In January 2017, few of us could have imagined where the global conversation about women’s rights would be by December.
At the start of the year, if you had told the team at Women & Girls that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year would be people who have spoken out about sexual harassment and abuse, we would have barely believed you. For the experts and reporters in our community who have been working on the front line of gender equality for years, it is striking, and welcome, to see so many step up to address the issues of workplace discrimination, gender-based violence and economic inequality.
But it’s worth remembering that we didn’t reach this landmark moment in the history of the women’s movement until September. Before then, 2017 had already been a year full of victories, and setbacks, for women and girls in the developing world.
The Year in Women & Girls
In January, more than 5 million people took to the streets around the world, on every continent, to march for women’s rights. The protest was tied to the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump – who was caught on tape talking about sexually assaulting women – but worldwide, women used the opportunity to make a stand on reproductive rights, gender-based violence and equal pay.
Two days later, as one of his first acts as president, Trump reinstated the Global Gag Rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. This executive order states that foreign NGOs that receive U.S. funding must not provide information, referrals or services for abortion, even in countries where the procedure is legal. The policy has not only affected NGOs that provide such services, but has also had a domino effect, hampering governments’ abilities to provide family planning to women and girls.
In April, the Trump administration went on to cut funding to the UNFPA, the United Nations agency that provides family planning services to women and girls around the world. The U.S. State Department cited the agency’s support for “coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization” in China in its announcement of the cuts, a charge the UNFPA denies.
In contrast, Canada announced its new “feminist” international assistance policy in June, which the government says will see 95 percent of the country’s bilateral development and aid programs targeted toward women and girls by 2022.
In July, NGOs, governments and the private sector came together in London to pledge $2.5 billion to family planning efforts. The money will go toward the FP2020 goal to provide contraception access to 120 million more women and girls by 2020, on which progress is lagging. Still, a report released in December this year found that access to family planning had prevented 84 million unintended pregnancies, 26 million unsafe abortions and 125,000 maternal deaths.
August was a blockbuster month for advancing rights of women and girls. In that month alone, Lebanon followed Jordan and ended its “marry-your-rapist” law; Chile lifted its total ban on abortion; India banned a tradition of “instant divorce” that allowed men to abandon their wives; and Nepal outlawed menstrual discrimination, which saw women and girls banished to huts while they have their periods.
September saw Saudi Arabia announce the lift of its infamous ban on women driving, a victory for the Saudi women’s rights activists who have faced jail time and exile in their 17-year campaign for the right to drive.
And then, of course, there was #metoo. The movement, started in the U.S. by activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago, was adopted by women around the world in September this year in response to the flood of allegations of misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. But the campaign, which continues, reached much further than the women of Hollywood. From factory floors in India and Bangladesh to domestic workers in the Middle East, women (including News Deeply’s CEO) stood up to decry sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
In November, the Global Gender Gap report found that the worldwide gender gap had widened for the first time in a decade, and that it will be more than 200 years before women earn the same as men. Another gender index, launched the same month by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, measured the security of women and girls alongside their economic and political representation. Iceland came top of both lists, with Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan the worst performers across the board.
In the Philippines, meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration lifted a restraining order that had prevented drug manufacturers from renewing the registration of birth control products including the contraceptive pill and implants. For two years, women and girls had faced acute contraception shortages, with products disappearing from pharmacy shelves in a country where teen pregnancy rates are soaring.
We know that women and girls are most vulnerable in conflict zones and in the wake of natural disasters, and in 2017 many such humanitarian situations got worse.
In Yemen, already one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, the ongoing civil conflict has driven up maternal mortality rates, and an acute nutrition crisis is hitting women and girls the hardest. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the threat of famine pushed many of the region’s most vulnerable people to the edge, and climate-driven droughts are increasingly pushing girls into child marriage. In India, widespread flooding forced vulnerable women and girls into trafficking in the northeast; after a later deluge in Mumbai, it was left to female household members to pick up the pieces.
The Rohingya crisis, which has seen a million people flee their homes in Myanmar into Bangladesh, has been described as a uniquely feminized crisis. The Burmese military are known to have carried out a systematic campaign of rape against women and girls from the Rohingya minority, and those same women and girls now live at high risk of further gender-based violence in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar.
Our Coverage Highlights
As a string of terror incidents dominated the headlines this year, the role of women in extremism was often overlooked. Focusing on the parts of the world where extremism is having the biggest impact on women’s lives, we spoke to experts, former extremists and citizens who devote their lives to fighting radicalism.
All the available evidence shows that including women in peace processes significantly increases the chances that an agreement will hold. Our series celebrated the unsung women heroes of peacemaking, and showed how the international community can step up to bring more women to the negotiating table.
Kanon Sarkar was told her baby had died shortly after she gave birth. But the truth was far worse. She had fallen victim to West Bengal’s baby-trafficking networks, which experts say are driven by India’s strict abortion laws.
Talking about violence, sanitation or unintended pregnancy can be difficult for girls in Kenya’s slums, who fear shame or reprisal for speaking up. But one program in Kibera is allowing them to find the answers to their personal problems safely and anonymously.
After Chile lifted its total abortion ban, we turned to Nicaragua, which despite its high rankings on some gender equality indexes, prohibits even child rape victims from terminating unwanted pregnancies.
Sudan’s Public Order Courts are charged with upholding the country’s strict conservative “morality” laws. An investigation by Nuba Reports revealed that 70 percent of fines and jail terms go to women, who are not given due process in court.
Recommended Reads From Elsewhere
The Girls Who Survived Boko Haram’s Bombing Campaign – The New York Times
Dowry-Related Violence in Delhi – The Hindustan Times
The Myth of Women’s ‘Empowerment’ – The New York Times
The Price of Senegal’s Anti-Abortion Laws – The New Yorker
See You In 2018
It’s been an incredible year covering the biggest stories on the rights of women and girls. We have some exciting plans for 2018, and we hope you’ll join us as we work to elevate the voices of women and girls around the world.