I was sitting in VIP seats with a Bollywood movie star at an exclusive event at Beijing +20. Some of my greatest heros—including Hillary Clinton and Geena Rocero—were speaking at the event, and I was only a few feet away from them. It should have been one of the greatest moments of my life, but there was a pit in my stomach, my heart was beating hard against my chest—it’s beating now even as I write. I looked around at all the people in the audience, the celebratory atmosphere, the upbeat speakers and singers, corporate representatives making high promises and government leaders talking about progress, and I was angry.
I was angry.
Earlier that day I had attended a powerful meeting where women from Arab regions, including Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt spoke about the conflicts women face in their countries. In Bahrain, for example, a group of prominent female scholars and activists were recently arrested and tortured for writing a shadow CEDAW report.
As she spoke, I thought—I use those reports. Every few years, governments who have ratified the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are required to submit a report that details how their country stands in its treatment of women. As can be expected, these reports are at best sugarcoated, and often much worse. When activists see a CEDAW report that they feel doesn’t reflect the true conditions for women in their country, they create and disseminate their own report, known as a ‘shadow CEDAW’. These reports are vital to our work at WomanStats, because we look not only at laws and reported government data, but we also gather qualitative data from stories and interviews with people who work with women around the world. This allows us to gain a fuller picture of the true status of women in a country. We actively seek out, read, code and use these reports in our research. They’re an important aspect of the work we do every day. I was horrified as the representative from Bahrain recounted the details of her colleagues’ torture—torture they are being subjected to because they dared to reveal the conditions of women in their country so that activists and researchers—researchers like me—could have access to the truth.
At the time of this writing, they still haven’t been released.
Then the representative from Egypt spoke—you should know her name, it’s Azza Soliman. She was having dinner with her family on January 25th of this year, and outside her café peaceful protesters marched to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Ms. Soliman watched as police forces arrived and open-fired on the protesters. Ms. Soliman witnessed as police shots killed a prominent human rights defender, Ms. Shaimaa Al Sabbagh.
Ms. Soliman voluntarily testified of what she saw to Egyptian courts, but her testimony has turned against her. “Upon finishing her testimony, the human rights defender was interrogated by the prosecutor who later informed her she was under investigation.” You can read more about the case here. Nongovernmental and human rights organizations in Egypt requested that Ms. Soliman’s status be changed back to that of a witness, but at 5 AM this morning I received notice that their request was denied. Ms. Soliman will be tried as a defendant because she stood as witness to the violent death of a woman who dared to exercise her right to raise her voice in the public sphere.
That night as I sat in the lavish concert venue, I thought about the difference between what we celebrated as progress that night, and the violent truth of the lives many women live around the world. Geena Rocero walked to the stage and gave a passionate speech about the subhuman status of transgender women worldwide—in the United States, the first seven weeks of 2015 were marked by the deaths of seven transgender persons, most of whom were minority women. The average life expectancy, she said, of a transgender person is 35 years. I looked again at the balloons and the banners and the celebratory audience, and I thought, what is there to celebrate?
I thought about the women I had met earlier that day and the challenges, seemingly insurmountable, that they faced each day. I thought about the resources they expended in coming to New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, only to find that they had been sidelined from the very discussions they could contribute to the most. Unlike previous years, the Political Declaration was negotiated before the meetings even began, without civil society consultation. Civil society organizations were also left out of the Working Methods process, and NGO statements were relegated to the second week of CSW59, beyond the budgets of many financially strapped activist and nongovernmental organizations to stay in New York, especially those who traveled from impoverished regions of the world.
Twenty years after the landmark Beijing conference, the official UN Women review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action concludes that the progress toward gender equality in the last twenty years has been “unacceptably slow,” particularly for “women and girls who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination,” including issues of poverty, sexuality, and race. Worldwide, there continues to be “chronic underinvestment in gender equality.” Most notably, the report states that the lack of change in women’s status and security signals “a collective failure of leadership . . . There is not a single country that has reached gender equality.” Laws have changed, and leaders tout rhetoric of equality, but the truth is that women are for the most part as poor, as victimized, and—as was made painfully clear at CSW59—as ignored as they were twenty years ago. Yes there have been advancements, but there have also been far too many setbacks and broken promises. Until we start listening to the voices of women on the ground—not just the governments who promise to protect them but so rarely follow through—we can’t possibly expect to achieve gender equality.
