Solidarity Language of Rights Cultures of Respect 31March 01, 2023

31. Women’s Rights: Frontlines in the global feminist movement

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

How should we describe the state of the global struggle for women’s rights?  It is surely impossible to make a single overarching assessment– even as battles are won on one front, major challenges remain – or emerge – on another. Yet if it is hard to generalize about progress, we can at least note that conditions are scarcely favourable. To pick only three global trends – authoritarian rule, identity-based exclusion and economic instability – none of these help advance the women’s movement. As International Women’s Day 2023 approaches, we invite three feminist leaders to assess this moment in their respective fields.  Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center in New York, Hala Al Karib, Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the  Horn of Africa, and Mary Jane Real, until recently co-director of the Urgent Action Fund for Women – Asia Pacific take stock, and they are worried.

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The Interview

‘There’s a right-wing backlash against us. We’re in a different world.’

For Mary-Jane Real, hostility to feminist organizing and advocacy is increasing as human rights increasingly come under attack, and as women become more assertive against structures that restrict their freedom. Hala Al Karib agrees: “I work with women protestors in Sudan, and I have seen what happens to them, not only from the military who specifically target them, but also from their fellow protestors who, for example, tell them: “If you want to come to the protest, you shouldn’t be looking like that, you cannot go to the front lines. So the young women find themselves fighting multiple battles.”


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. 

AA: I’m Akwe Amosu, with Episode 31 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world. And something a little different this time – we’re devoting the whole show to three women’s rights leaders on the state of their movement and its challenges. 

AA: When the idea of a group discussion on the struggle for women’s rights was first proposed, I wondered why one would enter at such a high level, rather than focusing on a challenge where progress was stalled. Wasn’t the broad legitimacy of women’s rights as a field of campaigning, advocacy and redress pretty much uncontroversial at this point, irreversibly entrenched by tens of thousands of women at the Beijing conference back in in 1995? Only four out of 193 UN members have declined to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known by its acronym CEDAW. So – perhaps we should choose a specific issue that was more contested? But five minutes into the conversation I realised that, on the contrary, the big picture was exactly what we needed to discuss. For my three guests, despite the appearance of a consensus, there are serious reversals taking place just under the surface. We take the status quo for granted at our peril.  

AA: Okay, wonderful to have three guests in the studio at once. Let’s get you all into the room. Uh, let’s start with you, Hala. Tell me who you are and where you work. 

Hala al Karib: My name is Hala Al Karib and I am the regional director of a women rights network that works across the Horn of Africa. 

AA: Thank you. And Jane? 

Mary Jane Real: Yeah, I’m Mary Jane Real. I’m based in the Philippines. I recently stepped down from a post as co-lead of Urgent Action Fund, Asia and the Pacific. 

AA: Great. And Akila? 

Akila Radhakrishnan: Hi, I’m Akila Radhakrishnan. I’m the president of the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization focused on gender equality, based in New York. 

AA: So we’re not going to try and encapsulate feminist leadership in the human rights sphere in the next 30 minutes, but I’m curious to learn what are your top reflections about the state of feminist leadership in human rights right now? What women’s experience is, how well their leadership is accepted, how well their concerns are being heard, and also what you’re worried about. Akila, why don’t we start with you? When we first talked about doing this, you were talking about the Beijing Conference, a kind of assessment of where we are. What are your thoughts? 

AR: So I think one thing that’s interesting about where we’re at is I think people know they’re supposed to say they’re for women’s rights, you know, in every context. Now you do have a general sense that you need to have women on a panel, right? That it’s okay to have women in leadership. But I think that surface level is hiding the fact that underneath, it’s not necessarily feminist and it doesn’t really take into account what it means to meaningfully engage with women’s rights, what is actually needed. I mean, I work on abortion. So for years, right, we’ve now moved in a place where people talk about sexual and reproductive rights. We talk about family planning. But you have so many organizations that work on family planning that will not touch abortion. You have so many organizations that, you know, will say, “well, we focus on contraception – you don’t have to touch abortion in order to meaningfully address maternal mortality.” But how is that possibly true when you know it’s a third of the reason for maternal mortality around the world? You know, you have people like Melinda Gates spending billions of dollars on family planning with that policy specifically. And when we challenge that notion, you know, we’re challenging money, we’re challenging people who are telling us that, “what you want to talk about is controversial. What you want to talk about is marginal.” But to us it’s essential and at the core, you don’t separate out the different pieces of a framework. They go hand in hand. 

