Gender and Development

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights – Except When They Are Not

2017 proved to be a year marred by the dichotomy of setbacks and progress in the realm of women's rights. Ana Zhelyazkova recaps some of the major moments for women's rights in the past year.


Since 2017 the world has been witnessing a series of events and revelations shaking up the public, political and media agenda on women’s rights and bringing the topic into the spotlight. Beyond the #MeToo movement, political decisions and the respective reactions by the public worldwide have been shifting the gender equality rhetoric from one extreme to the other.

The Russian Law vs. the Istanbul Convention

On the legislative front, 2017 demonstrated the sharp contrast between Eastern and Western perceptions of women’s rights. The principles of family constellation and morality were in the focus of political decision-making.

Russia’s approach on women’s rights has been rather vague since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet paradigm, men and women were considered to be equal members of the public – a statute that women had led a continuous fight for, with strong support from the Bolshevik ideology. Although far from truly intertwined within current political, societal and labor agendas, gender equality in Russia took a big hit in February 2017 when President Putin signed a controversial amendment decriminalizing “moderate violence within families” downgrading the battery to an administrative offense. The decision caused public and political uproar, as statistics show that each year about 14.000 women in the Federation die at the hands of their husbands or other relatives.

Concurrently, in an attempt to unify national policies, the Council of Europe continued to push for the ratification of the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the “Istanbul Convention” – the first instrument in Europe setting legally binding standards for combating gender-based violence, protecting victims and punishing perpetrators. The ratification process registered a success in June 2017 after the European Union signed the Convention, advancing the signing and ratification by all Member states (currently, only 14 EU Member states have ratified the document). However, at the beginning of this year, the steadily moving progress was interrupted by Bulgaria’s far-right United Patriots’ party opposing the text. Thus, the National Assembly was unable to proceed with the ratification – a particularly surprising development as Bulgaria holds the Presidency of the EU Council since January 1, 2018. Following Bulgaria, Slovakia too failed to ratify the Convention.

Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice

The contrasting rhetoric represented in the structure of the adjectives “pro-life” and “pro-choice” truly captures the divisiveness of the discussion. While the Women’s March started off as a counter-inaugural protest against President Trump, the demonstrations soon evolved into a civil rights movement. The March was motivated by controversial remarks made by Donald Trump primarily during his presidential campaign, as well as by the new administration’s commitment to limit access to reproductive health care, especially through Planned Parenthood.

The pro-life paradigm led to significant cuts in the program budgets for Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Medicaid, the signing of an executive order rolling back Obama-era measures securing birth control access and to the appointments of several anti-abortion activists in key positions. Similarly controversial policy-making could also be observed in Europe, with Poland once again attempting to further tighten the country’s abortion laws and Northern Ireland facing a referendum on abortion rights in May.

The domestic pro-life agenda further transcended the US border, after President Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy on the third day after his inauguration. The document, introduced by President Raegan in 1984, constitutes that the United States “does not consider abortion an acceptable element of family planning programs and will no longer contribute to those of which it is a part” and essentially cuts US donations to any non-governmental organization performing or promoting pregnancy termination. Beside serving as an instrument to reaffirm the administration’s stance on health affairs, the policy has proven to have crucial influence on reproductive health worldwide: According to the World Health Organization, the induced abortion rate in the Sub-Saharan region was stable between 1994 and 2001 (during Clinton’s presidency without the policy) and rose sharply between 2001 and 2008 (after President Bush reinstated it again), indicating an increase in pregnancy termination procedures in an unsafe setting, possibly not overseen by a medical professional.

The commitment of the international community, however, has been one of progressively strong engagement towards improving the access to and quality of reproductive health worldwide. The effort of political and nongovernmental actors has been accelerating the awareness about tabooed topics – a prominent example here being the interagency commitment to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM). Women’s rights were put into the spotlight in September 2017 when the European Union and the United Nations launched the joint Spotlight Initiative – the biggest international effort yet to eliminate violence, femicide, sexual and labor exploitation as well as harmful practices such as FGM.

Equal Means Equal

So far, 2017 and 2018 have delivered some highly contrasting developments in different aspects of gender equality. Still, patterns of systematic mistreatment of women are being slowly but steadily combatted worldwide: India achieved a landmark in October last year, after the country’s Supreme Court criminalized underage marital rape; The proportion of child brides dropped by 15% in the last decade, according to UNICEF’s latest report; Iceland became the first country to make equal payment legally binding and the US state of Virginia took a step towards removing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products. Women’s rights are certainly on their way of finally being recognized in their entirety as the UN Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Ana Zhelyazkova is a student in the Master of Public Health program of Ludwig-Maximilians University. She also serves as Social Engagement Coordinator for the Association for UN Interns, New York, student employee at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy and volunteer for the German branch of Médecins du Monde.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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