My experience at CSW59 was a life-changing experience, in large measure because of the passionate activists and leaders I met who are fighting for women’s rights worldwide. We are fighting for the same simple vision that Hillary Clinton captured twenty years ago when she declared that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. But we can’t achieve that vision in the next twenty years if we ignore the issues that have held us back in the last twenty. We need to start listening to each other and, as Lydia Alpizar said so well in her speech at the opening session of CSW59, we need to demand that governments stop cherry-picking the rights they deign to grant to women. In Alpizar’s words, women’s rights “should not be used as trade-offs among governments in negotiations. Women and girls die as a result of this.”
Simone de Beauvoir once said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.” I came away from CSW59 convinced, more than ever before, that we need good data in order to change the situation of women worldwide. Over and over again at CSW59, I heard activists and government representatives plead for more and better gender-disaggregated data—this is how we can push for change at the global level, how we can pressure and when necessary shame governments into protecting the rights of women on the ground and not just in rhetoric and unenforced law. And we need data that includes the voices of the most vulnerable women, those in poverty, those facing sexual and racial discrimination in addition to gender discrimination, and those who live in remote areas of the world. Let’s listen to them, let them set the agenda, and “50-50 by 2030” will be the natural result.
La lucha continua!
Thank you for being a part of it.
Some data I gathered at the conference:
- 30% of households in Cambodia are headed by women
- In 2011, Nepal amended a law that set the age barrier, previously 60 years, at which a widow to receive social security benefits upon her husband’s death, now she gets the benefits immediately.
- In Nigeria, when a husband dies the woman often has to prove that she knew nothing about the death. Socially, the widow has the burden of proof. Particularly in the south of the country, the widow will have to undergo certain rituals, such as drinking the water used to wash the corpse of her husband. In some states, women groups helped get a law in place to prevent harmful widowhood practices, but they’re often not implemented because the widow fears retaliation.
- In Nigeria women are denied inheritance rights, especially if she has no child. Tradition in some areas is that the male child inherits the land. If there is no male child, the widow is instantly disinherited. Some judges force women to abide by customary traditions, even if the national or state law guarantees her inheritance rights. Recently the supreme court of Nigeria stated that any customary law that disinherits a woman because of her gender is null, but there is no plan for implementation. This is not just an issue for lower classes, the speaker is of a high class and she had her land taken upon her husband’s death. She said that even if a woman is willing to go to court, the trial process can take 15–20 years. Nigeria created a national Action Plan for widows to help ensure their safety and inheritance rights, which has begun to be implemented in a couple states.
- In Ghana, widows customarily need to wake up at dawn the night following their husband’s death. The first man they meet, they need to have sex with him to purify themselves of the death. When a husband dies, even if he had been very sick, the widow is suspected of witchcraft.
- In Egypt, 52% of households are headed by women. In poor areas this percentage jumps to 57%. In areas like Iraq and Syria the percentage of female-headed households goes up to 70%.
- Igbos in southeastern states of Nigeria customarily deny inheritance to women. In Igboland, land is a major souce of wealth. Igbo customary law does not allow women to own land. There is a saying that it is better for a community to sacrifice one of their daughters than lose their land. In Igboland, land belongs to the community and is held in trust by the community head then allotted to members of the community. Never allocated to women. When parents die, sons inherit but daughters don’t, and customary law only allows for inheritance through father, not mother. Igbo communities are very reluctant to use national law. Land Use Act of 1970 was amended in 2004, and the Supreme Court made a ruling that all people, regardless of gender, can inherit land, but communities lack willingness to follow the law. This effects women’s political and community participation. The speaker said: “Women in Nigeria are relegated to the background because they cannot inherit land.”
- In the Saharan region, 1 in every 7 girls marries before age 15.
- In Nigeria, nearly half of sexual assaults occur when girls are at school age.
- In Mauritania, girls are taken by their mothers to rural areas, where they are forced to gain weight in order to meet cultural beauty standards
- In southern Malawi, some ethnic groups practice forced sexual initiation, wherein a young girl is taken to camp and raped in a rite of passage that prepares her for marriage.
- The speaker, a family law lawyer from Africa who now lives in California, emphasized that many of the cultural attitudes, such as those regarding inheritance and property and definitions of womanhood, exist among African communities in Los Angeles, where she practices.