The world of women is a house divided. Despite the global advances in millions of women’s lives, old fault lines have persisted and new fault lines continue to open within and among countries on issues affecting women’s rights and bodies, with differences rooted in economic, cultural, legal, or even chronological factors related to stages of national development. In September 2014, leading feminists from dozens of countries, some of them legendary international figures not well known in the West, met in New York to listen to each other’s perspectives and debate differences.
Their perspectives are now collected in a book, Women and Girls Rising: Progress and resistance around the world, which scatters ideas like shrapnel across the feminist universe.
Differences remain between feminists in the Global South and North over priorities for advancing human rights and development. In two days of formal talks and informal conversations conference participants were united on expanding women’s rights, yet were not always in alignment on where to direct energy and focus. In richer countries, especially in the United States, a lot of effort these days goes into saving—through the courts, Federal government agencies or direct political action—what women thought had been achieved in the past: the right to abortion; sustained outrage and social pressure over the exploitation of women’s bodies as commercial come-ons, most egregiously in television advertising and social media; the promised opening through affirmative action to real equality of access to seats in the boardroom and desks in the corner office, or to sports facilities for girls and women equal to those of men and boys. Everybody has a list.
Within developing countries, advocates for women’s rights, and human-rights activists in general, often have to take on governments and the establishment at their peril and in the streets—or resort to compromises that would be roundly condemned by Western feminists. Gaps between the global North and South, with feminists from both sides sometimes caught in the middle, are revealed most sharply on social issues: the absence of broadly agreed definitions of violence against women; the persistent defense on cultural grounds of stark abuses or inequalities; the reluctance of governments to expand sexuality education and reproductive services to adolescents, when pregnancy is a leading killer of girls in developing countries; and the harsh pushback against calls to end the criminalization of LGBT people and protect their rights when persecution is widespread and growing in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
In economic terms, numerous feminists contributing to this book argued that globalization is not necessarily building a global sisterhood but instead threatening gains made by local women’s movements, fueled by the growing influence of transnational corporations and other private-sector players in in organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
To capture the spirit and content of the gathering, the new book is a collection of essays ideas edited by the meeting’s two conveners: Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the biographer of Margaret Sanger, the pioneer advocate of birth control in the United States a century ago; and Terry McGovern, professor of population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The book includes 34 essays by leading participants in the 2014 meeting, which drew a live audience of at least 400 and about 2,500 additional viewers online.
Although much of the discussion turned on positive developments and some disturbing setbacks in developing countries, the United States, with its retrograde battles over abortion and a general right-wing war on women, did not escape scrutiny. There is the absurdity of our country’s standing alone in the world in its failure to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, and the absence in the US Constitution of a provision on gender equality. We also fall behind most other developed countries in work-life accommodation, including childcare and maternity/paternity leave, which has largely been left to the private sector.
“I have come away with profound respect for the agency of women around the world,” Chesler said in a telephone conversation between appearances at think tanks and book launches. “In a sense the United States is lagging behind. The human-rights conversation globally is more robust, and the institutions, both top-down and bottom-up, are also robust. More countries have signed CEDAW than any other UN agreement. It may be honored in the breach, but on the other hand, every day there is a woman lawyer somewhere using that accord to argue for rights.”
Another sign of changing times: Women from Texas are going back home to Mexico for safe medical abortions, Chesler said. Mexico’s fertility rate—the number of children expected to be born to a woman in her reproductive years—has fallen almost to the population-replacement level of 2.1, close to the US level. (Brazil’s fertility rate is down to about 1.8.) In the 1960s Mexico had rates as high a seven births per woman. Latin America as well as parts of East and Southeast Asia have significantly reduced family size, helping countless families out of the direst poverty and improving the nutrition, health, and educational opportunities of women and girls. Fertility rates remain highest in large parts of southern and western Africa and South Asia, where India will soon become the world’s most populous nation.
Still, emphasizing family planning and contraception as a primary way to reduce poverty as well as improve educational attainment for girls remains controversial in both the global North and South. Influential feminists in richer nations are often uneasy about telling others to emulate them, while increasing numbers of women in the developing world, where “barefoot and pregnant” is still their perennial condition, demand—even beg—for the most basic tools necessary to give them control over their bodies and save their lives. An estimated 225 million women are seeking family-planning services, but do not have access to contraceptives or are forbidden by partners (and often traditionally minded in-laws or local cultural leaders) to use them. Globally, maternal deaths in pregnancy and childbirth remain unacceptably high, in the hundreds of thousands annually around the world. Almost all of them take place in poor nations—and most are preventable.
Many young women—and men—in developing countries advocating better reproductive-health care are puzzled why American and other Western feminists, who liberated themselves by welcoming contraception and safe abortion as part of the social revolution of the 1960s, seem to want to deny that freedom to the poorest women in the world. How that happened is recalled in Women and Girls Rising by three activists—Sonia Corea, a leading Brazilian democracy activist and feminist who helped steer women’s rights into Brazilian law after the end in 1985 of two decades of military rule; Adrienne Germain, an American co-founder of the International Women’s Health Coalition; and Gita Sen of India, a founder of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, DAWN—who have lived through shifting attitudes surrounding the rights of women to control their bodies. In the early years of independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, many feminists in the developing world made common cause with anti-colonial activists who rejected the notion of a coming population explosion and saw contraceptive programs as a plot to limit the numbers of the world’s black and brown people. Those feminists and often their governments became an influential lobby among Western intellectuals, drawing women and politicians into opposition to family planning as a development priority or a cornerstone of foreign aid, which they were for the most part intended to be.
