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Shoulder to shoulder: Women’s rights abroad

This year has been an important one for women’s rights in the UK. We’ve seen a number of high-profile male figures investigated for sexual abuse against young girls, so-called “lads mags” told to cover up objectifying images of naked women,...


This year has been an important one for women’s rights in the UK. We’ve seen a number of high-profile male figures investigated for sexual abuse against young girls, so-called “lads mags” told to cover up objectifying images of naked women, and an immense furore around a simple campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy MP, to get a woman featured on a British bank note.

I would usually be delighted to see women’s rights issues splashed across the front pages and on every news channel. But along with media coverage, or perhaps because of it, we have seen a disturbing backlash against women campaigning for equality.

The misogynistic abuse and threats of rape experienced by Criado-Perez, Creasy and others on Twitter for example, demonstrates how far we still have to go in the fight for gender equality in the UK.

But this backlash, I believe, should be seen as part of a broader struggle; tackling violence against women and abuse of women’s rights are global issues which need a global strategy.

The UK government should be at the forefront of championing women’s rights both at home and abroad: not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do. A world in which women contribute equally (politically, socially and economically) and a world in which women live free from violence and abuse, will be a more prosperous and peaceful world for us all.

Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in Afghanistan, where the UK government’s stated objective is a stable, secure and peaceful state which will offer no threat to the UK’s own security. But a stable and secure Afghanistan is impossible without the participation and security of Afghan women. Despite having achieved significant gains over the past ten years, they still experience extreme levels of inequality and are regularly and violently targeted merely for taking some part in public life.

Afghan women have a legal right to participate in decision-making processes which will affect their lives. Moreover, their experience and understanding – not just of the conflict but of all aspects of Afghan life – will be invaluable in achieving a genuine and sustainable peace for the whole country. The UK government must prioritise their participation in all of its operations in the country if it truly wishes to achieve a sustainable peace in the country.

Genuine prioritisation of women’s rights is not entirely absent in UK government foreign policy. Positive initiatives, such as the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), already exist. What is lacking, though, is genuine commitment to those principles across and throughout government.

The PSVI emphasises the importance of tackling sexual violence in conflict through improving accountability and supporting survivors. Supporting local women human rights defenders and civil society organisations already working on these issues is a central element of the PSVI, as is delivering appropriate, gender-sensitive training to security forces. However, it isn’t clear that these central tenants are reflected in the UK’s own operations in Afghanistan and other countries.

So in Afghanistan the UK government must consult with and support women’s human rights defenders and civil society organisations; and it must prioritise women’s rights throughout the training and support it delivers to the Afghan National Police and Army, therefore reflecting the principles of the PSVI.

A similar approach should be central to the UK’s policy in other countries, for example in Egypt where sexual violence against women protestors appears to be a systematic attempt to force women into silence and submission. The extremely concerning and precarious situation in Egypt since President Morsi was forced from office demands a serious response from the UK and international community, and this response must include action on the sexual violence against women that has been perpetrated.

Attempts in Egypt to silence women through sexual harassment and violence is perhaps an extreme reflection of the recent abuse suffered by Criado-Perez, Creasy and other women here in the UK. But the parallels are compelling. We at Amnesty International have witnessed the challenges that women often face when they stand up for their rights, we know that such actions are often met with anything from derision to murder.

A recent survey by the World Health Organisation highlighted that one in three women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. This is a truly shocking statistic and is something all of us must challenge. Responses to such abuse must be holistic, but as Director of a membership organisation made up of ordinary people passionate about defending human rights, I know how important activism can be, both in achieving change and expressing solidarity.

As an organisation that included Beatrice Webb, Virginia Woolf, Annie Besant and Emmeline Pankhurst amongst its original members, the Fabian Society has historically offered a platform to further women’s human rights.

Today the Fabian Women’s Network and its members can continue this legacy and join with us to support women’s rights globally and to press the UK government to ensure that these rights are pursued in foreign policy as well as domestic policy. The more that we can make those calls in a common voice, the more our voices will be heard.

This article first appeared Fabiana, the magazine of the Fabian Women’s Network. The FWN are holding a panel debate ‘What next for women’s rights and foreign policy?’ on 24 September at the Fabian fringe, Labour party conference at 12.30. More information can be found here. 

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