In the past decade we’ve seen some significant steps forward in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality, from the #MeToo movement that has emboldened more women to speak out against misogynistic abuse, to new domestic violence laws passed to protect women in India and Bangladesh. However, we are now increasingly witnessing a rising tide of patriarchal backlash against that progress. Around the world women’s rights are at risk of being rolled back and those fighting for them are at risk of violent attacks online and off.
In 2017, Russia passed a new law that decriminalised the first instance of domestic violence. The Trump administration brought into being the global gag rule that blocks all US assistance to foreign NGOs that use their own funds to provide abortion services, counselling and referrals or advocates for reproductive rights. Dismantling of institutions that work on gender equality has been a key feature. Brazil has witnessed change to social welfare policies that negatively affect poor women, and abolished the Ministries of Racial Equality, Human Rights and Women. Worldwide, there is a rise in incidence of attacks on-line against female politicians, both sexualised abuse and other kinds of abuse and threats.
First, we must understand it
To counter this growing backlash, I believe that first we need to fully understand it. Is it coordinated, how does it manifest, are there common tactics being used by those fighting against equality in different countries? These are questions that are being addressed in new research taking place with eleven partner organisations across six countries in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa.
But understanding it is only one part of the process that needs to happen. If we are to hope to more effectively counter backlash in its many forms, we also need to find allies, learn from each other, mobilise, build alliances and device savvy strategies together in areas of activism, policy and the role of men as advocates.
It is so important to learn from and understand what is happening in different countries. Much of the research and evidence on backlash against women’s rights and gender equality only covers US, Eastern Europe and the UK. Finding out how this issue is really affecting countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East is crucial to international development, as a whole, and to getting anywhere close to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Learning from India, Bangladesh and Uganda
For example, we can learn from the resistance to new laws in India and Bangladesh to tackle domestic violence, where backlash manifested itself in challenges to the details of the law. Where in general there was wide acceptance that domestic violence was wrong, but when laws were being formed individual clauses were changed, for example for the laws to only apply to married couples and left out cohabiting couples or gay relationships.
In Uganda, the resistance to new women’s rights laws was similarly framed in a way that could be classified under the guise of ‘family values’. The proposals received push back from the church due to concerns that the law would reduce power for men, give too much power to women and upset the traditional family dynamic. In order to counter this dynamic, the policy coalition on domestic violence had to frame the issue to show that domestic violence affected men too. They also framed domestic violence as a development concern as it affected the health, labour power and well-being of women. To achieve change the policy coalition and the female MPs actively pursued male MPs to bring them on board as allies.
Building international coalitions and alliances
Those pushing back against women’s rights are forming coalitions so in order to counter this backlash so must we. At an international level, for example, the US, Russia, catholic and Muslim majority countries banded together as far back as 1995 to remove progressive language and provisions agreed upon at the UN’s women conference in Beijing.
We should try not to work in silos. The alliances can and should be wide-ranging, internationally wide-reaching and across activist groups, academia, lawyers, NGOs and liberal-minded local and national politicians. In many cases the backlash against gender equality can also be similar to backlash against LGBTQ rights or minority rights and different rights organisations have opportunities to support and back each other though formal networks and informal support for one another.
Much of this backlash is coupled with the shrinking of civic spaces, where in many countries around the world governments are making it more difficult for civil society organisations and rights groups to speak out or operate openly. This makes it even more important to build alliances to share tactics that work and support and encourage to those facing increased levels of oppression.
We all need to join the battle
With the one in three women affected by gender-based violence at some point in their lifetime and a recent World Bank report showing that on average women only have 75 percent of the legal rights afforded to men, there is much work to do and we can’t afford to lose the hard-fought gains that have been made.
As a researcher I believe it is vital for those working in this field to be more closely aligned with activists and build partnerships with change-makers on the ground. In the fight for women’s rights we all need to join the battle.
Sohela Nazneen is Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and co-lead on the research programme Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice. She is author of ‘Negotiating Gender Equity in the Global South’