When we think of women’s rights, we often think feminism. And when we think feminism, the image of radical, raging women usually lurks in the minds of many. But the issue of women’s rights is more than a movement and more than just a chapter in history. For many, it is something that plays a role in everyday life – in our public and private lives, and our personal and professional aspirations.
So is gender equality a reality, or are we still far from achieving what should be a norm?
There is no doubt that many social issues remain invisible worldwide, swept under the ever-expanding rug of social consciousness. The issue of women’s rights remains ever salient locally and globally, but often fails to gain mainstream attention. From professional discrimination to violence against women, legal injustices to direct violations of human rights, gender inequality is manifest.
Here in Australia, gender inequality is less perceptible than in struggling, developing countries where failing legal systems and dominant cultural mindsets help to perpetuate the mistreatment and degradation of women. Regardless of geography, however, the scale of the problem cannot be denied – whether in social, cultural, or political terms, it would be impossible to claim unequivocally that all women have access to basic human rights and opportunities.
We take a look at some of the most recent issues affecting women’s rights in the world today.
‘Close the Gap: Why Equality for Girls and Women Matter’ by WorldBank
Millions of women each year fall victim to abuse and exploitation through human trafficking. The issue remains a pervasive one: a multibillion dollar enterprise from which those involved at all levels – traffickers, pimps and buyers – profit. The most immediate challenge with human trafficking cases is that there are no geographical barriers. They often occur across international borders, making it difficult to locate the perpetrators who may be part of a larger illegal structure.
Victims of trafficking are commonly subjected to domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and forced labour. Many are driven by poverty and desperation, while others are sold by their families, bartered, or lured by the prospect of work.
In 2004, the owners of a New Yorksex tourism company, Big Apple Oriental Tours, were charged with promoting prostitution. The company’s operations, which included an advertised trip to the Philippines for sex tourists, were terminated when Equality Now* assisted in bringing the company’s actions to light in 2002.
Closer to home, Australia has been identified as one of the hot spots for sex trafficking. According to an article by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2011, more than 60 000 men buy prostituted women on a weekly basis in Victoria. In 1984, prostitution was legalised in Victoria, but if the statistics are anything to go by, conditions for women have not improved. A current measure being promoted, particularly in light of its effectiveness in combating problems associated with trafficking in Sweden, is the decriminalisation of victims. Rather, the clients, traffickers and pimps should be liable in accordance with anti-trafficking legislation.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 140 million females worldwide are suffering the effects of female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice of FGM is widespread in countries such as Africa and several countries in the Middle East and Asia, where it is commonly part of cultural traditions and religious rituals marking the passage of girls into womanhood.
FGM, or the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia… for non-medical reasons”, constitutes a direct violation of human rights and is recognised as such globally. Victims of FGM often suffer serious short-term and long-term heath repercussions, including life-threatening bacterial infections, hemorrhaging, cysts, and infertility.
In Liberia, girls from the age of eight are commonly subjected to FGM as an indoctrination process and initiation into the Sande society, a female secret society with political affiliations and influence over certain ethnic groups in the country. In January 2010, Ruth Berry Peal was forced to undergo FGM following an argument with two female members of the Gola ethnic group. She was abducted and genitally mutilated in the bush, where she was kept for one month under an oath of secrecy. Upon being released, Ruth filed a lawsuit against the perpetrators, but not without incurring the wrath of the Gola community who issued threats against Ruth and her family. In July 2011, the two women responsible were found guilty on charges of kidnapping, felonious restraint and theft.
Despite this victory, FGM remains a concerning trend in many developing countries and much remains to be done about this form of discrimination against girls and women.
In Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from driving, except where it is tolerated in rural regions. While there is no actual law banning women from driving, it is a legal requirement for drivers to own licenses, which are generally not distributed to women. The issue is also religiously determined – Saudi Arabia’s Fatwa (religious decree) on Women’s Driving of Automobiles explicitly forbids women from driving and while it is not legally binding, it holds much sway in Saudi Arabian politics and culture.
The Fatwa prohibits women from driving on the grounds that the consequences of such an allowance would lead to a gradual disintegration of traditional values. The edict claims that women’s driving of automobiles would be a “source of undeniable vice, inter alia, the legally prohibited “khilwa” [meeting in private between a man and a woman] and abandonment of “hijab” [women’s veil]. This also entails women meeting with men without taking the necessary precautions.” But this claim is predicated on a number of “ifs” and unsubstantiated “woulds”. It does not stand that freedom of mobility equates to cultural infidelity.
In 2011, Saudi women’s rights activist, Manal al-Sherif, was detained for allegedly organising an online campaign against the de facto driving ban. In September 2011, a woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving an automobile in Jeddah. This sentence was later revoked by the Saudi King. More recently, two women’s rights activists filed lawsuits against the Interior Ministry in February 2012 for denying them driver’s licenses when the law does not prohibit women from driving.
The de facto ban remains in place in Saudi Arabia today. More information can be found here to petition for the repeal of the Fatwa.
The idea that gender equality is an idealistic fantasy fit for a utopian world is a cop-out. This is the world in which we live and every single one of us has a responsibility to make it better. In developed and developing countries alike, human rights violations against women are being sidelined. This is not an issue that will go away with ignorance. Get involved and take action.
It stops right here, and it starts with you.
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* Organisations such as Equality Now are working in Australia and around the world to support women’s rights and spread awareness about global abuses of these rights. Founded in 1992, Equality Now is a non-government organisation which aims to take action against human rights violations committed against women. Two decades ago, its founders, attorneys Feryal Gharahi, Jessica Neuwirth and Navanethem Pillay, envisioned an advocacy group that would tackle human rights abuses which fell outside the agenda of many human rights organisations. Addressing violence and discrimination against women, Equality Now focuses on issues such as rape, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM), and legal discrimination.
Visit Equality Now here for more information on their initiatives and support women’s rights.
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This month, we will be spotlighting the issue of women’s rights in Australia and around the world. Next week, we’ll be taking a look at the role of women in the Australian media, featuring the perspectives of Australian-Iranian feminist Sara Haghdoosti and 2010 UN Youth representative, Samah Hadid.
Watch this space for more articles and videos in the coming weeks!