The world is “pushing back” against the hard-won rights, and equality of women and girls.
“Gender equality is under attack … individuals and interest groups are increasingly trying to roll back women’s rights. Politicians are giving in to pressure, [and are] shamefully campaigning to undo women’s rights. That’s the daunting reality we currently face,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a packed plenary hall at the Vancouver Convention Centre this week.
He was speaking at the opening ceremony of Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women.
Trudeau’s veiled criticism and his continued emphasis of the term “push back” was widely understood to be referencing the growing legislation, particularly in the US, restricting women’s access to safe abortions which has had ramifications for developing countries as well.
Just two years ago, President Donald Trump’s administration implemented the expanded “global gag rule” which prevented organisations outside the US that provide and promote safe abortions or offer legal advice and counselling, from receiving money to do so.
More recently, an increasing number of US states have passed heavily restrictive laws banning abortions bar very limited exceptions such as “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother” or “if the unborn child has a lethal anomaly” and when the woman has an ectopic pregnancy.
“Women routinely face misogyny, racism and hatred. And for women living with disabilities, discrimination is all too often the norm and not the exception.
“In the age of social media, it has never been easier to taunt, and spread abhorrent views – views that are increasingly creeping into our public debate,” Trudeau said.
The Lancet Series on Gender Equality, Health and Norms, launched at the conference, found that not a single country was on course to achieve gender equality by 2030 – one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) which 193 countries signed up to in 2015. They include global challenges such as poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, climate, prosperity and peace and justice.
The Lancet series is a result of a four-year project developed by more than 100 contributors from five continents.
“In an era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the opportunity of connecting global social movements for health and gender equality is real, urgent, necessary and achievable.
“However, a conservative backlash, such as the global gag rule and the roll-back of sexual and reproductive health and rights, threatens not only the health gains made for women and men, but also the possibility of future gains,” said Lancet editor in chief Richard Horton.
Another report released at the conference by the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) details the effects of the US global gag rule on at least four countries – one of which is South Africa.
The IWHC partners in Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal and South Africa conducted more than 170 interviews with individuals affected by the policy which now applies to $9 billion in US global health funding.
According to the report, a Kenyan organisation serving young women and sex workers was forced to stop providing abortion information and referrals, and two of its clients died after resorting to unsafe abortions.
In Nepal, which has progressive abortion laws, the gag rule has forced the early closure of a US government-supported project intended to increase access to contraceptives and other services in 11 remote districts.
In South Africa, it has meant that a national sexuality education curriculum under development excludes any mention of abortion, even though the right to abortion is protected by the Constitution.
The White Ribbon Alliance – a network of advocates working for reproductive, maternal and newborn health and rights – also released its results from its What Women Want Campaign this week.
The survey gives voice to 1.2 million women, from 114 countries, of all ages and walks of life.
The survey’s results showed that women wanted to be treated with respect while seeking and receiving healthcare, water, sanitation and hygiene, and adequate medicines and supplies.
“Women are often seen as passive recipients of care and those charged with providing healthcare have always presumed to know what women want,” said campaign co-chair Aparajita Gogoi. It also found that, for some women, the simple act of being asked for their views was a first.
Under the banner of #ThePowerofUs, the conference brought together 8 000 people from 165 countries of which 1 400 were youth.
Katja Iversen, president of Women Deliver, said the conference was about harnessing the power to “do good and demonstrating the power of gender equality”.
“We know that a gender equal world is healthier, wealthier and more productive and peaceful. In a gender-equal world, everybody wins. But, we’re in a time of pushback against women’s rights all over the world. But we are here to stand up, and stand strong. We have the power of many and of justice and we will not go backwards,” she said.
. Mkize was awarded a media scholarship to attend the conference by its organisers