Written By: Vidhi Bhaiya
Edited By: Anna Mohan, and Khushi Karnawat Associate Editor
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
domestic and gender-based violence.
"We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back."
These were the words of one of the most remarkable feminists, Malala Yousafzai. December has always been a month of celebrations and reflections on what we can do better next year. 2020 is no different, let's look at the progress we have made as feminists and the progress we have yet to make.
We started the year on a strong note with Greece electing their first female President, Katerina Sakellaropoulou. After decades of Greece having nearly all-male cabinets, this was a strong step towards a more inclusive and diverse leadership. Katerina's progressive views on civil rights range from voting against sexual discrimination to in favour of refugee children or civil unions for same-sex couples. She would not just pave the way for a more inclusive and open society for the gender vector but also sexual orientation, nationality and many more. This rolled a win for feminism starting in January!
March saw the start of the 'I Weigh' movement by Jamila Jameel, an activist crusading for body positivity. This movement arose when she was outraged by an Instagram post showing the Kardashians and Jenners along with their weight, which reduced their self-worth to how much they weigh and not any of the other attributes that define them. Jameela responded to this by realigning people's view on what they should count by posting a picture about what she weighs in everything but kgs. She also blatantly called out personalities that promote unrealistic beauty standards and unhealthy diets. The movement aspired to impact global policies on social media around diet and detox products advertised to minors. She urged celebrities to take accountability for what they promote and not capitalise on uninformed readers' naiveness.
While some may have felt safer staying inside, many women around the world had a drastically different experience. This was not just experienced in one or two countries but was a global phenomenon. In India, the 68-day lockdown period from April to May experienced over 3 lakh complaints of domestic violence on women. This was not counting the 86% of domestically abused women that don't seek help. A UN Women study found that due to onset lockdowns, calls to helplines increased up to fivefold in some countries. This form of 'Intimate Terrorism' is not just something that developing countries are facing due to additional economic pressure but also evident in developed countries. Singapore witnessed a 22% increase in domestic violence post lockdown. An interesting juxtaposition is of the world advancing to self-driving cars, drones, and gene editing tools while women are still fighting for the basic right to live a life free from violence. A member of Women Unbounded wrote a relevant article on this situation that you can read here.
FGM or Female Genital Mutilation is a tradition practised in 50 countries, including Singapore, that use purity, humility, beauty, and formal passage of womanhood as an excuse. FGM is the removal of partial or total external female genitalia to prevent women from experiencing pleasure. This practice has grave repercussions on the physical and mental health of women. They range from severe pain, bleeding, shock, genital infections, HIV/AIDS, psychological imbalance, and even death. This is one of the most extreme forms of gender inequality and gender violence that has been experienced by more than 200 million women around the world. This May, Sudan criminalised female genital mutilation with three years imprisonment and a fine. While this may be a small win, we still have a long battle to go till this violation of women's bodies, shrouded by culture and tradition, is eradicated from our society as a whole.
The mid-year brought some light to the otherwise grim events around the world. Under the tutelage of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand parliament unanimously passed the Equal Pay Amendment in late July 2020. This amendment killed two birds with one stone by focusing on equal pay and pay equity. The equal pay vector focuses on paying men and women the same amount for the same work. The pay equity vector focuses on ensuring that female-dominated industries with similar skills, education levels, and responsibilities are paid the same as male-dominated industries. This was a big win for feminism to move closer towards increasing the world average of women-only making 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
September ushered the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action adopted by 189 nations in 1995. They pledged to make the world a place where every woman can exercise her rights, such as living free from violence, going to school, participating in decision-making, and earning equal pay. However, after a quarter of a century, nations aren't even close to fulfilling their commitments. A UN Women report published in 2020 highlighted that we aren't placing gender equality as a priority. After 25 years of official declarations and pledges, men are still 75% of parliamentarians, hold 73% of managerial positions, and are 70% of climate negotiators and almost all peacemakers. 'Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.' We need to get out of this boiling broth and prioritise equality in fundamental human rights before it's too late.
In October, Jennifer A Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first women to jointly win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Their groundbreaking discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing tool, can be used to precisely edit the DNA of plants, animals and microorganisms. This has the potential to be used in cancer therapy and cure inherited diseases. While STEM and women have always been an estranged concept, this gene-editing tool could bridge the gap. The World Economic Forum stated that only a third of female students choose to study math and engineering courses, and the few women who prefer the STEM field are underpaid compared to their male counterparts. This 'women in STEM' topic isn't discoursing the calibre, but the environment women are put in. Hopefully, with role models like Jennifer and Emmanuelle, more girls get inspired and realise that their potential is restrained by society.
The sensational month of November was paramount as it saw the elections of one of the world's strongest countries. This election was momentous for various reasons. We saw the first Black, first South Asian American, first woman Vice President of the US that threw her stiletto so high that it shattered the glass ceilings above her. Additionally, one of the superpower countries freed from a leader who believed women should be 'grabbed by the pussy’. While Kamala's win doesn't assure a more just society, it hopefully inches towards a more progressive government. As Kamala Harris, herself said, "While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last."
Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward. Building on the feats and working on this year's setbacks, we can ensure that 2021 and beyond are years where all people, no matter their identity, can live in a free and unprejudiced society.