Denial of women’s rights hurts the world in many ways

Women continue to face challenges in developing and rich countries
Photo Courtesy Tanzila Khan via UN

Tanzila Khan, Pakistani Women’s Rights Activist, Photo Courtesy UN

Retrogressive legislation in the name of tradition, exploitation of poor and marginalized communities, discrimination, absence and denial of sexual and reproductive health facilities, lack of access to education and political empowerment are retarding societies’ progress toward realization of women’s rights.

A look at both the poor and developing countries reveals that setbacks to efforts for empowerment of women take a heavy toll on economic development prospects, and give rise to parochial and extremist tendencies in societies. Even developed countries face a number of challenges as reflected in diametrically opposed views among politicians on the issue of health and abortion.

Confirming setbacks to struggles for women’s rights, the UN rights chief warned that the women’s movement around the world is facing a backlash that hurts both men and women.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund has also profiled four women activists, who are playing important roles toward empowerment of women. These include Edna Adan Ismail, founder of the Edna Adan Hospital, anti-FGM activist, Marijana Savic, founder and director of the NGO Atina, Carmen Barroso, social scientist, global advocate for access to reproductive health care and Pakistani Tanzila Khan, writer, artist, youth and disability rights advocate.

“We need to be alert – the advances of the last few decades are fragile and should nowhere be taken for granted,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said this week.

Bronze statue of a young girl reading  Photo: Unknown Français : Anonyme (Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-04-11) [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze statue of a young girl reading in Hellenistic tradition Photo: Unknown Français via Wikimedia Commons

His statement on the eve of March 8 International Women’s Day comes amid growing influence of the religious fanatics, political right in advanced Western societies, conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, displacement of millions from war-ravaged lands and rise of misogynist politicians.

It is “extremely troubling” to see recent rollback of fundamental legislation in many parts of the world, the UN chief for Human Rights says.

These rollbacks are “underpinned by the renewed obsession with controlling and limiting women’s decisions over their bodies and lives, and by views that a woman’s role should be essentially restricted to reproduction and the family,” he said.

While such pushbacks are carried out in the name of tradition, Zeid noted that they are often a response to segments of society calling for change.

According to a statement, Zeid pointed to recent legislation in Bangladesh, Burundi and the Russian Federation, which weakens women’s rights to fight against child marriage, marital rape and domestic violence, respectively.

In this respect, he noted also the “fierce resistance” in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to political and civil society efforts to open up access to sexual and reproductive rights.

With the world’s young population concentrated in developing nations, retrogressive measures denying women and girls access to sexual and reproductive health services will have a devastating effect,” Zeid said.

More maternal deaths, more unintended pregnancies, fewer girls finishing school and the economic impact of failing to fully include women in the workforce, he says.

“In short, a generation without choices and a collective failure to deliver on the promises of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” he added, referring to the internationally agreed action plan for eradicating poverty while assisting all people and maintain the health of the planet.

Zeid praised women’s movements in countries such as Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia, where women and men took to the streets to demand change, but warned that “it is time to come together to protect the important gains of the past and maintain a positive momentum.”

In Africa, women continue to be denied full enjoyment of their rights in every country, according to a new report released this week and entitled Women’s Rights in Africa.

Statistics show that some African countries have no legal protection for women against domestic violence, are forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and forced to marry while still children.

According to the report, however, in Africa – as around the globe –when women exercise their rights to access to education, skills, and jobs, there is a surge in prosperity, positive health outcomes, and greater freedom and well-being, not only of women but of the whole society.

“Human rights are not a utopian fairy-tale -they are a recipe for sound institutions, more sustainable development and greater peace,” Zeid wrote in the Foreword to the report.


Iftikhar Ali is a veteran Pakistani journalist, former president of UN Correspondents Association, and recipient of Pride of Performance civil award
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