Year in Review: The Best and Worst Gender Stories of 2017

It’s the second week of 2018 and there’s already good news breaking on the gender equality front: the pay gap is now illegal in Iceland, the #MeToo movement has turned into the more actionable #Times Up, and the buzz is already mounting in anticipation of the second Women’s March a couple of months away.

Activism took center stage in 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. The Women’s March swept across every continent on Earth (thank you Antarctica!), and may have indirectly led to some satisfying election victories over far-right candidates such as France’s Marine Le Pen, of the National Front variety.

Overall, the efforts of women and LBTQ activists led to major legislative victories within the human rights space, proving that 2017 was not just a year to despair over. Read on for a look-back at the gender highlights of 2017, in addition to some human rights tragedies that have fulminated into 2018.

BEST OF 2017

Australia, Germany, Austria and Malta Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

Four more countries have legalized same-sex marriage in 2017, bringing the final count to 26 countries, according to UN Women.

On December 7, Australia passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in a landslide victory in the House of Representatives, with just 4 votes in dissent. This came just three weeks after Australia held a national referendum that solidified the public’s overwhelming support for marriage equality, much to delight of the international press and advocacy groups everywhere. The first same sex wedding ceremonies took place across the country on January 9th, 2018.

Germany legalized same-sex marriage in June, following a surprise change of rhetoric from Chancellor Angela Merkel. The vote, which was driven by the Green Party, removes any legal challenges for same-sex couples to marry and adopt children.

While Merkel did reaffirm her belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, she encouraged a vote of the heart and good conscience. Her party, the Christian Democrats, had long blocked reform on marriage equality, in conjunction with other smaller conservative parties. With this sudden withdrawal of opposition, the Social Democratic Party, as a coalition, pressed for a vote which easily passed.

It should be noted that while she did not discourage her peers from the vote, Merkel herself voted against the move.

Austria passed the vote in December 2017, with restrictions to be fully lifted on January 1st, 2019. Malta, the island that only legalized divorce in 2011, legalized same sex-marriage in July. Only one out of 67 MPs voted against the move, a remarkable accomplishment considering Malta’s predominately Catholic demographic.

Women in Saudi Arabia Can Drive

Saudi Arabian women had much to celebrate in 2017 after finally being granted the right to obtain a driving license. Coming into effect in June 2018, their newly awarded transport freedom has come after years of activism and international awareness campaigns.

Saudi Arabia was until recently the only country in the world to ban women from driving. While this is a step towards equality and additional freedoms for women, strict guardianship laws are still very much in effect. Women still need to obtain permission from male guardians to work, marry, divorce and travel, and their ability to move about their own country freely and without escort is still heavily censured.

Marry Your Victim Laws Abolished in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon

Public awareness campaigns against rape and domestic violence have been surging in the Middle East and have amounted to tangible legal gains for women in Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan. In 2017, all three countries overturned laws that allow rapists to marry their victims to avoid prosecution.

Known as the “Marry Your Rapist” laws, the custom served as legal recourse for perpetrators trying to circumvent punishment for their crime, under the pretense of protecting the modesty of the victim and the reputation of her family. The system’s repeal may point to a shift in the public’s perception of rape and sexual assault, which has long been considered part and parcel to any other form of extramarital sexual conduct that would shame a woman, and effectively eliminate her chances of marrying or remaining married.

The new decree is, in part, an outcome of the increase in women’s access to education in the region. It is a monumental victory for activists who have been relentless in their efforts and savvy in their leveraging of social media. Concerns still exist that the custom will remain unchanged in practice despite the recent change in its legality. Hopes are high, however, that his will domino into neighboring regions that still uphold the controversial law.

WORST OF 2017

The Global Gag Rule Reinstated by Trump

On his first day in office, President Trump reinstated and significantly expanded the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule.

This rule requires that US aid cannot be directed towards health institutions abroad that perform abortion related activities, even if the actual funding for these activities is sourced elsewhere. Groups are therefore unable to spend their own money on family planning programs that provide information on abortions or advocate for change in abortion laws in their countries of operation.

First signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1984, the ban was upheld by every conservative government until it was suspended by President Obama in 2009. As the largest global health donor, the US’s renewed stance against abortion drastically reduces funding for reproductive health initiatives around the world. This increases the conditionality on roughly $8.8 billion in foreign aid, which according to Human Rights Watch, is 16X the amount of funds that fall under the ban than in any previous Republican administration.

There is rightful concern that the reinstated ban will place child and maternal health programs at risk and undermine the health of the world’s most vulnerable women and children.

Rape as A Weapon of War 

The widespread atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims continue as over 500,000 have fled their homes in Burma. Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press have reported on what amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign, which includes the violent and systemic use of rape and torture as weapon of war by Burmese security forces. The female victims are reportedly as young as 9 years old.

For decades, the Rohingya minority have suffered harrowing human rights violations from the government of Burma. The United Nations has called this a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and labeled the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on Earth. Accounts of mass killings of civilians have led to accusations of genocide. The fact that journalists are banned from the Rohingya region of Rahkine further points to the complicity of Burma’s leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have failed to condemn the reports of rape and other atrocities.

In the Central African Republic, the use of rape and sexual slavery is rampant and often commanded by military leaders as a deliberate weapon of war. For the past five years, following the ousting of President Francois Seleka in 2013, spiraling violence between rival armed groups has killed thousands of civilians and displaced thousands more.

These are not the only instances where sexual violence against women has been used as a weapon of war. Rape is used as a tool to demean the men of rival factions and to hurt the women that support them. The methodical use of rape in war is considered a war crime, however, armed groups and their leadership currently continue to live with impunity in countries such as Burma and the Central African Republic.