MJR: I want to say something related to what you’re saying in terms of how even with this acceptance of women’s human rights, women’s leadership and feminist leadership is not quite up there. I remember the initial struggles have been how do we recognize the violations that are gender-specific or specific to women or LGBTI activists? For example, sexuality-baiting to delegitimize an activist is actually a form of violation. For example, they’ll call you, you are a whore, you are a family-breaker. You are a pedophile, because you are trying to push against the norms that patriarchy and people who subscribe to patriarchy are comfortable with. So if you’re being delegitimized by being labeled all these sexual innuendos, then even you yourself begin to doubt whether you’re actually leading and you feel attacked. And the other aspect of that then is that you don’t get the support that you actually could get if you’d been legitimized as a women human rights defender or human rights defender in general. 

AA: Hala, is that coming up for you? 

HAK: Absolutely. You know, the whole slogan of “women rights are human rights.” It has always been a tokenism because you know, specifically in Africa, personal status laws and family laws are being completely messed up and left to the various political actors to manipulate religion and traditions and suppress women’s rights within the family institution. And the level of subjugation and abuse that women are encountering, you know, inside the family, it’s never been looked or addressed as part of the human rights framework, which is quite a shame because this is what human rights should be about. And it’s actually connected to what Akila and what Jane are saying. You know, we have women who are struggling within the framework of family law. They are trying to support women to have better rights. They are fighting with the state institution, with traditional institution, with religious institutions, but their struggle was never acknowledged or recognized, my organization being one of those organizations, other feminist organization in the region are also taking the same agenda, but it was never placed right where it’s supposed to be, as part of the rights battles. 

AA: I mean, so far, the three of you are talking about the issues that women are confronting and, to a casual observer, they don’t sound very different to the issues that were being confronted 20 years ago, 30 years ago. So I’m curious, is that just because these remain the most prominent concerns that you face? Or are there new issues that you as women leaders see that are particularly troubling to you? 

HAK: Well, I think the understanding of the, if you’d like me to say that, repressive institutions of the political powers, it’s becoming much more clear and they don’t shy away from that. And so their attacks and the repression on the women movement, becomes much more explicit. And that’s really something that we need to pay attention to. While in the past, yes, we were subject to attacks, it was very peripheral attacks, it wasn’t as direct as now, you know, which is very unfortunate because the human rights activists and the mainstream human rights, still they don’t recognize that. They don’t recognize how the attacks on women and their rights is actually an attack on the human rights. Yeah. 

AR: And maybe I’ll add here. I think, Akwe, to your question as well, and this really reflects on what Hala is talking about. I think it’s because we haven’t meaningfully addressed these issues. We give more lip service to these issues, now, we talk about it, we say we’re worried about violence against women, we’re all committed to ending it. But when it comes to questions of how do you get down into family law, how do you get down to up-end the very structures that societies are built on, that concern then becomes, “oh, well, you know, maybe we take some small steps. Maybe we focus on, you know, rape in the context of war,” right? But are we focusing on the context of how societal institutions, inheritance laws, the way that marriage is conducted, which uphold society are actually, you know, the components of what we need to be addressing? And I think that, to me, is a little bit of this disconnect in the last 20 years, is, we say more things now, but have we actually meaningfully addressed them and is that why the issues we’re talking about aren’t all that different? 

AA:  And Jane, I heard in what you were saying a sense that there might be a bit of a backlash that we’ve seen women become more prominent as leaders in the human rights movement and that they’re now getting targeted and punished for speaking up and standing up and being prominent. Is that right? Is that part of where this attack you’re describing comes in?  

MJR: I think the attacks has always been there. There’s just been more virulent and, uh, intense, I think in a context of a general backlash on human rights, but also in a context where women advocates and leaders are asserting more and being more upfront and challenging with structures that Akila actually mentioned. I mean, look at this debate on abortion in the U.S. It seems like we’re back again to where we were before Roe versus Wade. And that attacks are not going to stop. It’ll just intensify because now there’s just a more consolidated right-wing, more fundamentalist backlash against this, right? So I, I think we’re in a different world. We were before at a place of disadvantage. Now we became stronger and now we are being pushed back because we are becoming more threatening in the face of more conservative forces that we have to fight against. 

