“We have to march.”
On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, a retired lawyer from Maui, Hawaii called Teresa Shook, wrote a Facebook post and hit send.
Less than three months later, that Facebook post had helped to ignite a smoldering discontent that culminated in the largest single-day protest possibly in US history: the Women’s March of 2017. Since then, we’ve made great strides from the legalization of abortion in Ireland to Saudi Arabia lifting its ban on female drivers.
Despite this progress, we’re actually further away from gender equality now than we were in 2017. According to a report published by UN Women in Sept. 2022, it could take close to 300 years to achieve full gender equality at the current rate of progress (read: too slow).
Why? A global pandemic, conflict, climate change, and harsh backlash against progress for women’s rights. We gain an inch, then we’re pushed back a mile.
But women and girls are fighting back, their anger and resilience exploding like lava in the sky across continents. This year alone, the Carnegie Endowment (a global protest tracker) notes 13 major protests around the world relating to women’s issues. Compare that to 2019 when they recorded just one.
However, it’s important to note that this is not a woman’s fight. It’s on all of us, however we may feel about the F-word, to use our voices, positions of privilege, or proximity to power to change the world and achieve gender equality for all people, everywhere. Nothing less will do.
Having reflected on what women’s movements looked like this year, here’s what I learned from the 13 feminist protests that took place in 2022, from India to El Salvador.
1. Liberation isn’t about how much or how little skin you show; it’s the freedom to choose.
In January 2022, college student Muskan Khan was attempting to hand in an assignment when she was accosted by a group of Hindu men wearing saffron scarves — the color of India's ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The men heckled her as she made her way across the school grounds, demanding she take off her face covering. Instead of complying, Khan shouts back "Allahu Akbar" as she punches her fist in the air.
Khan became the poster girl for the movement against the religious divide in Karnataka, a southwestern Indian state, after a group of girls began protesting outside their government-run school when they were denied entry to the classroom for wearing Muslim religious attire.
The protests then spread to other cities including in Delhi where scores of students took to the capital’s streets holding placards and shouting slogans to express their anger at the ban.
Just under nine months later, on Sept. 16, 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, was arrested by the so-called morality police in Tehran, Iran, for “incorrectly” wearing her hijab and allegedly beaten to death.
Protests erupted around the country with women taking to the streets to dance, cut off their hair and burn their hijabs. The unrest has continued to swell into an uprising that has become the most significant in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
Whether it’s the right to wear the hijab or the right not to wear it, the right to wear trousers or the right to sport a bikini, the fight is the same. It’s the fight against patriarchal oppression. Liberation isn’t tied to a particular garment, or how much or how little skin women show; it’s the freedom to make choices about our own bodies and what we clothe them in — and it’s a fight that is still raging around the world.
2. The path to gender equality isn’t linear.
While some us might have assumed that the painful, inching progress of feminist victories was a one-directional line on the graph toward gender equality, 2022 revealed how rapidly those victories, and the rights they represented, could be reversed.
In countries as diverse as Afghanistan and the US, women and girls now have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers did.
On March 24, 2022 ― the date the education ministry had set for classes to resume — thousands of jubilant girls across Afghanistan had flocked to their learning institutions. But just hours into the first day, the Taliban announced a shock policy reversal that ordered girls’ secondary schools to close, undermining two decades of educational and economic progress.
Despite the great risk of protest in Afghanistan, people gathered in the capital city, Kabul, the following Saturday with chants to "Open the schools! Justice, justice!"
In the year since the Taliban returned to power, they have also issued various orders restricting the freedom of women — barring them from most government jobs, secondary education, and from traveling more than 70 km without a male guardian.
Then, on Friday, June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark ruling that had safeguarded the right to abortion across the US. Since then, at least 13 states have banned abortion meaning that Americans in these states now have fewer human rights protections than authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
An abortion-rights protester, who declined to give her name, chants while marching through San Francisco's Mission District on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
From beneath the Statue of Liberty to Croatia, the shockwaves of this decision were felt around the world — not least because of the potential implications for abortion rights around the globe. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to make their voices heard with a mixture of rage, grief, and desperation.
I knew that the fight for gender equality was an uphill battle, but 2022 showed me that it’s not just continuously uphill; it’s hilly. Despite vertiginous mountainous peaks such as the election of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to sit on the US Supreme Court and an increasing number of nations adopting feminist foreign policies, this is a fight that also comes with its abject troughs.
3. Criminalising abortion does not stop abortions.
Abortion is a basic healthcare need for millions of women, girls, and others who can become pregnant. Worldwide, an estimated one in four pregnancies end in an abortion annually.
According to a British research team that analyzed data from 1990 to 2019, abortion rates in countries with abortion bans were roughly the same as in countries where abortion is permitted. In fact, in countries where abortion was restricted, the proportion of pregnancies ending in abortion increased.
