Women’s movements matter more than ever: A critical moment for global women’s rights

January 20th marked a critical moment for the world: the new President-elect of the United States Donald Trump was inaugurated, officially transitioning to a new administration and kicking off four years of leadership and decisions that will impact people all around the world.

As this transition happens, women, men, LGBTQI individuals, refugees, Muslims, and many more around the world are coming together to advocate for equality and justice.

We have decades of proof that U.S. policies and leadership directly influence policies and decisions globally, and we know that it is women who are often most acutely impacted—for better or for worse. For example, we know that U.S. policies can directly block women’s access to reproductive health and rights. The ‘global gag rule’ prohibited U.S. foreign aid to any organization that delivers abortion services, but was repealed by President Obama. Before the law’s repeal, there was a massive chilling effect on many global efforts for reproductive health—and in one of his first executive actions as President, Trump reinstated and expanded the global gag rule, which will have damaging impacts on women’s access to critical health care ranging from maternal care to sex education, to access to contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention and services.

Conversely, the U.S. State Department’s leadership on issues such as ending child marriage has been a positive global force for advancing women’s rights. The U.S.’s stance on human rights is critical to protecting women’s rights all over the world—especially in armed conflict and political turmoil as it is in such scenarios that sexual violence escalates and women’s needs and voices are often silenced.

At this moment of transition, women’s movements around the world are poised to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that human rights are not rolled back. They tell us that they will continue to advocate for key issues like reproductive rights, ending sexual violence in conflict, and girls’ rights. They are determined to grow and flourish, to make connections, and to work together across borders.

“At a time of transition like this it is understandable to worry about the future, especially for women and girls,” says Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women. “But I’ve worked my entire career with women’s movements around the world, and because of them, I remain hopeful. At this critical moment, women’s movements are becoming stronger, more global, and more inclusive than ever before. When they have access to the resources and tools that they need, they are a force to be reckoned with. As we commit to resisting regressions in women’s rights and advocating for what we believe in, let’s all work together to #BuildMovementsNotWalls.”

Global Fund for Women spoke with our network of women activists and grassroots leaders from around the world to better understand their hopes and concerns in relation to the new U.S. President and his administration, and the potential for impact on their own work. From Brazil to Iraq, and from Nigeria to the Ukraine and Israel, women’s rights leaders are examining the potential repercussions for women and girls. They offer advice for people in the U.S. for movement-building and resistance, and share their hopes for a strong, collective force that will fight across borders against rollbacks to rights and threats to activists.

A critical global moment for women’s rights

The transition of power in the U.S. comes at a critical time for women’s rights around the world. Women all around the world are facing threats to their fundamental rights, ranging from abortion access and ending sexual violence to racial justice and environmental rights.

Global movements for reproductive health and rights—including campaigns for access to contraceptives and safe and legal abortion—are at a critical moment. They are under threat in countless places, including in Latin America and the Caribbean where maternal mortality rates from unsafe abortions are highest, and facing powerful opposition from religious and cultural fundamentalists and others.

Groups working with refugee women and girls also face a pivotal moment. The vast majority of Syrian refugee women and girls are hosted in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, where women’s groups are focused on providing core services including anti-violence training and healthcare while empowering refugee women with knowledge about their rights, leadership skills, and economic opportunities—and these women’s groups are advocating for critical changes in national laws that restrict refugees’ access to jobs, hospitals, and other basic rights citizens have. Concerns are escalating about how the policies of a new U.S. administration may impact their work.

Feminist activists globally are increasingly facing fears for their safety. For example, in Egypt, Turkey, and several other countries, we’ve witnessed an escalating crackdown on feminist and human rights activism, including harassment against women human rights defenders and threats to journalists and academics. In many places—such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Court—U.S. influence is a critical factor in enforcing mechanisms for their protection.

In countries from Sub-Saharan Africa to Asia and the Pacific, grassroots women are coming together to protect their land and water rights amid climate change and increased violence to improve their own farming and local food sources, and to increase their economic opportunities.

