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Gender Rights: Resistance Against Regression

Credit: Silvana Flores/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Mar 18 2024 (IPS) - Global progress on gender rights has slowed almost to a halt. After decades of steady progress, demands for the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people now play out on bitterly contested territory. Over the course of several decades, global movements for rights won profound changes in consciences, customs and institutions. They elevated over half of humanity, excluded for centuries, to the status of holders of rights.

The reaction is intense. Gains for feminist and LGBTQI+ movements have brought severe backlash. In the last year, this has been apparent all over the world, from Russia’s crackdown on LGBTQI+ activism, to new extreme anti-gay laws in Ghana and Uganda, to anti-trans hysteria in the USA, to the Taliban’s imposition of gender apartheid in Afghanistan and the ruling theocracy reasserting itself in Iran.

The latest State of Civil Society Report, from global civil society alliance CIVICUS, shows that crises – which invariably hit women and girls the hardest – worsened in 2023. The global femicide epidemic is showing no sign of abating and prospects of gender equality are receding. Women remain vastly underrepresented in decision-making, with only about 10 per cent of states female-headed – likely a major reason why gender-based violence, one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world, continue to receive such little attention.

The gender gap – the unfair disparities between women and men in status and opportunities – has only barely returned to pre-pandemic levels. It’s estimated that, at the current pace, it will take another 131 years to achieve gender parity.

The story of the last year has, however, also been one of resistance. In war after war, women’s bodies have become battlefields, weapons and bounty – but still, women are refusing to be pigeonholed as victims and are standing at the forefront of humanitarian response and peacebuilding efforts, including in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine.

Anti-gender narratives are making headway on all continents and across cultural and ideological divides, driven by well-organised and well-connected anti-rights movements. Supported by powerful conservative foundations, anti-rights movements are much better funded than their progressive counterparts, and they’re coopting human rights language to shift the narrative. In country after country, anti-rights discourse is being instrumentalised for political gain and driving a rise in attacks on activists who defend women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights. But brave activists around the world are rising to the occasion, devoting increasing efforts to defending hard-won rights. And they’ve still managed to achieve some memorable victories in the process.

Thanks to sustained civil society activism, last year Mexico legalised abortion, Mauritius defied the African anti-LGBTQI+ trend by decriminalising same-sex relations, Estonia became the first ex-Soviet nation to legalise same-sex marriage, and Latvia and Nepal took crucial steps towards equal rights. Long-term struggles for marriage equality continue in every region, recently coming to fruition in Greece and likely soon in Thailand as well.

Amid rising femicides, women are mobilising against gender-based violence in numerous countries, from Italy to Kenya to Bulgaria, sometimes scoring significant policy changes.

Even in the direst of circumstances, women are finding new ways to resist oppression. In Afghanistan and Iran, they’re circumventing restrictions by holding clandestine demonstrations and building international solidarity. Last year, besieged Afghan and Iranian women joined together to launch the End Gender Apartheid campaign, demanding international recognition – and condemnation – of their countries’ regimes as based on gender apartheid. They want the 1973 UN Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which so far applies only to racial hierarchies, extended to gender. They want this specific and extreme form of gender-based exclusion to be codified as a crime under international law so that those responsible can be prosecuted and punished. United Nations human rights experts are already acknowledging and amplifying these efforts.

In the USA, the source of so much of the global backlash, LGBTQI+ rights are under unprecedented strain and abortion rights are at their worst state in 50 years following the 2022 Supreme Court overturning of the Roe v Wade ruling. But civil society and allies have stepped up, successfully pushing for state laws to shield abortion and LGBTQI+ rights. The pro-choice movement has regrouped to assist women lacking access to reproductive health services. They’ve managed to improve many lives and are proving it’s far from game over for gender rights.

While these are testing times, the situation would be much worse without the enormous efforts of countless civil society unsung heroes. Progress has slowed significantly, but most historic gains are enduring. Across the world, civil society is resisting – through street protest, advocacy, campaigning, solidarity, mutual support and litigation – and standing firm.

The fight is on. Short-term setbacks won’t succeed in halting long-term progress because civil society is set on keeping up the struggle until there’s freedom and equality for all.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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