By Tara Carey, Equality Now
Be Bold for Change. That is today’s International Women’s Day theme, and around the world we’re seeing it in action as increasing numbers of people are calling on governments to bring an end to discrimination against women and girls once and for all.
Human rights organisations and individuals are harnessing “women power” and inspiring change through everyday activism. Here are just five examples of how people pressure has helped bring positive change in the last six months:
- In the UK, Parliament has approved the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Otherwise known as The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, this is a pan-European treaty which requires governments to implement a variety of measures to prevent all forms of violence against women.
Once turned into law, the UK Government will be legally obliged to take all necessary steps outlined in the Convention to prosecute perpetrators and protect women experiencing sexual, domestic and physical violence, and those affected by forced marriage, sterilisation or Female Genital Mutilation. This means the state will have to ensure there is adequate funding for support services such as rape crisis centres, helplines and shelters.
- In Pakistan, the government has recently passed laws to increase sentences for “honour killings” and rape, and has closed a loophole that enabled killers to walk free.
Each year, hundreds of women in Pakistan are murdered by relatives angered by behavior they perceive as bringing shame on the family’s reputation or as penance for “wrongs” committed by others. One of the most extreme forms of violence against women, these so-called “honour” crimes are often perpetrated against those who do not conform to the restrictive gender role prescribes to them by society.
Previously, “forgiveness” law in Pakistan meant surviving victims often faced intense pressure to pardon their attackers. In situations where the woman was murdered, her family had the right to forgive the crime, allowing the perpetrator to escape punishment – something that happened frequently because the killer was a relative.
Following many years of campaigning by human rights groups calling for tougher laws, including Equality Now, in October 2016 a bill was passed stating that relatives of a victim could only pardon the killer if they faced capital punishment, but perpetrators would still face a mandatory life sentence.
In addition, a separate bill was approved to increase the sentence for rape and makes prosecution easier. This has huge significance for women and girls in Pakistan, where rape conviction rates have historically been almost non-existent, due primarily to technical obstacles preventing access to justice.
- In Malawi, Parliament outlawed “child marriage” in February when it set 18 as the minimum age of marriage, largely due to persistent efforts of women and youth activists
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Half of the country’s girls are married, frequently trapping them in a cycle of poverty as they are more likely to become pregnant before they are physically or emotionally ready, and are at greater risk missing out on their education.
The widespread belief that girls should marry as early as possible to maximise their fertility means that child marriage is deeply entrenched in Malawi’s society. However, Malawi has just taken a huge step forward on behalf of girls by introducing its Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18. Malawi’s vote in support of girls rights comes at a time when momentum is growing towards legal equality for women and girls in many countries across the African continent.
- In the USA, women of colour were elected to Congress in record numbers, bringing much needed gender and ethnicity diversity to the administration. And studies show that women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more laws, send their districts more money and are more likely to introduce legislation that benefits women.
Meanwhile in Iceland, women won a record number of seats in Parliament and now represent 48% of the body.
- In Lebanon, NGOs have mounted a huge public campaign to push the government into repealing a law that allows rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. In December, a parliamentary Committee agreed that this law should be changed.
Today in Lebanon, as in many Arab countries, cultural traditions continue to place a big emphasis on controlling women and girl’s sexuality. A girl is expected to be a virgin when she gets married so anything that affects her virginity is seen as a source of shame. Some still believe it is better for someone who has been raped to marry her attacker because nobody else will want her. These cultural traditions place a heavy burden on the victim and put pressure on her to ‘agree’.
To help ensure this unjust law is repealed by the Lebanese government, international women’s rights organisation Equality Now is asking people to send a letter to the Speaker of the House in Lebanon, Mr. Nabih Berri, requesting that he encourages parliament to move on the issue as soon as possible. A yes vote by the full Parliament would be a big step towards ending laws that promote sexual violence.