Women are standing up against rollbacks to rights, resisting the rise of conservatism, blocking dangerous anti-women policies, and fearlessly defending women’s rights amid conflicts and political and economic crises.

Conservative leadership is on the rise in many countries around the world and women’s groups are joining forces to share their strategies of resistance.

Connecting the dots in threats to fundamental rights globally—and learning together

“As far as women and other civil society organizations [in Africa] are concerned, all progressive issues might suffer under a Trump Presidency,” says Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, co-founder of African Women’s Development Fund and Global Fund for Women Board Member. “Women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, climate change, LGBTQ, Muslim people, refugees… are not likely to get the attention they deserve—they will probably get the wrong kind of attention.”

Indeed, policy stances in the U.S. will have a direct impact on global communities and situations. And by and large, many of the key human rights issues that are coming into play in U.S. domestic policy including access to reproductive health and rights and ending violence against women, are issues that are under the spotlight in other places around the world. U.S. leadership could play a significant role—either in moving the needle positively on these critical issues, or in condoning or precipitating the rollback of hard-won gains.

When it comes to environmental rights, for instance, the new U.S. administration’s denial of climate change could spell disaster—especially for indigenous and marginalized women. “Brazil has a key role in world climate and environment—the Amazon is called the lung of the world,” said Jacqueline Pitanguy, a long-time women’s rights and reproductive rights activist in Brazil and former Global Fund for Women Board Chair. “A U.S. denial of global warming and its lack of support to global accords and initiatives is a disaster.”

Pitanguy also sees analogies with the shifts taking place in other countries. “Conservative, patriarchal, and intolerant leaders and ideologies might gain strength in different countries, challenging the women’s human rights that are in place, bringing backlashes on laws and policies, or supporting regimes where women are treated as second-class citizens,” says Pitanguy.

In Brazil, following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer’s government has been working to reject the hard-won gains the women’s movement in Brazil has been fighting to advance for decades. One of Temer’s first actions as interim president in 2016 was to appoint a cabinet made up entirely of white men—dangerously far from representative of Brazil’s diverse population. Many of the appointed ministers have been accused of corruption or human rights abuses, and reject the very ideas and practices of racial and gender equality. Some see similarities to the new Cabinet in the U.S., which some have called “anti-woman” because of appointees who have voted against the Violence Against Women Act, against access to abortion or even to contraception, and against equal pay laws.

Women’s groups and activists have been on the front lines, leading protests in Rio and throughout Brazil, and the women’s movement continues to fight against rollbacks in women’s rights proposed by the government, and they counsel women and their allies in the U.S to do the same if similar events should unfold.

Disproportionate impact on women of U.S. foreign policy in conflict regions

U.S. foreign policy plays a major role in conflicts, instability, and turmoil around the world. Women and children are disproportionately impacted in conflict and crises, and the potential to worsen—or help to improve—conditions for internally displaced people and refugees is great.

“The situation is very unstable here [in Ukraine] and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said Natalia Karbowska, chair of the board of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and advisor for Global Fund for Women. “Clearly the new political situation in the U.S. will not promote improvements here and we are afraid that lack of attention to Ukraine in the U.S. will be dangerous for the very fragile peace—if one can call ‘peace’ the reality when everyday people are dying in the East.”

In addition to Ukraine, the instability and conflict in the Middle East has already escalated following the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, according to Global Fund for Women advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, Rela Mazali. “Feminist thinkers and activists in the local community are keenly aware that the Middle East and North Africa region is in a state of extreme turmoil and instability, from Southern Sudan through Egypt and the Sinai, through Yemen, to Gaza and the West Bank, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq,” explains Mazali. “While these have taken a variety of different forms in different locales, they affect and galvanize each other as they also affect Europe and the U.S.”

In particular, in Iraq, women and refugees express concerns that they may be losing the U.S. as a critical ally that helped to make others in the international community listen and take action.  “Here, all of our hope is with the international community. We are trying to amplify our voices within the international community to allocate resources, especially for women and refugees,” says Suzan Aref, founder and director of Women Empowerment Organization in Erbil, Iraq, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner working to empower Iraqi women and advance gender equality. “So to lose the strong U.S. voice in that community is devastating for us—the national actors know that we have the support of the international community now, and that’s why they listen to us, but if we lose that support internationally, that will be it, we will have no voice.”

