This essay is part of a series highlighting global human rights trends in 2022. Read more here.
We know progress is never linear, and defense of human rights can be a difficult task. Women’s rights gains, however, are particularly fragile. Often disguised in concepts that are presented as harmless, such as the protection of the family and children, or the protection of societal traditions, governments limit women’s autonomy, as if these restrictions were not politically motivated and did not amount to human-rights violations.
Examples of egregious restrictions on women’s rights are not hard to find. The Chinese government’s population policies treat women as “wombs” subject to forced abortions or forced pregnancies depending on the “needs” of the country; Iran’s morality police have brutally enforced compulsory hijab laws on women; Qatar criminalizes extramarital sex where pregnancy acts as evidence against women; Russia and Turkey are deliberately walking back protections against domestic violence; in Afghanistan, the Taliban are once again denying women and girls education, work and most basic freedoms.
Women of course experience discrimination and other rights violations in democracies, but a country that has functioning checks and balances – independent courts, media freedom, active political participation, effective accountability, and access to remedies and justice – means women have tools to shield against rollbacks. In practice, equality with men in rights and opportunities is a sign of a strong democracy, while reduction of women’s rights is a troubling sign of a weakened one.
We have seen how political control over courts has resulted in a decrease of women’s rights. In 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal virtually banned legal abortion when it ruled that abortion in cases of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is unconstitutional. In June, the US Supreme Court eliminated constitutional protection of abortion rights, overturning almost 50 years of jurisprudence. The results of these decisions have been devastating for pregnant women. In El Salvador, courts have sentenced women who had miscarriages to 30 years in prison.
We should explicitly recognize that when governments tell women where they can go, whom they can or must go with, what they must wear, and whether they can be pregnant or not, those are signs of authoritarianism. Such restrictions not only directly affect more than half of the population, but, among other effects, also increase the arbitrary power of the government over community. Women’s rights restrictions undermine democracy. Women know this and have been paying the price for speaking out.
In Afghanistan, women have relentlessly been protesting against the Taliban for more than a year. In exchange, the Taliban have escalated persecution and violence. Women have been illegally detained, held in undisclosed locations, beaten and released after weeks or months without ever facing charges.
In Iran, the uprising after the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini has shown a country where women – and men – are tired of a regime that controls and denies women their full freedoms even to the point of beating them, and understand that discriminating against women is part of the authorities’ repressive playbook. Iran has reacted with excessive force, killing protesters, including many women and girls, and detaining thousands of people.
In Poland, the women’s rights activist Justyna Wydrzynska faces three years in prison on charges of assisting someone to have an abortion and illegal “marketing” of medication after allegedly helping a woman access pills for a self-managed medication abortion. In the United States, the criminalization of abortion also becomes an issue of freedom of speech, expression and information, as well as privacy, as state governments may prosecute people seeking information about abortion on social media.
But in the face of repression, women’s movements are becoming more connected worldwide. Iranian women have adopted the Kurdish women’s movement chant of “Women, Freedom, Life!” In Afghanistan and Indonesia, women have also protested in solidarity with Iranian women. In Mexico, women’s organizations are helping women in the United States to get safe medication abortions. Women around the world have protested sexual violence by performing in their own languages The Rapist Is You, a song written by Chilean women activists.
In the U.S., abortion was again dominant in the last midterm elections. There were six state initiatives related to abortion, and in all of them people voted to protect women’s right to autonomy. Abortion, however, remains illegal in 12 states with several more at risk of becoming “abortion deserts.” These legislative moves weaken democracy by reducing instead of increasing the protections of human rights.
In Latin America, in particular, the connection between democracy and women’s rights has been highly visible. The Green Wave, as the movement to decriminalize abortion has been called, has spread from Argentina throughout Latin America. And it is no longer only about stopping governments from forcing women and girls to be pregnant. Women show up with their green bandanas to protest against femicide, environmental destruction, police brutality and oppression in general. The Green Wave is a call to action in favor of human rights.
In a sense, the growing worldwide movement is circular. The fight for women’s rights in functioning democracies connects with the women fighting repression in autocracies and provides them with strength and support. The fight for women’s autonomy is a fight against authoritarianism.