Backlash against women’s rights progress hurts us all

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on the occasion of International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017

Today we honour the human rights struggle of millions of women who have demanded respect for their rights and the rights of others. The women’s movement has brought about tremendous change but we must also recognise that progress has been slow and extremely uneven.

Progress has also brought its own challenges. In too many countries, we are now seeing a backlash against women’s rights, a backlash that hurts us all. We need to be alert - the advances of the last few decades are fragile and should nowhere be taken for granted. 

It is extremely troubling to see the recent roll-backs on fundamental legislation in many parts of the world, 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. Such an agenda threatens the gains of the past.

Although the pushbacks are frequently carried out in the name of tradition, they are often a reaction to efforts by broad segments of the same societies to promote change.

In Burundi, a law on violence against women is progressive in many ways as it criminalizes marital rape and prohibits harmful practices. However, it also pins the blame on a woman who suffers gender-based violence for her ‘indecent dress’ or ‘immoral behaviour’. A law on child marriage passed last week in Bangladesh appears to be weaker than the law it supersedes with the inclusion of a provision that allows girls under 18 to marry under undefined “special circumstances.” In the Russian Federation, campaigners failed to stop the decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence. Efforts of political leaders and civil society to open up access to sexual and reproductive rights in some circumstances in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua are meeting fierce resistance and prompting legislative and policy counter-proposals.

Debates around such policies have been marked by attacks on, or a disregard for, the evidence that shows the harmful consequences on the lives of women and girls, and on society as a whole. As ever, those paying the biggest price of such policies are the most marginalized women and girls.

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: more maternal deaths, more unintended pregnancies, fewer girls finishing school and the economic impact of failing to fully include women in the workforce. In short, a generation without choices and a collective failure to deliver on the promises of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. 

So it is time to come together to protect the important gains of the past and maintain a positive momentum. It is heartening that women are mobilising in massive numbers to call for their rights to be respected. In Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Peru, the “Ni Una Menos” movement is fighting femicide and violence against women. Some countries in the Americas region continue to register the highest rates of femicide in the world, as well as attacks on lesbian, bisexual and, in particular, transgender women. In India, we have seen women’s protests against sexual violence and movements to reclaim public spaces. In Poland, thousands of women and men went on strike and marched against a legislative proposal to criminalize some sexual and reproductive rights.

Women's movements in Saudi Arabia have called for abolition of the legal requirement that all their major decisions be approved by a male "guardian." In January 2017, women and men across the globe marched for equality. And just last week, at the #SheDecides Conference in Brussels, a significant group of States and donors stood up to defend women and girls’ rights, including through committing increased financial resources.

Today my Office is launching a joint report with the African Union and UN Women which shows the progress, and constraints, in the achievement of women’s rights in Africa. 

I salute the frequently under-reported and under-funded but absolutely vital work of women’s human rights defenders. These activists are often targeted, even killed, because of their efforts to promote gender equality. My Office has received information from numerous countries about the threats, violence and legal barriers, including criminalization of their work, which these defenders face. 

These courageous women, despite many obstacles, stand up for others’ rights, mobilize movements from the grassroots upwards, and potentially have the greatest and most lasting impact on women’s rights and gender equality.

We need to stand beside them and stand up for them, and in so doing we will be standing up for the rights of us all.



This statement was taken from the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. To view the original press release, click here.