“Get out of our comfort zone”: Lessons for the women’s movement in the U.S. from movements globally

Despite many fears over potential implications of the new administration for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, women’s rights experts globally remain hopeful—because they know women’s movements will hold the new administration accountable. Women have been mobilizing and organizing against rollbacks to their rights around the world for decades.  Especially in recent years, many national women’s movements have faced threats to rights similar to those some fear could occur in the U.S.—including fights for access to safe and legal abortion.

Collective learning among activists is key. Women activists are eager to share advice with movements in the United States based on their own experiences.

Suzan Aref, a women’s rights activist and Global Fund for Women advisor in Iraq, shared that it is critical to forge relationships with government actors. “I have learned this lesson: While we may find the state actors reprehensible, we have to build trust with them and work with them—we have to be diplomatic, to help them see that doing the right thing for women is not only in women’s interest, but all of our interest,” explains Aref. “You have to do this not only for women, but for yourself. We must be able to convince them. I have to look at where I can have influence and force people to pay attention to women, even if they are seeing it from their own perspective and to their own benefit.”

In Brazil, according to Jacqueline Pitanguy, women’s movements are facing a difficult moment that is similar to the U.S. and are learning the need to move out of their comfort zone. “These are difficult times for women in Brazil: Our first woman President was impeached, and right-wing, conservative ideologies are rising,” says Pitanguy. “Our spheres of power are deeply influenced by political forces sustained by religious interpretations that place women as subordinate to men, that oppose sexual and reproductive rights, that do not recognize that different forms of families are entitled to rights, and that oppose LGBTQI movements. The newly-elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro is a bishop from the Universal Church of Christ. The big challenge for us is to get out of our comfort zone and to draw strategies to reach the hearts and minds of the women at large, with a strong message on the value of gender equality.”

From Nigeria, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi offered specific guidance, calling on the women’s movement in the U.S. to reconnect with feminist values and principles and to ensure that young women are involved and leading. “In light of these issues, donors such as the Global Fund for Women should prepare themselves for an unprecedented surge in requests for assistance from their grantee partners around the world,” explained Adeleye-Fayemi. “There is an opportunity for Global Fund for Women to rise to the occasion and help fill in the gaps that will inevitably emerge when the full implications of a Trump Presidency (combined with the UK Brexit) set in.”

Rela Mazali, from Israel, emphasized the need for resilience even in the face of continuous setbacks, and to remember that stopping is not an option. “We are still here, still resisting, in any and all the ways we know,” explains Mazali. “We are losing daily, but we push back consistently and constantly. Perhaps the only hope that can be offered by that is the hope that we can and do go on resisting. Stopping would be unthinkable and unlivable.”

Committing to a future with thriving, unified, inclusive women’s movements

“It is absolutely crucial that we invest in women’s movements at this critical moment for the future of human rights in the U.S. and around the world,” says Musimbi Kanyoro. “We need to direct more resources, more skills and technologies, more opportunities for collective learning across borders to ensure that women’s rights movements are healthy and thriving. What we do at this moment for women’s movements is vital for the future. There may be a long road ahead of us, with threats to our fundamental rights and hatred that may tear apart people and communities. So now, more than ever, we must ensure that women’s movements are empowered, unified, and bold.”

We will #BuildMovementsNotWalls. Movements for human rights, dignity, and equality. Movements that are thriving, unified, and fearless across all borders. Try to silence us and we will get louder. Try to separate us through hate and fear, and we will become an even stronger collective force.

Take action and commit to #BuildMovementsNotWalls to work toward the world we want: a world where women have full control over their own bodies, where all girls have access to a quality education; a world where women are paid the same amount for the same work and where they don’t face harassment or discrimination in the workplace; a world where women human rights defenders are not arrested or killed for raising their voices; a world where women and girls are not systemically raped during times of instability and war. A world where every woman and girl is strong, safe, powerful, and heard—no exceptions.

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