In the last of our Year In Review features, the UN honour the work of activists helping to protect women’s rights, which once again, came under attack in many countries throughout 2022.
It often takes considerable bravery to stand up for the rights of women. The UN, which is committed to empowering women and girls, works relentlessly with activists and organizations across the world, to protect women from abuse, support health initiatives, and improve lives.
August marked one year since the Taliban seized control once more, of Afghanistan, sparking widespread fears for women’s rights there, which were severely eroded during the regime’s previous time in power during the late 1990s.
Twelve months on, UN Women announced that the agency was committed to continue the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school, and effectively barred from political participation.
We marked the anniversary of Taliban rule by telling the stories of some of the women who have decided to stay in the country, even though their lives have been turned upside down.
They include Zarina, formerly one of Afghanistan’s youngest entrepreneurs, who was forced to close her formerly thriving bakery, amid growing restrictions on women-owned businesses; Nasima, a peacebuilder and women’s rights activists, who was forced to shut down most of her projects, but later managed to restart some initiatives; and Mahbouba Seraj, a veteran rights defender, who vowed to stay on and bear witness to what is unfolding in her country.
Ms. Seraj had a sobering message for those who think that Afghanistan is an exceptional case: “what is happening to the women of Afghanistan can happen anywhere, she said. “Roe v. Wade [the case that led to the national right to abortion in the US, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2022] destroyed years of progress, taking away the rights of women over their own bodies. Women’s rights being taken away from them is happening everywhere and if we are not careful, it will happen to all the women of the world”.
In November, The UN human rights office, OHCHR, condemned the response of the Iranian regime to protestors demonstrating against the government, in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody in September, after being detained for wearing her hijab incorrectly, according to the so-called morality police.
Her death led to demonstrations in many Iranian cities, including protest by high-school age girls. The Iranian government responded by arresting thousands of protestors, including women, children, youth, and journalists.
On 22 November, OHCHR stated that, in just one week, more than 40 people had been killed in protests, including two teenagers, and two days later, the Human Rights Council created a fact-finding mission in relation to the demonstrations.
“It pains me to see what is happening in the country,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk told those attending the session which voted in favour of the mission. “The images of children killed. Of women beaten in the streets. Of people sentenced to death”.
The growing international condemnation of the Iranian crackdown was reflected in the decision by members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on 14 December.
The CSW, which meets annually in March at UN Headquarters in New York, is described as the biggest gathering of gender equality advocates in the world.
The United States introduced the resolution, which received 29 votes in favour and eight against, with 16 countries abstaining.
Women tackling the climate crisis
The climate crisis has been shown to disproportionately affect women and girls. In the weeks leading up to International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on 6 March, we highlighted the ways in which women activists improve their local environment, and help their community to adapt to an increasingly hostile climate.
They include Mexican violinist Martha Corzo, who led and inspired a group of some 17,000 local environmental activists, devoted to protecting the remote and beautiful Sierra Gorda; a group of women in Niger who have integrated refugees and migrants in their bid to stave off desertification by creating a thriving market garden; and a mechanical engineer in Kenya who had to fight gender discrimination to develop practical and affordable energy solutions.
In May, Cameroonian activist Cécile Ndjebet’s efforts to improve the lives of those who depend on forests were recognized, when she was awarded the 2022 Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award, which is chaired by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In Cameroon, roughly 70 per cent of women live in rural areas and are dependent at least in part on harvesting wild forest products for their livelihoods. However, in some communities, women cannot own forest land, inherit it if their husband dies, or even plant trees on degraded land.
“Men generally recognize the great role women play in improving families’ living standards,” she said at the ceremony, “but it is important for them also to agree that, for women to continue to play that role, and even improve in that role, they need secure access to land and forests”.
Women in blue
UN women peacekeepers and police, continued to serve with distinction in some of the most dangerous postings in the world, facing challenges such as threats from terrorist attacks, and violence fuelled by a COVID-era surge in misinformation and disinformation, amid increasing political tensions, and deteriorating security situations.
On the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in May, Major Winnet Zharare of Zimbabwe was presented with the Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award, in recognition of her work with the UN Mission in South Sudan, where she was a strong champion for gender equality and women as decision-makers and leaders.
“Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained the trust of local military commanders who sought her advice on women’s rights and protection”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the ceremony. “Her approach helped UNMISS strengthen bonds with local communities and deliver on its mandate.”
In July, at a historic ceremony in South Sudan, members of the first-ever deployment of UN Peacekeepers from Liberia, including several women, were honoured with the prestigious UN Medal.
Their achievement symbolized the huge turnaround in the fortunes of Liberia, which suffered a brutal civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, before reaching a ceasefire, monitored by the UN Mission in the country, UNMIL, which also supported humanitarian and human rights activities; and assisted in national security reform, including national police training and formation of a new, restructured military.
“Our experience of a 14-year civil war and the impact that UN peacekeepers had, is real and tangible for the people we are on the ground to serve,” said UN Police (UNPOL) officer Elfreda Dennice Stewart. “We benefited so much from peacekeepers, and it is our honour to now serve in this young nation under the iconic blue flag.”
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Many women produce art in the face of, and sometimes inspired by, the challenges they face in society, whether related to insecurity, human rights, climate change, inequality, or simply because of their gender.
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