A Historic Moment for Women’s Rights

Christiane Amanpour

An extract from The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the global fight for women’s rights, edited by Minky Worden

Unfinished Revolution cover image To the one who makes the lonely feel they are not alone, who satisfies those who hunger and thirst for justice, who makes the oppressor feel as bad as the oppressed. . . . may her example multiply,
May she still have difficult days ahead, so that she can do whatever she needs to do, so that the next generation will not have to strive for what has already been accomplished.
—Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, from his poem “To Shirin Ebadi,” read at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2003

In October 2011, the Norwegian Nobel Committee named three women winners of the Nobel Peace Prize—an award won by only a dozen women since 1901. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman were honored “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights,” in a declaration that was clearly intended to send the message that the moment for women and girls to achieve basic rights had arrived.

The Peace Prize citation proclaimed, “We cannot achieve demoracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” As the Nobel Committee emphasized, this moment is as dramatic as any in recent decades for women and girls.

I have been a foreign correspondent for almost three decades in just about every war zone there is. I have made my living in an overwhelmingly male profession, bearing witness to some of the most horrific events of the end of the last century. In this time, we have seen enormous changes in law and practice, with measurable progress in women’s ability to get an education, to work, and to make decisions about their own bodies.

Yet as this book seeks to explain, in much of the world, basic rights such as control over their lives and access to health care remain far out of reach for millions of women and girls.

In India, some state governments can’t be bothered to count the number of women dying from preventable causes in pregnancy and childbirth. In the United States, rape victims are denied justice through bureaucratic inertia. In Somalia, warlords and famine—yet again—threaten women’s lives and families. In some European countries, women fleeing domestic violence are sent home to “work it out” with their abusive spouses. In Saudi Arabia, women of all ages live under a male guardianship system, preventing them from working, studying, marrying, driving, or traveling abroad without the permission of a male guardian—a father, husband, brother, or even a son.

China is a country of contradictions that has lowered infant and maternal mortality rates, and raised education standards, while still imposing a one-child policy that often leads to major abuses of women, including forced abortions. Indeed, in many countries, the picture is mixed, with progress in education and maternal mortality paired with escalating health threats such as HIV/AIDS and barriers to participation in public life.

In several places, including Iraq and Afghanistan, women are losing ground, facing violent insurgencies that threaten and attack women who are active in public life or work outside their homes. As Rachel Reid writes in this anthology, a common form of threat in Afghanistan is the “night letter” left at a house or girls’ school, such as this ominous letter sent to a female government employee: “We Taliban warn you to stop working for the government, otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working.”

With societies from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya in political transition from repressive dictatorships, fundamental questions remain about whether women will indeed benefit from the overthrowing of tyrants. It is not yet clear whether they will be allowed to participate in the new political systems in the Middle East, or whether their rights will be protected under the region’s new constitutions.

This book is designed to spotlight these and other pressing problems for women and girls in the world today, and to give a road map to solutions that can work. In these pages you will meet tenacious women human rights defenders. You will hear in their own voices from women and girls who have faced unimaginable terror and grief. And you can decide for yourself whether so-called “traditional practices” such as early marriage or female genital mutilation are just harmful practices that have no rightful place in the world today.

Human Rights Watch was one of the first international organizations to treat domestic violence as a human rights issue. In war-torn Bosnia and Rwanda, researchers documented systematic rape and other forms of violence against women as a “weapon” in war, laying the groundwork for courts to later prosecute sexual violence as a crime against humanity. The organization’s experts, such as Nadya Khalife, who writes movingly about her work to end female genital mutilation in Iraq, show us how it should be possible at this historic moment for women’s rights activists to expand local campaigns and achieve truly global impact.

In some cases, as when Eleanor Roosevelt championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, change for women can come at the stroke of a pen; in other cases, change takes generations. In Libya and states now building institutions from the ground up, addressing rights and protections for women is not yet at the top of priority lists. However, as the US State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer points out, this is a shortsighted and dangerous approach because “the vibrancy of these potential democracies will depend on the participation of women.”

When women are fully empowered, there is clear evidence that previously unthinkable opportunities develop, for them—and also for their families, communities, and countries. The effectiveness of women as peace negotiators in conflict zones led the United Nations Security Council to adopt Resolution 1325, which recognized “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building,” as well as “the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.” The selection of Leymah Gbowee as a laureate of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was based largely on her tireless activities as a peace negotiator in Liberia.

In September 2011, just before the Nobel committee announced its award recognizing the vital work of women, the world lost one of its few female Nobel laureates. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was a pioneering professor who led an environmental revolution in her native Kenya. Her key to success, she often said, was empowering women “to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women.”

It is a time of change in the world, with dictators toppling and new opportunities arising, but any revolution that doesn’t create equality for women will be incomplete. The time has come to realize the full potential of half the world’s population.

Christiane Amanpour is the anchor of ABC’s Sunday morning news program, This Week with Christiane Amanpour. Chief International Correspondent at CNN from 1992 to 2010, she joined CNN in 1983. Amanpour has reported on and from the world’s major hot spots including Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iran, Iraq, Rwanda, and Somalia, and has won every major broadcast award—including nine Emmys, four George Foster Peabody Awards, two George Polk Awards, and the Courage in Journalism Award.

The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the global fight for women’s rights was published by The Policy Press in the UK & Europe on 4 July 2012, £14.99. The book is available to buy at 20% discount from our website.

You can hear editor Minky Worden talking about some of the issues in the book on a podcast or follow news relating to the book on its Facebook page.

1 Response to “A Historic Moment for Women’s Rights”


  1. 1 shiggs91 July 9, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Reblogged this on finding development and commented:
    A great read for those who say that women’s rights or feminism have no place in today’s society.


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