All criminializing abortion does is make abortion unsafe for those seeking it. It’s no wonder then that people around the world from El Salvador to Poland took to the streets to protest strict abortion laws.
In January, protests took place in Poland after a 37-year-old woman died because doctors refused to give her an abortion, two years since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organizer of the protests, said. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.”
On the other side of the globe, in March, thousands of women marched in El Salvador's capital against the country's total ban on abortions and its high femicide rate.
Introduced in 1988, El Salvador has one of the toughest abortion laws in the world. Women can be jailed for having an abortion even if their lives are at risk or if they were raped. Since then, dozens of women have been found guilty of "aggravated homicide," and given decades-long sentences, even in cases where the women say they have suffered miscarriages.
4. Representation really does make a better world.
Data show that women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide, and that achieving gender parity in politics is far off.
In Cameroon, thousands of women protested on International Women’s Day in March, demanding more political power and government jobs. Women make up more than half of Cameroon’s population, but there is not a single woman among the country’s 10 regional governors or council presidents.
This isn't just about fairness. Evidence shows that when women have a place at the table, peace talks are less likely to fail, and the resulting agreements last longer. But women are not only instrumental for the success of peace negotiations – they also play a crucial role in the prevention of conflicts.
It’s the same for other global issues. The family photograph of heads of state and government released to the world on the first day of COP27 included 117 people. Just seven of them were women. Yet female leadership is proven to improve climate outcomes.
5. Sex work is work.
In Oct. 2022, sex workers and the owners of brothels demonstrated in Madrid in front of the Spanish Parliament over a bill that would penalize prostitution customers and sex club owners or pimps with sentences up to four years in prison.
They say the Socalist party’s bill will push the trade underground, putting sex workers at greater risk of violence and unsafe conditions.
Part of a broader women's rights push by the Socialist Party, the draft legislation treats sex workers as victims, rather than criminals as would be the case under a ban on prostitution.
But this isn’t how many sex workers think of themselves. For them, sex work is work; it’s the labour they perform. They are neither criminals, victims, nor vectors of disease. This is why sex workers advocate for decriminalization (which means that consenting adults who buy or sell sex are not committing a crime) over legalisation (which would create a set of laws, codes, and regulations specific to the sex industry).
Indeed, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization (WHO), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have all called on countries to decriminalize sex work.
There are an estimated 40 to 42 million sex workers in the world, and 80% of them are female. But there is only one country in the world that has completely decriminalized sex work: New Zealand. As the proposed Spanish bill goes to show, even those with the best of intentions risk hurting the communities they are trying to help.
6. Care work is a serious issue.
Meal prep and cooking. Collecting water. Caring for the kids. The amount of time spent on chores and caring for others might not always seem like a lot, nor like a particularly crucial part of the struggle for gender equality. But eventually, it adds up — especially for women and girls who live in poverty or are from marginalized groups.
This phenomenon is known as unpaid care work and it’s crucial for households and economies to function. Estimates show that 16.4 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day. The International Labor Organization found that if care work was valued the same as other work, it would represent a tenth of the world’s economic output. Some governments depend on unpaid work to compensate for public services. Yet it’s largely undervalued and largely unpaid.
In October 2022, mothers — including Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and British broadcast personality Kate Quilton — flooded the streets of the UK for the March of the Mummies: a protest organized by Pregnant Then Screwed which called for reforms to the childcare sector in the UK.
Joeli Brearley, CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, told Global Citizen: “Thousands of parents took to the streets in our March of the Mummies protest to demand their voices be heard by this government. Parents of young children don’t protest unless they are really furious. They have had enough. They feel they are being set up to fail.”
When people become mothers, they are removed from the labor force by an economy that does not recognise the value of the unpaid care they provide. What’s more, the specific policies in the UK that underpin the economy – such as childcare, parental leave policies, and working patterns – reinforce gender stereotypes and low participation by mothers in the labor market.
Unpaid care is a barrier to women having full access to their human rights, particularly for women living in poverty — and it must be treated as a serious issue.
7. Silence speaks volumes.
Although there were 13 feminist protests around the world this year, that doesn’t mean that women aren’t fighting for their rights in places where there were no protests. In fact, sometimes protest can look very different from people gathered with placards on a street shouting slogans. Protest might look very different in a war-torn country.
The war in Tigray, Ethiopia, for example, has been defined by extreme violence against women and girls, with UN experts warning that rape has appeared “to have been used as part of a deliberate strategy to terrorize, degrade, and humiliate the victims and the ethnic minority group that they belong to, with the acquiescence of the state and non-state actors parties to the conflict.”
Instead of taking to the streets, women and girls in Tigray are using their voices and stories to protest the sexual assault and human rights violations they are experiencing there, because this is the only avenue left for them to fight. As one survivor whose real name had to be withheld for her own safety told Global Citizen: “I want the world to hear my story and Tigray’s women's story. Hear our cries. Help us seek justice.”