AA: And Hala, I know that you, you work in the Horn of Africa. Is this pattern something that you also see at the grassroots level, when you are meeting women who are taking leadership roles in Uganda or in Sudan or in Somalia, Ethiopia? Are they experiencing what Jane is talking about in the same way? 

HAK: Absolutely. You know, it goes across from a recognition of the political power of women and then subsequently a backlash, you know, which is a systemic attack on women’s human rights and their presence and participations in public spaces. I mean, I work with women protestors in Sudan, and I have seen what happened to them within the protest, not only from the military who specifically target them, you know, sexual violence and beating and detention and threatening and blackmailing, but also from their fellow protestors who, for example, tell them: “If you want to come to the protest, you shouldn’t be looking like that. You should dress in a certain way. If you are going to be part of the protest, you cannot go to the front lines.” So the young women, they find themselves fighting multiple battles. And I think, you know, this is all coming from a very strategic problem that the women movement has been, you know, not looking at our struggle as a political struggle, not strategizing, you know, as a political power and a political force, and not agreeing on minimal political agenda. We understand our diversity and we understand that we are different, but we really have to start, you know, reacting on that level because the aggression is coming from that place. 

AA: Akila, you’re nodding. 

AR: Yeah, I mean, I think one thing that Hala’s saying that really resonates with me is the idea that if women are to step into leadership, into power, we’re supposed to be a particular way, right? So I think about work that’s being done around women’s participation in peace processes. They say women belong at the table, not because they represent an important part of the population. It’s because, they say, women are collaborative. They bring the perspectives of their communities and their families. And they may, and that’s fine, but we’ve created a rationale for why women should be there that has a certain amount of like a ‘goodness’ towards it. How do you dress? How do you behave? Are you being collaborative? I remember I was talking to someone who works inside the UN on issues of designing peace processes and you know, we were talking about women and they said to me, “you know, the problem is the women, sometimes it’s complicated. They don’t all want the same thing!” You know, as Hala is saying, they have diversity, there’s not one voice. So you have many women and they’re bringing up different issues and it doesn’t necessarily help resolve things. 

AA: So what’s happened somehow is that women have got the door open, they’ve signaled that they want in, they want to be part of the conversation, they’re demanding space, but the people inside the room are saying,  

MJR: Yes, you behave a certain way –  

AA: You have to behave a certain way but you must only also talk about things that we think women should care about. You are not actually welcome in the full conversation.  

MJR: Yeah. But also this trend of silencing the women for example, I mean, I was just recalling during the Covid there’s this high incidence of gender-based violence increasingly, I mean, that’s a trend actually across the world, not only in the Philippines. So women’s rights issues were up there. And this Miss Universe, actually, she won the title globally and she expressed her support for this mass-based women’s organization that’s been there for 20 years that the military linked with the Communist Party of the Philippines. So the national task force set up by the government to address terrorism labeled this Miss Universe and red-tagged her for expressing her support to this women’s group. So you could see that it’s so difficult to actually articulate women’s issues or step up into women’s leadership when you are now against these bigger forces of governmental agenda to address terrorism that’s now aligned into the counterterrorism global agenda. 

AA: So Hala was saying that women haven’t come yet to the point of strategizing well, to deal with this. That there’s a whole political task now ahead of women, human rights activists and leaders if they want to move beyond this stage. I’d just be curious to hear from the three of you where you are seeing women begin to engage with the problem that you are describing and figure out how to move the ball forward. 

HAK: I think it’s critical to acknowledge, that we’re different. Uh, I mean 

AA: That women are different? 

