on the Status of Women Around the World

Eve Conant asks John Hendra, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women for his thoughts about the global status of women.

Which countries in the past two years have seen the biggest and/or most disturbing rollbacks in women's rights, and what has happened in each?

Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, where security transition, the peace process, and the April 2014 elections come together amid real fears that any advances in women's rights will be traded away in post-election reconciliation.

UN Women remains very seriously concerned about the situation in conflict settings. For example, Syrian women and children comprise over 70 percent of the refugee population and continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in the country.

Sexual violence has been a persistent feature of the conflict inside Syria. Women and girls face serious threats to their safety and security, as well as lack of access to basic services, including those related to reproductive health. And many women, who now have to head their households, struggle to find a source of income to provide for themselves and their families.

We also remain very seriously concerned about the violence in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) against women and girls. In CAR there is evidence of armed actors subjecting women and girls to rape, forced recruitment, sexual slavery, and early or forced marriage.

We've also seen some serious retrogression with regard to gender equality and women's rights as a result of the economic crisis and austerity measures adopted by many governments. This impacts women in developed and developing countries alike.

According to ODI [Overseas Development Institute] and Plan International, a one percent fall in GDP increases infant mortality by 7.4 deaths per 1,000 for girls versus 1.5 for boys. Primary school completion rates fall during recession, with girls experiencing a 29 percent decrease versus 22 percent for boys. During economic downturns more women in developing countries give birth at home, and their nutritional status and the number of antenatal and postnatal checkups they have declines.

Where are we seeing improvement?

Mexico has undertaken significant steps to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. Constitutional provisions to ensure gender parity in political representation have been approved in both chambers of congress. Women's political participation has increased in 11 of 13 state congresses that held elections in 2013, from 24 percent to 31 percent.

Since 2006 Mexico has also made significant progress to strengthen its legislative and institutional response to prevent, respond to, punish, and eradicate violence against women. The General Law on Women's Access to a Life Free of Violence (LGAMVLV-2007) is pioneering legislation that recognizes different forms of violence against women.

Also welcome are reforms to the Federal Criminal Code and the LGAMVLV, the Organic Law of the Federal Public Administration and the Organic Law of the Attorney General's Office (May 2012) to identify and punish the crimes of femicide and discrimination, and guarantee women victims and survivors of violence access to justice, and combat impunity. In June 2012 the Federal Criminal Code defined discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, gender, sex, marital status, and pregnancy, among others, as a crime.

Another country where we have seen strong progress in legal reform is Tunisia. The new constitution gives both women and men the right to be presidential candidates—the first in the Arab world to do so. It enshrines the rights of women to divorce, to marriage by mutual consent, and also bans polygamy and commits the state to ensure gender equality in the workforce and encourage equality through affirmative action measures. And it guarantees parity between men and women in all elected assemblies. Further, it obliges the state to act through public authorities by taking measures to eliminate all forms of violence against women.

A third example is Kenya, where women's advocates were successful in their campaign to see key rights enshrined in the new 2010 constitution, including a ban on all forms of violence against women and girls, the right to own land, and equality in marriage.

The new constitution also includes the right to political representation with a rule stating that no more than two-thirds of elected seats can be held by either men or women. Improvements in women's political participation were a key outcome of the March 2013 elections, with 87 of the 416 seats in the newly established National Assembly and senate chambers now held by women, where previously just 22 women sat in the old 222-seat parliament.

Have the past two years been good or bad for women's rights globally?

I think we've seen significantly increased awareness about gender equality and women's rights in the past couple of years. And this means that many issues, such as violence against women, femicide, and sexual violence in conflict, are now openly discussed in many societies.

We have new data in many countries on issues such as violence and unpaid care work. People are speaking up about many of the serious human rights violations that are occurring, and that is positive.

There's a growing body of evidence about the contribution that gender equality and women's rights makes to achieving broader development goals—whether it's poverty reduction, improved health and education outcomes, or building peaceful, sustainable societies.

We're also seeing fragility and conflict in a number of countries; the rollback of progress made during the Arab Spring; the impact of austerity and economic crisis, including in the developed world; and of course rising economic inequalities globally.

In the Arab Spring countries, the political volatility combined with rising conservatism and increasing vulnerability of the population in many countries is a matter of grave concern.

Further, the economic crisis and austerity measures have seen reduced support for gender equality programs and women's organizations. In the U.K., funding to violence against women services from local authorities was cut by 31 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12. In Greece austerity measures have stopped local government funding for women's shelters. In Greece and Portugal, public kindergartens have been closed. And many countries have cut maternity and paternity benefits.

And finally, we're seeing rising inequality that is certainly exacerbating other forms of inequality, including gender inequality. As Oxfam recently reported, the world's 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest 3.5 billion. The extreme levels of wealth concentration we're now seeing are threatening to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work. This acts as a brake on economic growth and poverty reduction and exacerbates social problems.

How are initiatives like the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Convention on Domestic Work, which went into effect last September, faring?

According to the ILO there are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 percent of whom are women. While their work represents a very important contribution to economic and social development, 40 percent of countries worldwide have no form of regulation for domestic workers.

That's why the ILO Convention on Domestic Work is so important. It puts the labor rights of domestic workers, the majority of whom work as domestic help in private households, on par with other workers. It includes fixed hours of rest, the right to a minimum wage, social security, protection for migrant workers, and the right to live outside of the house where one works.

The convention has been ratified by 12 countries to date. Since it was adopted, several countries have passed new laws or regulations to protect domestic workers' rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, and Singapore, while legislative reforms are under way in Finland, Namibia, Chile, and the United States, among others.

From UN Women's perspective, we're working to ensure that domestic work is regulated and covered by social protection. For example, in Nepal, we have a long history of supporting and advocating for migrant women workers, many of whom are domestic workers, to ensure they have legal protection and services are available for returned migrants.

In the Philippines, we helped advocate for the Batas Kasambahay Bill, which was signed into national law in 2013. This law provides labor and social protection such as a written contract in a language understood by both employee and employer; regularly paid minimum wages and registration of employment; maximum daily working hours with provisions for overtime pay; workers' coverage under the social security system, including health insurance; and protection against abuse and violence.

In Brazil we've helped support strengthened political organization of domestic workers. In April 2013, Brazil enacted a constitutional amendment that was heralded as a domestic workers bill of rights, guaranteeing a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and paid overtime, among other rights.

What is UN Women's response to changes requested by President Karzai to the new Afghan law on domestic violence?

UN Women was very pleased to see President Hamid Karzai ask for changes to Article 26 of the draft criminal prosecution code, which would have banned relatives from giving evidence in cases of domestic violence and abuse, making successful prosecutions very unlikely.

Nevertheless, so much more remains to be done to protect and realize women's rights in Afghanistan. We remain concerned about the escalation of violence against women and girls, including targeted attacks against women's rights advocates and female government officials.

There is a need for continued monitoring, service delivery, and condemnation of all forms of violence against women and girls in Afghanistan—and around the world. The litmus test of Afghanistan's transition and development will be the extent to which women's and girls' rights are recognized, protected, and realized.

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