Does it seem to you that feminism this past year was just one long gargle over the meaning of Monica? That the biggest women’s issue was whether oral sex is sex? That too much time, energy and money were given over to PR stunts like the White House Project, which invited people to envision a passel of female worthies–including the antifeminist, antichoice, fundamentalist-friendly Elizabeth Dole–as potential presidential candidates? (By too much time, energy and money, I mean a second, an erg and a penny.)

There have been times this past year when it felt to me as if everything were going backward: From now on, life would consist of an endless right-wing TV talk show, in which professional virgin Wendy Shalit and faux stay-at-home mom Danielle Crittenden would give dating tips to restlessly single Laura Ingraham (“Leopard-print miniskirts? Scary! No wonder guys don’t call back”). How different the fight for women’s equality seems when you consider the rest of the world, as I just did in honor of International Women’s Day, March 8.

The struggle in the United States may seem stymied–as if the big shakeup of the seventies were settling into a new, improved, but still sexist, status quo–but abroad all sorts of things are happening, awful and hopeful. We tend to hear more about the former: You probably know about the Italian judge who ruled that women wearing blue jeans can’t be raped because it takes two to pull them off–sparking a protest by jeans-wearing female MPs. But did you know that in India the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that mothers, not just fathers, are the legal guardians of their children? Besides rectifying a major insult to women, this ruling has important implications for divorcing women seeking custody and child support. The same court ruled in January that sexual harassment violates women’s rights and need not involve actual touching–a particularly interesting verdict, given that sexual harassment, along with legal abortion, is often seen as the obsession of a handful of US feminists.

And speaking of abortion, recently two countries, Poland and El Salvador, made abortion harder to get. El Salvador, indeed, is now one of the only countries to enact in law the official position of the Catholic Church and the platform of the US Republican Party, both of which reject abortion even to save the mother’s life. But eight countries–Albania, South Africa, Seychelles, Guyana, Germany, Portugal, Cambodia and Burkina Faso–liberalized their abortion laws. And before you write those letters pointing out that Cambodian and Salvadoran women have bigger problems than abortion, consider that in Nepal, a desperately poor country where abortion is illegal, there are women, including rape victims, serving twenty years in prison for having abortions. Poor women have always needed liberal abortion laws the most, because they are the ones who seek the back alleys or who self-abort, and they are also the ones targeted by the police.

These positive changes–Senegal, Togo and three other African countries have banned clitoridectomy; Spain’s Basque region pays battered women a “salary” to encourage them to leave their abusers–flicker like candles in a darkening room. Islamic fanaticism is sending women back to the Middle Ages. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, women are banned from schooling, jobs, healthcare and public life, and are subject to beatings and stonings. The new world disorder of the global economy has thrown millions of women and girls into prostitution, sex slavery and, well, slavery as housebound servants in foreign lands. The Asian economic collapse has caused millions of families to stop their daughters’ schooling. War, refugee camps, AIDS, poverty, illiteracy, maternal mortality (one in thirty-eight women in Pakistan) are everyday realities for vast numbers of women. Culturally sanctioned coercion and violence persist–“honor killings,” genital mutilation, forced marriage, wife murder (half the murders in India)–sometimes with a weird postmodern twist. In famine-stricken North Korea, women are being sold across the border to Chinese farmers unable to find wives because sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and neglect have produced a demographic disaster: 122 males for every 100 females.

Against these terrible tides, set the movement for women’s human rights. Only a decade ago the idea that women’s rights are human rights was dismissed as sentimental Western cant: Human rights pertained to state action, not to family, marriage or community norms, however cruel and oppressive. Today, academics–and they usually are academics–who compare clitoridectomy to male circumcision or footbinding to high heels are the ones who seem indifferent to reality. And slowly, as the result of immense effort on the part of millions of women and men, a new set of social and moral paradigms is being articulated.

On International Women’s Day, the United Nations opened its first-ever session on violence against women with a teleconference broadcast around the world. “It was something to see,” said a friend who attended, “all those heads of state having to listen to women tell them about the harm their laws had done to them.”

I don’t want to make too much of what is at least in part political theater. Behind all the talk about “empowering women” how much really changes? The Cairo conference in 1994 was supposed to overturn the population-control approach to family planning in favor of one that placed women’s “empowerment” at the center, but how many clinics in Asia (or the United States) have shifted course? It will take a decade, Barbara Becker of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy told me, or maybe even two, for practices to change. But little by little a language is developing that did not exist before, one in which new hopes can be voiced and new demands made. It’s a language we could learn to speak in the United States as well.

N.B.: Equality Now is an excellent organization supporting women’s human rights around the world with advocacy, publicity, legal research and letter-writing campaigns. You can send a contribution to Equality Now at Box 20646, Columbus Circle Station, New York, NY 10023.