HAK: Yeah. Yeah. So the diversity of the women demands, diversity of their positions, you know, and diversity of their engagements with the human rights framework, you know, and what they want from it and what matters to them and what does it matter to them, and based on where they are and who they are. So that’s really critical, and I find that one of the biggest obstacle – and I think wherever we are, we really need to be critical towards western world and western feminism, leading, you know, and shaping our concepts of who we are, you know, as part of the women movement. Because we get distracted and engage in an agenda that often doesn’t relate, you know, or speak to our real issues. So for us, we really need to do our homework, you know, kind of deconstruct and rebuild and reconstruct, you know, who we are as feminists at this point in time and what do we want, and look around and accept the fact that, you know, we have different levels of engagements because that’s the only way that we will be able to move forward. Yeah. 

AA: And in practical terms, what are you seeing women do to overcome the obstacles that they’re facing? Akila, you’ve got some thoughts on this? We’ve said that they’re facing these obstacles, but I’m imagining that there’s some creative strategic responses going on out there. 

AR: Yeah, no, I mean, I think there’s different models of how women are embodying power. So things like co-leadership where women’s rights organizations are creating institutionalized frameworks for shared power and shared responsibility. It also takes the burden off of individuals, right? To say that I’m the one person who has to be in charge and responsible. I know that Jane comes from a model of co- leadership, so I’d love her reflections on that as well. 

MJR: Yeah, previous to that, I’ve run a network of women and women leaders and activists in Asia Pacific on my own. And I had to do fundraising, I had to do political representation, I had to lead strategic thinking, I have to do management, and then I have to be involved in programs. And I thought that was just normal, that this is how things are done. And I bore that burden alone and burnt out. And then I thought, if this is the model of leadership that we all have to adopt, I don’t think I’ll survive. And I didn’t want to lead any organization again, it’s only when I was offered to co-lead Urgent Action Fund, Asia and the Pacific, that I decided to give it another try. Because if the offer was just for me to simply lead it on my own, I would’ve said no right from the start. But the fact that the initial founding committee have agreed that we put in a co-leadership, then I agreed. And it was funny because when we were discussing, so who’s going to do what, my other colleague, she quickly chose resource mobilization, and I was interested in programs. She has the wardrobe for the part and so I didn’t resist! So it worked out seamlessly in that sense. And we were friends before, we already had points of common working relationship that allowed us to lead together. And as you said, it was that in itself of just sharing the task was a relief and having someone that you could rely on as a sounding board, as support, as someone that you know wouldn’t throw you under the bus, but will continually support you, was a different model altogether. But it has its challenges too, because it’s not always that co-leadership could work. There are so many factors that you have to consider for that model to be feasible.  

HAK: I think what we’re trying to do within our network is – and I don’t know, we’re doing it subconsciously, and we’re doing it because it has to be done – so we have a body called a management committee; so I don’t anymore make decisions as a director of my own, you know, so my decision has to be consolidated and supported by two other members of the team, you know, like, um, our head of finance and admin and then our programs head. So that step was excellent. And then also, uh, trying as much as possible to push our board to become more like a working board. So we defer a lot of critical decisions back to them. So it’s a process, you know? And, and one of the things that I have learned that co-leadership or collective leadership, you know, it’s also something we learned, and this is what I keep telling the women organizations that I’m sitting in their board, that we really need to nourish and support, you know, people who are part of the institution, they are committed enough, you know, to, uh, to grow and rise into that, into that role. 

MJR: Yeah, we’re talking about co-leadership in the context of organizations or institutions. But for mass movements, this has become more important and critical, particularly when many of the leaders are attacked and killed in, in, for example, in indigenous community movements, it’s almost a form of survival that they actually have a co-leadership because many of the leaders are killed or arrested. And it’s so difficult to continue the work of the movement if you don’t have that co-leadership or collective – they call it, I think more appropriately, collective leadership – in place, and that they’re able to continue the work in spite of the fact that they’re continuously attacked and many of them killed and arrested. 

AA: Thank you, Jane. And Akila, I’m interested that Jane just brought in the movements. I have a sense that where you are looking at large social movements and mass mobilizations, that some of the concerns you have been raising around, you know, lack of acknowledgement, lack of recognition are less acute. And I’m thinking particularly of, of seeing these amazing young people in Myanmar out and mobilizing and organizing, there seemed to be a huge number of women involved at grassroots level, teenagers, in their twenties just taking initiative. So I wonder how far there’s already an organic shift away from these questions about the formal structures and people taking up leadership because it’s in front of them needing to be taken up.  

