Today, not one single country has achieved gender equality. Women and girls throughout the world continue to face widespread violence, discrimination and disadvantage. And there remain many unfair laws that deny justice to those who have been wronged.
But the good news is that progress is being made and small steps taken by large numbers of people can have a big impact.
Each one of us has a role to play in achieving gender equality. We can all be agents of change by acting as catalysts for positive transformation through everyday activism, and by taking a stand against prejudice and mistreatment whether it is on our doorstep or far away.
Here are just five recent examples of important victories that have been won thanks to individuals from across the globe joining forces with women’s rights campaigners:
- In Pakistan, the government has passed laws that increase the sentences for “honour” killings and rape, and close a loophole that enabled killers to walk free.
So-called honour crimes are one of the most severe forms of violence against women and girls. Every year in Pakistan, hundreds are killed by relatives who blame them for bringing shame on the family’s reputation or as atonement for “wrongs” perpetrated by others.
In 2016, Qandeel Baloch, a social media star who used her public profile to encourage other young women to pursue their ambitions, was murdered by her brother for the “shame” she had caused their family. Qandeel’s public commitment to equality and justice was a beacon for others striving for change in Pakistan.
Previously, “forgiveness” law in Pakistan meant victims frequently faced intense pressure to pardon their attackers. When a woman was murdered, her relatives had the right to forgive the crime and allow the culprit to go unpunished, something that frequently occurred because the killer was a family member.
After years of campaigning by human rights groups, in October 2016 a bill was passed stating that a victim’s relatives could only pardon her killer if they faced capital punishment, but perpetrators must serve a mandatory life sentence.
A separate bill has increased the sentence for rape and makes prosecution easier. This has huge significance in Pakistan, where rape conviction rates have historically been almost non-existent.
- In Malawi, the Parliament this February outlawed child “marriage” when it set 18 as the minimum age of marriage, largely due to persistent efforts of women and youth activists.
Malawi has one of the highest levels of child marriage in the world. Half of the country’s girls are married, frequently trapping them in a cycle of poverty as they are more likely to become pregnant before they are physically or emotionally ready and are less likely to finish school.
The popular belief that girls should marry as young as possible to capitalise on their fertility means that child marriage is deeply rooted in Malawian culture. Raising the age of marriage is an important step in protecting girls’ rights and comes at a time when many countries across Africa are doing more to ensure legal equality for women and girls.
- In the USA, sustained efforts by grassroots campaigners have helped bring positive development in Virginia, where the state’s General Assembly has unanimously passed legislation criminalising the practice of female genital mutilation with up to a year of prison and a $2,500 fine. The bill now awaits the signature of Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Female genital mutilation involves the partial or complete removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The procedure can cause a wide range of significant long-term physical and psychological problems and is a serious human rights violation. The Virginia legislation is an important step towards protecting women and girls particularly in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, which has the second highest concentration of those at risk in the USA, behind New York City, Newark and the Jersey City tri-state area.
- In the UK, Parliament is close to agreeing ratification of the Istanbul Convention. This is a pan-European treaty which requires governments to implement a variety of measures to prevent all forms of violence against women. The IC Change campaign which spearheaded the parliamentary push is volunteer-led.
Once turned into law, the UK Government will be legally required to enact all necessary measures specified in the Convention to prosecute perpetrators and protect women experiencing sexual and domestic violence as well as those affected by forced marriage, female genital mutilation and sterilisation. What’s more, the state will have to ensure there is adequate funding for support services such as rape crisis centres, helplines and shelters.
- In Lebanon, civil rights organisations have spearheaded a public campaign calling for the government to repeal a law that allows a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim. In December, a parliamentary Committee agreed that this law should be changed.
Today in Lebanon, as in many countries, cultural traditions place a big emphasis on controlling women’s and girls’ sexuality. A bride is expected to be a virgin so anything that affects her virginity is seen as a source of shame. Some still believe it is better for someone who has been raped to marry her attacker because nobody else will want her. These cultural traditions place a heavy burden on the victim and put pressure on her to ‘agree’.
To help ensure this unjust law is repealed, international women’s rights organisation Equality Now is supporting local groups by asking people to contact Lebanese government officials to request that Parliament act as soon as possible.
All these victories were achieved thanks to individuals speaking out about an injustice that compelled them to take action. We all benefit from the little acts of kindness that people do every day, often without recognition. In a world where problems sometimes seem insurmountable, it’s good to remember that all the small steps can combine to achieve fantastic things. Each of us has that power of change. Together we are even stronger.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. An international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and female genital mutilation.
For more information about Equality Now’s ongoing campaigns go to www.equalitynow.org.