On International Women’s Day, Celebrate Feminist Victories of 2011

Today is International Women's Day. Christine Ahn and the Global Fund for Women mark the occasion by recalling substantial wins for women in 2011.

On International Women’s Day, we have a lot to celebrate. Rarely are feminist victories recognized by the mainstream media, or even for that matter, by our very own women’s movements. So the Global Fund for Women decided it was time to honor some significant wins that women’s groups have achieved around the world, from the courtroom to the court of public opinion. In the past year, women’s organizing has led to significant progress in securing bodily rights, delivering justice to rape survivors, cementing gender equality into law, and ending violence.

Securing Bodily Rights

Last December, the Uruguayan Senate voted to decriminalize abortion in a woman’s first trimester. Although a similar bill was passed and vetoed by the former president, this time President Jose Mujica will sign it. Uruguay will join Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico City as the only places in Latin America and the Caribbean where a woman can legally obtain a first trimester abortion without restriction. This bill will likely influence legislation in neighboring Brazil and Argentina, where women presidents—Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernandez—are now at the helm.

In Egypt, women won a significant victory last December when a civilian court ordered the army to stop conducting “virginity tests” on women prisoners. One activist who had been detained, Samira Ibrahim, filed a lawsuit against the army after she was subjected to one of these humiliating searches, and she won. “My message to the women of Egypt is take to the streets and don’t be afraid,” says Samira. And that is exactly what Egyptian women did. Following the assault of peaceful protestors by the military and police, some 10,000 women marched the streets of Cairo to condemn military violence.

Justice for Rape Survivors

In places where rape has been systematically used as a weapon of war, women’s groups have proven that justice can and will prevail. Last February, a military court in the Democratic Republic of Congo sentenced Colonel Kibibi Mutware and his subordinates to 20 years in prison for raping some 60 women, along with men and children. It is the first conviction ever of a commanding officer for committing sexual violence against civilians in eastern Congo.

In the former Yugoslavia, seven women’s groups from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia have come together to create the Women’s Court Initiative. This groundbreaking effort seeks justice for thousands of women survivors of violence, many of whom have cases still unresolved from the region's wars 20 years ago. If successful, the Women’s Court has the potential to redefine how international bodies deal withgender justice and reconciliation.

In Pakistan, a courageous rape survivor, Mukhtaran Mai, and a women’s rights organization are changing the court of public opinion on discussing rape. The illiterate Mukhtaran became an inspiration for Pakistani women after she refused to remain silent after being targeted in a village council-sanctioned gang rape. Though the Supreme Court acquitted five of the six men charged, her case has forced debate on the media’s coverage of rape in Pakistan. So has Pakistan's Uks Research, Resource, and Publication Center on Women and Media, which released a ground-breaking and widely covered report. On the nation’s most watched political talk show, the popular anchorwoman Quatrina discussed the issue saying, “Rape is a crime of violence, power and abuse… We will talk bluntly and openly.”

Major Policy Changes

After months of massive protests, Moroccans voted in favor of constitutional reforms to strengthen Moroccan democracy and cement into law women’s equality to men. Fueled by the revolutionary spirit sweeping the Arab world, women advocated for changes to guarantee equal social, economic, political, environmental, and civil rights.

Across Europe, women hailed as a major victory the Council of Europe’s adoption of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. It is the region’s first legally binding treaty on domestic violence and the most comprehensive legal document on violence against women in the world. It criminalizes multiple forms of violence—including sexual, physical and psychological—and outlines concrete measures governments must undertake to prevent violence, protect and support survivors, and prosecute perpetrators. The convention needs ratification by 10 out of 47 member states to come into force.

And at the United Nations, in a 23 to 19 vote, the Human Rights Council adopted the first ever resolution to explicitly recognize and protect the human rights of LGBTI people. The resolution was introduced by South Africa, which is significant since more than two-thirds of African countries criminalize consensual same-sex acts. The discrimination and hostility is so severe that LGBTI people live in fear and hiding, like prominent Ugandan activist David Kato who was brutally murdered in his home last year. While not legally binding, the resolution sets in motion concrete steps, such as a UN report to document violations of the rights of LGBTI people, which was released last December and urges countries to de-criminalize homosexuality, abolish the death penalty for consensual sexual relations, and enact comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.

Other Notable Wins

In Sri Lanka, 40,000 garment workers, most of them women, walked out of their factories in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) to protest a wage-cutting pension bill introduced in order to obtain an IMF loan. During the walkout, workers were locked in and targets of open fire by police who assaulted and injured about 1,000 workers. The workers' fearlessness and courage prevailed, and in a dramatic defeat, the bill was retracted and the police chief resigned. Such a mass mobilization is unprecedented in the FTZ’s 32-years and marks a turning point in Sri Lanka’s struggle for workers’ rights (see image at right).

In one notable win in 2011 that the media did widely cover, three women won theNobel Peace Prize: Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni pro-democracy activist, Tawakkul Karman. At great risk to their lives, these women played central roles in bringing peace and democracy to their countries. This prize is a welcome affirmation that women’s leadership is vital to realizing peace and human rights.

Looking Forward

It remains true that around the world, women make up only 19.5 percent of parliamentarians (about 17 percent for women in the U.S. Congress), that one in three women will still experience sexual violence in her lifetime, and that because of gender, women and girls will be denied education, opportunities, and promotions. Yet we must always savor the small and large victories won by women around the world.

Here at home, we can celebrate how our collective action forced Rush Limbaugh’s corporate sponsors to withdraw after he called Sandra Fluke a “slut” when she demanded that insurance cover contraception, or when the Susan G. Komen reversed its decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Imagine how these small and large steps forward will ripple into transforming the lives of women—how the women of Egypt will be even more emboldened by Samira Ibrahim’s courageous stance and legal victory, or how the decriminalization of abortion in Uruguay will alter the course of reproductive justice throughout the Americas.

We are gaining ground, and for that we have much to celebrate.