By Leah Rodriguez
A look back at moments that empowered women and girls around the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was apparent that the international community was off track to empower all girls and women by 2030. Estimates suggested that it might take another 100 years to meet this target, and 2020 only further exposed the cracks in our society and shined a light on the need to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities.
The pandemic stalled progress on ending harmful practices against women and girls, widened the care burden, and increased domestic violence rates. While female representation in government increased, few women still hold seats at the tables where important decisions are made. What’s more, many women are without access to health and social services as resources are diverted to treating the virus.
Despite the added challenges presented by the pandemic, however, 2020 wasn’t without its victories. Countries stepped up to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) and keep girls in school. Women leaders broke records in governmental office and received praise for their pandemic responses.
Each win provided a glimmer of hope that even if gender equality is not be achieved in our lifetime, the world is moving in the right direction.
Here’s a list of nine celebratory things that happened for women and girls in 2020 that serve as a reminder to keep up the fight to achieve gender equality worldwide.
1. Sudan banned FGM.
It is estimated that as many as 86% of women and girls in Sudan have undergone FGM, the cruel process of intentionally altering or injuring the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, practiced across cultures and countries. The country outlawed the practice in July and now anyone who performs FGM will be subjected to three years in prison.
Women’s rights advocates praised the country’s decision but warned that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased harmful practices against women and girls, might restrict the ability to inform people of the new restriction.
2. Two sub-Saharan countries lifted bans prohibiting pregnant girls from attending school.
Discriminatory laws have stopped girls from finishing their education and put them at risk of falling behind their peers in Tanzania and Sierra Leone over the past several years. Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio announced in March that the country would end its ban on pregnant girls attending school in an effort to create a more inclusive nation. Tanzania followed suit in April and said it would also start allowing pregnant girls to attend regular school.
3. Indigenous women were elected to government positions around the world.
Globally, Indigenous people, who disproportionately live in extreme poverty, are discriminated against and excluded from opportunities to help make decisions that impact their everyday lives. In 2020, from New Zealand to the US, Indigenous women were elected to positions of power that will allow them to better advocate for the needs within their communities.
A record number of Native American women were elected to US Congress in November. Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, was reelected to represent New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and a few months later was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden as interior secretary. Haaland will be the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.
Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was also reelected to represent Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, while Cherokee Nation member Rep. Yvette Herrell won her House seat in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appointed Nanaia Mahuta, a Māori cabinet member in the Sixth Labour Government since 2017, as the first Indigenous woman foreign minister.
4. Spain approved a law to count all non-consensual sex as rape.
A bill to ban all sexual violence in Spain, known as “Only Yes Means Yes,” passed in March right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all forms of abuse against women spiked worldwide. Reported sexual assault cases reached record numbers in 2019, according to the human rights organization Geoviolencia Sexual. Under the law, any penetration without consent will be seen as rape and is punishable by between four and 10 years in jail.
The decision, which came after protesters, activists, and rape survivors called on the government to reform the law, made Spain the 10th European country to define sex without consent as rape.
5. Scotland made period products free.
Labour MSP Monica Lennon first introduced the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill to make period products free this spring, and the legislation finally went into effect in November. Period products are now available free of charge in Scotland to students and anyone who needs them as part of a government-supported scheme.
Plan International UK found that 1 in 10 girls in the UK can’t afford to buy menstrual products, and 49% have missed an entire day of school because of their period. Lennon initially introduced the law in response to the many women and girls who experienced period poverty and were being referred to food banks and charities to access period products.
Scotland is the first country to pass a law making period products free and is setting an example for the rest of the world as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put more people who menstruate at risk of experiencing period poverty.
6. Greece elected an environmentalist as its first woman president.
Greece kicked off 2020 by making history and elected Katerina Sakellaropoulou as its first female president in January. Sakellaropoulou, known for her work as the chairperson of an environmental law society, is also a refugee rights advocate. Her appointment came on the heels of criticism about the lack of women represented in Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ cabinet.
For a country far behind in the number of women in senior political positions, Sakellaropoulou’s win was considered a major step toward equal representation in government.
7. Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to be elected vice president in the US.
Kamala Harris, one of only three women to ever be nominated to run for vice president in the US, accomplished many firsts in the 2020 presidential election. The California senator is the first Black person, South Asian person, and woman to become vice president-elect in American history. The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants won alongside President-elect Joe Biden with the most votes ever cast for a presidential ticket.
Harris made sure to set an example for all women and girls who want to achieve their dreams in her first speech as vice president-elect.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she said.
8. Two countries cracked down on the gender pay gap.
Women around the world make 77 cents for every dollar made by a man, which attributes to widespread income inequality and poverty. Countries are gradually holding themselves accountable to try to close the gap.
New Zealand passed an Equal Pay Amendment Bill to ensure that employees are not paid less because of their gender in July. The bill specifically aims to ensure that women in historically underpaid female-dominated industries are paid equally as men for the same work.
A few months later, Spain implemented a law in October to ensure that companies do not perpetuate the gender pay gap. The country started requiring companies to release salary information or receive a €187,000 ($220,000) fine. Large companies also have to report a four-year plan for balancing the number of men and women employees.
9. Women leaders led some of the world’s stronger COVID-19 response plans.
As countries struggle to address the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the leaders who managed to get their relief efforts right all had one trait in common –– they happened to be women.
While only 10% of countries have women as national leaders, countries led by women have performed better during the pandemic. Women-led countries introduced stay-at-home orders earlier and had fewer deaths than male counterparts, according to the Conversation. The successful leadership of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and more have demonstrated the value of having women in high-level decision-making positions.