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Governments Should Fulfill Women’s Rights Pledges

Entrenched Discrimination, Violence Mar Gains 25 Years after Beijing

Women sing slogans during a march to commemorate International Women's Day, Friday, March 8, 2019, in Asuncion, Paraguay. Thousands of people marched in Asuncion's downtown to demand women's rights. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz) © 2019 AP Photo/Jorge Saenz

(New York) – Governments should mark International Women’s Day on March 8, 2020 with moves to expedite progress on gender equality, Human Rights Watch said today. They should plan for concerted action and dedicate resources to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and to eliminate discrimination in law and practice.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which set out a progressive women’s rights agenda in 12 areas and mobilized widespread political will and action. A planned two-week meeting at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York to take stock of advances since Beijing has been postponed due to coronavirus concerns. But the Generation Equality Forum, co-hosted by Mexico in May 2020 and France in July will bring together governments, the private sector, and civil society groups to create blueprints to accelerate progress on women’s and girls’ rights.

“Inspiring activism and organizing around women’s rights over the past 25 years has led to massive gains, but entrenched discrimination, gender-based violence, and neglect keep many women and girls from enjoying their full rights,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “We need to prioritize women and girls who have been marginalized based on factors such as disability, age, race, ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity, and Indigenous or migration status.”

Over the past 25 years, Human Rights Watch has reported on a wide range of violations of women’s rights and human rights abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

There have been notable advances in many areas. Although many women workers are in poorly regulated sectors with low wages and exploitative working conditions, they have organized to achieve key legal protections. These include the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, which set new international standards and catalyzed reforms in dozens of countries, and the newly adopted ILO Violence and Harassment Convention. Labor and other groups have also been fighting abuses in women-dominated sectors such as the garment industry, championing greater transparency in global supply chains to facilitate redress for grievances and using legally binding agreements to tackle sexual harassment at work.

Legal reforms have focused both on removing harmful and discriminatory laws and on introducing new legal, economic, and psychosocial – mental health – protections. Countries across Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa have repealed laws that allow rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims. One hundred and fifty-five countries have laws addressing domestic violence, including almost half the countries in the Middle East and North Africa in the past five years. Some countries, among them India, have created specific legal safeguards for women with disabilities, although implementation has been weak.

Regional human rights treaties in Africa, the Americas, and Europe have set forth minimum standards for preventing and prosecuting gender-based violence and providing needed support for survivors.

Despite this progress, discriminatory laws and protection gaps remain, and enforcement of existing laws is often weak. Women’s and girl’s rights to access and own property, including land, still lag behind. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found married women and widows face formidable barriers to claiming property and land.

Gender-based violence remains endemic. Governments often fail to protect lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender women from violence, including sexual violence, as Human Rights Watch has documented in Nigeria; domestic violence, as documented in Ghana and Lebanon; police violence, as documented in Kuwait; and violence against transgender women, as in Lebanon. Many factors contribute to violence against women with disabilities, including limitations in physical mobility, communication barriers, isolation, and harmful stereotypes.

Additional reforms and enforcement are critical, as Human Rights Watch research on domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan shows. At least 37 countries criminalize same-sex conduct. And Human Rights Watch research in Cambodia, China, Lebanon, Tanzania, the United States, and South Africa shows that criminalizing sex work compromises the safety and access to basic rights for those who sell sex to survive.

Human Rights Watch research in Malawi, South Sudan, Nepal, and Bangladesh underlines the mixed record of governments fighting child marriage, which exposes girls to a heightened risk of violence and health problems due to early childbearing, and causes them to leave school. Similarly, despite massive gains in school enrollment, 260 million children were not in school in 2019, with girls especially affected because of sexual harassment and violence, child marriage, and discrimination. Human Rights Watch found that schools in Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, and Sierra Leone have expelled tens of thousands of girls who marry or get pregnant.

The global fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights has mobilized activists and health care workers. Human rights bodies have recognized that criminalizing and restricting access to abortion negatively affects myriad women’s human rights. Governments have moved slowly to loosen such restrictions, such as in Chile in specific cases.

But greater access to reproductive health services has also spurred concerted opposition from some governments and powerful religious bodies, including, as Human Rights Watch documented, in Poland. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean criminalize abortion in all circumstances, including the Dominican Republic and Honduras, or severely restrict access, such as in Ecuador. Argentina is initiating a new legislative debate to decriminalize abortion.

The United States has tried to eliminate and weaken references to sexual and reproductive rights in international resolutions, and has excluded these issues from the State Department’s annual human rights country reports. It has restricted its funding as the world’s largest health donor with its “global gag rule,” which has threatened hard-fought gains in women’s health, including in Kenya and Uganda.

The women, peace, and security agenda in UN Security Resolution 1325 outlines measures governments should take to ensure women’s participation in peace and security talks, and to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict. Women’s participation in peace processes remains limited, though, including an unclear role for Afghan women in upcoming negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other factions.

Human Rights Watch has found a lack of long-term support services and formidable obstacles to accountability when documenting sexual violence in conflict, including against the Rohingya in Myanmar, Yezidi women in Iraq by ISIS, by Boko Haram in Nigeria, in post-election violence in Kenya, and in the Central African Republic.

New challenges are emerging. Climate change exacerbates conflict over land, worsening women’s access to pastoral and agricultural land and threatens advances made in women’s and girls’ health, including maternal health. Governments have a human rights obligation to address climate change both by cutting emissions and by adequately funding protections, especially for marginalized communities. Online violence presents a growing threat to which governments need to develop an adequate response.

“There have been varying degrees of progress in legal equality and protections, but the true litmus test will be meaningful improvements in women’s and girls’ daily lives,” Varia said. “We are still far from realizing the vision put forward in Beijing.”

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