Some remarkable human rights progress occurred in 2018, largely thanks to women who stood at the frontline. But there is much more to be done and, tragically, some women have paid the ultimate price for standing up, writes Claire Mallinson, the National Director of Amnesty International Australia.
Pictured above is Marielle Franco and is shared courtesy of Amnesty International. Read more on her important legacy below.
Seventy years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out a bill of rights that would apply to all people.
Women were central to the development of the UDHR , including Eleanor Roosevelt, who as the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission drove the process, and Indian activist Hansa Mehta, who ensured the opening lines were changed from “all men are born free and equal” to “all human beings are born free and equal”.
While we’ve seen significant advances in human rights in Australia over the past seven decades — including legislating equal pay, the 1967 constitutional referendum on Aboriginal rights, legalisation of same-sex marriage — there is so much more ground we must cover in the struggle for equality, particularly when it comes to women.
A global perspective
Women around the world bear the brunt of this inequality, which has only been compounded by the rise of global leaders who engage in macho posturing, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia to give the appearance they’re ‘tough guys’.
It’s no wonder then that women have been at the forefront of the battle for human rights in 2018. In India and South Africa, thousands took to the streets to protest against the sexual violence which is rife there.
In Saudi Arabia women risked arrest (and many remain behind bars) to resist the driving ban.
In Argentina, Ireland and Poland, demonstrators rallied in vast numbers to demand an end to oppressive abortion laws.
Thanks to this activism, the people of Ireland voted in a landslide victory to reform its abortion laws last May. In the USA, Europe and Japan, millions joined the second #MeToo-led women’s march to demand an end to misogyny and abuse.
The effect of this powerful explosion of women’s voices cannot be overstated. But it is sobering to consider the structural and cultural factors which inhibit women’s rights here and around the world.
In Australia one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner. Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women, transgender people and gender non-conforming people; yet it remains a human rights crisis that continuously fails to get the attention it deserves.
Throughout the world, women who experience intersecting layers of discrimination – including based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, race or socio-economic status – face unique and additional human rights violations.
Earlier in the year I travelled to Bangladesh to bear witness to the crisis befalling the Rohingya people in refugee camps.
In one place, known as the “widows camp” I met Ambia Khatun, a 60-year-old widow. Her left leg was disfigured when the military beat her last August. It curves in a way that means she has to hobble.
When she was seeking shelter, she couldn’t walk by herself. She spent her life savings to pay people to help her, being carried on the shoulders of strangers as they traversed hills and crossed the Naf river that divides Bangladesh and Myanmar.
She doesn’t know what happened to her husband, her children or their children. She is taking care of an eight-year-old from a nearby village who clings to her for hope.
Research carried out by Amnesty International this year, one of the first studies of its kind on human rights and violence against women online, confirms what many women know to be true: that social media platforms have proved both a blessing and a curse with one woman a week dying because of domestic violence in Australia.
Companies and governments have comprehensively failed to protect users from a deluge of online abuse, prompting many women in particular to self-censor or even leave these platforms altogether.
Conversely, social media has given more prominence in some parts of the world to women’s calls for equality in the workplace, a battle that has been raging for decades, centuries even, but which gained renewed attention during the year in calls to narrow the gender pay gap, currently standing at 14.6% on average for full time work in Australia and which the World Economic Forum predicted would take 217 years to close.
Women worldwide are not only paid less, on average, than men, but are more likely to do unpaid work and to work in informal, insecure and unskilled jobs. Much of this is due to social norms that consider women and their work to be of lower status.
For most of history, women have been trapped in a cycle of discrimination driven by gender hierarchies and norms. The political participation of women is essential to tackle laws that entrench social and economic inequality.
Although record numbers of women ran for public office in 2018, progress remains excruciatingly slow. Currently, only 17% of all heads of state or government, and 23% of the world’s parliamentarians, are women.
The good news
The good news is that harnessing the power of women around the world resisting violence and discrimination, we have an unprecedented opportunity for change.
That’s why Amnesty International’s annual Write for Rights campaign – the largest human rights event in the world – focuses this year on the brave women who risk their lives defending human rights, by asking people to exercise their individual power to write letters and petition governments for justice for human rights defenders like Marielle Franco (pictured above).
A popular Brazilian city councillor, who grew up in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro and stood up for the rights of women of colour, LGBTQI people and young people, Marielle was shot dead in her car, along with her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes in March this year. Evidence suggests the murder was carried out by skilled professionals, and experts said the bullets had belonged to the Brazilian Federal Police.
There are success stories too which illustrate the power of activism driven by supporters of Amnesty International.
Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, a prominent Vietnamese blogger also known by her pseudonym, Mẹ Nấm (Mother Mushroom), was released from prison in Vietnam in October after being sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of conducting propaganda” against the state.
More work to be done
The link between violence, discrimination and a lack of representation in the continued inequality of women around the world is clear, and as we have seen from the mobilisation of women in protest in 2018 there is growing momentum for change. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
Marielle Franco (pictured above) was a city councillor who fought fearlessly for a fairer and safer Rio De Janeiro, standing up for the rights of women of colour, LGBTQI people and young people.
She was murdered in March 2018 in Brazil, in what is one of the world’s deadliest country’s for human right defenders. Amnesty is calling for more signatures on its petition urging the Brazilian President to bring Marielle’s killers to justice. Read more here.