This year, it was as clear as ever that women’s and girls’ rights are fundamental to a nation’s progress and the state of its psychological, political and economic health. From the continuing violence in Syria to new laws on domestic violence and abortion to positive moves on child marriage, we highlight 10 developments that in one way or another changed the lives of women and girls around the world in 2016.
Africa Moves Toward Ending Child Marriage
Gambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania have all enacted laws raising the minimum age that a girl can get married, effectively banning child marriage. Rights advocates applaud the changes in legislation, but say early marriage will only end when people address the cultural and economic factors that push girls to get married so early.
Escalating Violence in Syria
Intensified assaults on rebel groups by Syrian and Russian troops, particularly in the besieged city of Aleppo, led to widespread international condemnation. The continued killing, torture and detention of women and children in the country has experts warning that, even as the Syrian regime claims victory in retaking Aleppo, the seeds of a new generation driven by violent extremism may have already been planted.
Pakistan Takes Steps to Stop Honor Killings
The murder of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch by her brother, who confessed to strangling her to death because she had “brought shame” on the family, triggered public outrage and forced lawmakers to look again at the country’s forgiveness clause. The law allows honor killings to go unpunished if the victim’s family pardons the accused. In October, the government closed the legal loophole, unanimously passing a bill that would see anyone convicted of an honor killing face a minimum sentence of 25 years. But critics say the law is still too vague to be effective.
Landmark Case for Sexual Violence
In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) made its first ever conviction for sexual violence. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was sentenced to 18 years for the murder, pillage and rape committed by soldiers under his authority in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. Gombo’s conviction is also the first time the court has held a person responsible for the crimes of his troops.
China Defines Domestic Violence
At the start of the year, China passed a new law against domestic violence. The move was greeted as a groundbreaking shift in policy by legally defining domestic violence as physical and psychological abuse. Previously, it was considered a private matter between families.
India Shuts Down Sterilization Camps
Prompted by the deaths of hundreds of mainly rural women, India’s top court ruled in September that the country’s government-sponsored sterilization camps be shut down within three years. As part of efforts to slow population growth, the clinics perform tubal ligation procedures for free, but are often overcrowded, unhygienic and use expired drugs. For many women who can’t afford other methods of contraception, the risky surgery is their only option for family planning.
Men in Iran Cover Up to Protest Hijab Laws
Starting in July, pictures started popping up on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram of Iranian men wearing headscarves. The photos are part of the #MenInHijab campaign launched by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad to show solidarity with women in Iran, where it’s mandatory for them to cover their heads.
Zika Reignites Debate on Reproductive Rights
The Zika crisis has renewed pressure on governments in Latin America to improve access to abortion and family planning services. In places like Brazil and El Salvador, women took to the streets to demand their governments relax the strict antiabortion laws in place across much of the region. Without access to those services, the number of women resorting to unsafe abortions has soared, according to some reports.
Saudis Call to Abolish Guardianship of Women
The call against guardianship in Saudi Arabia grew louder in 2016, with thousands signing the first-ever petition demanding the government abolish the system. Under the current law, women need the permission of a man – usually her father or husband – to travel, marry, leave prison and, in some cases, get a job or access healthcare. Around 2,500 women sent telegrams to the office of the Saudi King asking him to end the system and the petition had garnered more than 14,000 signatures by September.
Give and Take on Abortion Laws
There was both progress and frustration on developments in abortion laws around the world this year. Some countries, including Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi, proposed or enacted legislation giving women more choice and better access to abortion services. Those moves could go some way to reducing the 21.6 million unsafe abortions that women go through each year. But in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) proposed tightening the country’s already strict laws to impose a blanket ban on abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. After mass protests and criticism from the government’s justice and human rights committee, the PiS backed down in October.