AR: Yeah I think it, it’s not dissimilar to what happened in Sudan, right? You’ve seen the women at the forefront of these movements, right? And I think it’s, I think for some women they’re seeing it as an opportunity to up-end societies that have oppressed them for a long time, right? So it’s not just a response to the moment, but it’s a response and an opportunity to say, can we build back a society where we are more in charge, we can lead the process and lead the way. So I think it’s incredibly inspiring and I do think there’s a challenge on all of us to think about how that then translates to where you have questions of formalized leadership. It’s happening in Sudan, it’s happening in Myanmar. As questions and conversations happen around the political future of the country, those women are not at the table. Patriarchal structures and ideas take back over who should be at the table. 

AA: Well, that makes me want to ask about, um, the current surge of mobilization of young women in the United States, uh, post the Dobbs ruling and the decision to reverse rights to abortion and reproductive health. And I’m curious whether you see the same problem there, because what we are reading at least is that very large numbers of young women who’ve never bothered to register to vote before are getting involved or getting engaged. Huge sums of money are being raised. We saw a case of a woman who was body shamed by a white male politician, uh, who suddenly received, if I’m remembering rightly, quarter a million dollars 

AR: Over a million, if I remember right, 

AA: Okay. For from just ordinary people’s contributions to say to that politician, you’re not speaking for us. And so is that a place where it isn’t really so easy for the patriarchy to determine what happens with the mobilization? 

AR: I think this is a fascinating question to me. Um, and it goes back to also where we started this conversation. So yes, it’s there, right? And it’s not dissimilar to any of the other situations that we’re talking about. We’re also seeing with young women, they’re getting more comfortable with the idea of what their own criminality could look like. How are they going to help their friends get abortions? Are they going to break laws in order to support people? And I think the answer is yes, and I think there’s comfort with what they’re doing. And again, I think that’s that power here. I don’t know if it’s the patriarchy, but I think it may be the tradition of women’s rights organizations that get in the way because at the same time that this mobilization is happening, that the resource mobilization is happening – and you know, organizations like abortion funds are doing essential work to get people access to services – you still have a set leadership of reproductive rights organizations that are far better resourced than these movements, and they’re sitting in the room with the politicians discussing, how do we move forward? So I do think, again, we need to think about what that looks like. Like, because what’s happening on the ground is more transformative. 

AA: Would you say that’s true in Philippines, Jane? 

MJR: Yes. I mean, the form of organizing and mobilization is so different now than when I was a student activist. I mean, the whole digital space has opened up new ways of protesting, new articulations of dissent and resistance, and it has also attracted a different crowd. I mean, I’m not as digital native as my niece is, you know, and therefore, by itself, we already have a different engagement in how we relate with each other, how we relate with technology, and how we express our opinions and our voices. And I think there is deliberate effort to reach out to these new, uh, young women leaders and activists. But as Akila is saying, there’s structures that are still in place that prevents them from easily entering and being in positions of power and leadership. And I think that’s on us, the older women and feminists who see this and who should actually be more conscious about opening these spaces. But it’s not easy because it could also threaten us, and it could also ask us to question ourselves and our own relevance and where’s our role now in this new configuration of the movement? 

HAK: And what Akila, and what you were saying, Jane, that many of us in the older generations are also complicit with the patriarchal institutions in, in some levels, you know? And most of us, we have this, you know, vision in terms of how the women movement should look like, you know? And it’s very difficult for us to accept that things are really changing and moving forward, and we, you know, we need to enable the younger generations much more. Some of us are acting, you know, actively against the younger women, which is such a shame. 

AA: Could we have an example? 

HAK: Like, you know, the group of young women who are fighting for their place in the protest movements, for example, in Sudan. And so many of the older generation, they are, you know, the traditional accusation, you know, that they are not considering the context. 

AA: Oh, because those young women are saying something like, we want into the leadership, we want to be recognized. And others are saying, you are weakening our movement. 

HAK:  Exactly. And we want to be part of the movement the way we are, you know, and it’s up to us how we do it. We want to be at the frontline of the protest. We want to come to the protest dressing the way we want. We want to be able to speak and shout and raise our voices the way we want. You know, the reaction from the traditional women movement is absolutely, “no, you can’t do that. You know, you are causing more harm to the women movement,” rather than acknowledging, you know, their time, their position, you know, and their understanding of the moment. 