Large-scale, top-down family planning programs were indeed “population control” to the authors of this chapter. The three women were part of a large international feminist force that helped shape the groundbreaking conferences on women’s rights in the last quarter of the 20th century, culminating in the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. These conferences firmly rejected population quotas and coercion—the tools of population control—and backed a woman’s right to choose, including safe and legal abortion. A new policy was set for United Nations agencies, but the rights of women, especially sexual rights, continue to be denied in many countries, where governments or religious institutions do not accept the premise of women making choices.
Not all advocates for women’s rights in the developing world viewed contraceptive campaigns as neocolonial or a policy instituted strictly for purely economic reasons, though economic and social gains were obviously aims. The Thais (who were never colonized), led by the community activist Mechai Viravaidya, made safe sex and contraception popular causes across the country more than a quarter-century ago, with Viravaidya’s “Cabbages and Condoms” restaurants, tuk-tuk drivers promoting two-child families, and free vasectomies on auspicious days. Thailand’s population came down by choice; its economy grew; and an impending HIV-AIDS crisis was largely averted, despite the country’s pervasive sex industry. Other Southeast and East Asian nations followed similar paths.
Nowhere has a more heated and painful debate over coercion in family planning taken place than in (and about) China, which has now formally ended its one-child policy and allowed couples to have a second child. In their essay in Women and Girls Rising, Cai Yiping, author of International Conventions and Protection of Women’s Human Rights in China, and Liu Bohong, a professor at China Women’s University and Beijing Foreign Studies University, take a nuanced view of the effects of the Chinese population policies.
“The Chinese Family planning program,” they write, “has been both beneficial and detrimental to gender equality. The program clearly released women from family pressure to give birth to sons and also reduced the risk of maternal mortality. But the policy implementation was heavy-handed, with continued imposition of non-consensual abortion and sterilization…. The policy has also distorted the sex ratio at birth in favor of boys, leading to higher mortality of girls and higher abandonment of infant girls.”
The Chinese authors, however, catalog the numerous positive laws and policies enacted in China since 1995, when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. “China has incorporated principles of gender equality into its legal frameworks, thereby quite literally mainstreaming gender into public policy so as to conform with the Beijing Platform for Action,” the authors say. But they warn that this progress is being undermined from a new quarter. “Concurrent neo-liberal policies that have vastly expanded China’s privately held economy have overwhelmed the capacity of government to monitor and enforce the gender commitments it has made—giving rise to vast differences between rhetoric and realty, and leaving Chinese women vulnerable to work-based discrimination and disparities,” they wrote.
The tension between the rights of women and the forces of economic globalization, which push women ever farther into the margins of power, is a theme that runs through many of the essays from feminists in this book. Wendy Chavkin, professor of public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School and the co-founder of Global Doctors for Choice, writes that globalization “has allowed for increased movement of people for trade and work—and exerted pressure toward contraction of the welfare state.”
Chavkin also argues that the freer movement of people, coupled with the demands of women in the developed world, who need (or prefer) to work while lacking work-family support and facing reduced fertility from postponed child-bearing, has also “led to increased migration from women in the developing world seeking work as nannies, an ever-increasing pool of babies for adoption and the recruitment of women to sell their gametes and bodies as egg ‘donors’ and ‘surrogates.’” Many women from poorer nations migrating in search of jobs are lured into trafficking, often unknowingly, leaving their families broken and their countries deprived of skills migrants take with them.
Several essays in the collection are from women in Islamic societies, from the Middle East and North Africa to Asia and the Pacific. Ellen Chesler views their contributions as important to the global women’s movement. “In parts of the world that we tend to be reductive about there are huge variations,” she said. “There are important elites driving change, and there is also a robust movement which has reached lower levels [of society.]”
Farida Shaheed, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first special rapporteur on culture rights and executive director of Shirkat Gah-Women’s Resource Center in Pakistan, has worked at both national and local levels. She created teaching models for Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an international network, to counter myths created by men, especially the portrayal of women as weak, helpless beings. “Narratives of Muslim women who have mounted resistance, led rebellions and dared to combat the unjust status quo,” she wrote, “have the power to release women’s agency, enabling them to say, ‘Yes, this is also our history. This is my legacy and I can take it forward to fight against the injustice I confront in my own life.’”
“It is fair to say that no social group has suffered greater violation of its human rights in the name of culture than women,” Shaheed says, and she stresses the importance of women asserting their rights to rectify distorted history and negative myths. “The right to take part in cultural life includes the right not to participate in any practice or ritual that undermines human dignity [and the right] to create new communities of shared cultural values; and to reshape cultural heritage, without punitive action by the state.”
If much of the writing in Women and Girls Rising was done by seasoned veterans of feminist movements, fresh approaches are reflected in the activism of young women and men, who are working together to shape more egalitarian, liberal societies. Maria Antonieta Alcalde, originally from Mexico, is one of them. Now director of advocacy for the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere region, she was a student in 1994 when the groundbreaking Cairo population conference took place. Within five years, inspired by the burgeoning youth-led organizations in the Latin American region, she had become a leader in the campaign for sexuality education, reproductive rights for adolescents, contraceptive services for all, and safe abortion. In their bold declarations over recent years, youth groups have made often-squeamish UN members, under assault from religious and political conservatives in numerous countries and the Vatican, look pale by comparison.
Young men and women, gay, straight or transgender, send clear messages to governments on the demands of youth. “This commitment to gender equity in turn requires a positive state commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, which are essential to women’s empowerment,” Alcalde wrote. “And it requires continued recognition that sexuality and its attendant risks begin in adolescence, which means that education and services must extend to the young.” As a new global development policy goes into effect, Alcalde warns that “rigorous advocacy from young people must continue to insure no backsliding.