AA: And I guess what interests me here is that it is in these moments of crisis and high levels of mobilization, where it’s impossible for those who have authority to keep control of every aspect, and so people then seize the moment. So every crisis is an opportunity and so I’m just wondering, where would you put your bet on who’s going to win that argument? 

HAK: Well, I think time is critical. I think that, like it or not, the type of conversations that I see the young women are having right now, not only in Sudan, but in Ethiopia, in Somalia, as opposed to a conversation that, you know, we had 10, 15 years ago. You know, it’s not in our wildest dream that we could be speaking loudly about these issues! You know, we couldn’t touch on the, you know, on the sexual diversity of the women movements. Right now, the new generation are able to talk about that and with great sympathy in very conservative countries, you know, that has very heavy traditions and lots of prohibitions and laws, and they do that loudly. We couldn’t talk, assert our identity and speak about sexual violence. I mean, 10 years ago, there will be something that, oh my God, we can’t do that! You know, right now, the young women, they go out protesting sexual violence, you know, and extending solidarity to each other around sexual violence, you know, and organize a whole campaign on the streets and on social media with their faces visible, you know? So that’s very telling that in a way, you know, you can’t control it. It’s, it’s already moving forward. 

AA: Jane, you mentioned the way that people are using the digital platforms in your region. Are you also seeing this kind of irreversible, I hope, shift among young people’s taking up of the leadership in the spaces? 

MJR: So during Covid, we had one of the longest lockdowns in the world. So many people were not able to work, and it’s been so difficult to find food. And this young woman in her twenties set up the first community pantry in the whole of Philippines. She basically took out a small cart, filled it with some vegetables and rice and some basic goods, and then put a sign, “give according to your ability, take according to your needs.” And it inspired a whole movement of 3000 or so community pantries in the Philippines, because the post of that single cart went viral and people took on the spirit behind that initiative. And this woman wasn’t even thinking about, this is a Marxist, you know, response to a crisis that we’re facing. 

AA: So, so she just quoted, she just quoted the communist manifesto without realizing it!  

MJR: Exactly. And, and she didn’t even want to be identified with it. But then the potency of her leadership was actually, you could see it in the reaction of the government. They red-tagged her. They basically formally linked her to the Communist Party and said that this is an initiative that’s related to the Communist Party that’s now been labeled as terrorists, and therefore we need to outlaw. But then it created such a backlash against the government because it wasn’t just her. Now there’s 3000 community fund pantries run by people, I mean, of all walks of life. And there was no way this government could just stop that movement. 

AA: Okay, Akila, we started by saying that too much of what’s happening is the old, the atrophied, the rigid, the patriarchal. And we are ending with these very powerful images of people using the tools they have at their disposal to just up-end systems. So you started us off. How do you want us to end this conversation? 

AR: I mean, I think what’s been fascinating for me sitting in this room is we are all ourselves, people who have a role in this movement and in addressing some of these fundamental questions that we’re asking, how do we translate and create pathways for that raw power, the system’s up-ending that we ourselves may be a part of upholding? And that to me is really exciting, because I think us having this conversation is a way for us to be rethinking the models that we, even as perhaps people who are on the more progressive end, still may be guilty of doing what it is that we’re accusing others of doing. And it’s exciting to me to be continually challenging ourselves to think about what we do here. 

AA: So exciting. Thank you so much, Akila, Hala, Jane. 

AR/MJR/HAK: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

AA: Akila Radhakrishnan, Hala Al Karib, and Mary Jane Real sat down with me in South Africa in September. You’ll find their bios, suggestions for further reading and a transcript of our conversation on our website,  

AA: And that wraps up episode 31 of Strength&Solidarity. No Coda this time. Thanks for listening. We love getting your feedback. If there’s something you want to tell us, a way you think we could improve or a suggestion for a topic or a guest, please drop us a line. And likewise, if you’d like to be added to our mailing list, let us know. The address, as always, is For now though, from our producer, Peter Coccoma, and me, Akwe Amosu, see you next time.