Sur 24 – Women: Movements, successes and obstacles – Letter to the readers

Albertina de Oliveira Costa

Guest Editor

Women: Movements, successes and obstacles

In recent decades there have been drastic changes in the social status of women. From the second half of the twentieth century women have emerged as one of the greatest collective forces of the contemporary world. The large scale entry of women into the work force of the industrial world revolutionised traditional social ties. A considerable increase in women’s levels of education, the availability of more effective contraceptives and the decline in fertility rates led to the appearance of movements for greater autonomy and rights. Some of these have been very successful and have achieved changes to the legal system which have allowed women to rid themselves of elegal restrictions that had relegated them to a place of civil minority.

However, despite the demands which have been met and the numerous victories and successful movements, there are still enormous discrepancies between the rights of men and women.

Legal advances since the creation of the The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, have proved to be more formal than effective. In addition, physical coercion, central to the unequal structure of relationships between the sexes is a lingering, constant threat. A greater presence of women in the public arena comes with alarming rates of gender violence. Moreover, in spite of sexual and reproductive rights being recognised as human rights at the turn of the century, the conservative attack on gender ideology has been gaining growing support and has been undermining achievements.

Another paradox is the fact that although the visible presence of women in society has increased considerably, this has not resulted in an increase in political participation nor in their occupation of positions in courts of law. Despite legal incentives, the political participation of women on a global scale is still very low (22 per cent).

Achievements in the economic arena also leave a lot to be desired. Whilst women have demonstrated their incredible capacity for organisation, argumentation and negotiation, as well as their powers of persuasion, the process of rearticulating the world economic system has hindered the introduction of the new generation of social rights which was pledged at the Vienna, Cairo and Beijing conferences.

The beneficial effect of incorporating women into the workplace, reducing inequality between men and women also appears to have reached its limit. There are still significant disparities in pay and in access to different types of occupation, as well as insurmountable barriers to promotion to the top of professional careers. Above all the unequal division of domestic work remains intact which leads to the overburdening of women. Precarious social apparatus and poor social policies relegate the practice of care to the family environment, where women are mainly responsible for housework and for caring for children, the sick and the elderly. Although women have entered the public arena of work, men continue to be absent in the invisible sphere of domestic work. As such, this unequal division of domestic work and of care is one of the obstacles to women entering and remaining in the workforce, as well as to the possibility of their active participation in political life.

Having in mind this scenario of unequal rights, in which inequalities deepen between regions and between the women of different regions, with the Global South being penalised, this edition is entirely devoted to women and their struggle in the search for equal rights. It is devoted to their successes and failures, a winding path, which sometimes gets closer and sometimes gets further from the achievement of gender equality. This is a changing and multi-faceted scenario which makes it difficult to evaluate achievements so far and what is still to unfold. As a whole, SUR 24, the first edition of the Journal to be written entirely by women, seeks to provide a wide vision, including diagnoses and discussion on ostensive discrimination suffered by women, as well as giving a voice to silent discrimination.

The first section of articles are on inequality of an economic nature. Chiara Capraro (Italy) claims that the issue of taxes is central to the full implementation of human rights, with a high impact on gender justice. A more equal fiscal policy would particularly favour a correction in distortions in the market economy that falls back on unpaid work done by women in reducing the provision of public services. Whilst Pilar Arcidiácono (Argentina) looks at the theme of redistributive policies and examines the case of the Argentinian social programme “Universal Child Allowance”, focussing on a litigious initiative to revert the exclusion of imprisoned mothers – who have their children up to four years of age with them – as possible beneficiaries.

Unpaid work done by women is also the subject of a sub-group of articles that deals specifically with the question of care and how the unequal division of this occupation impacts the lives of women and impedes gender equality. According to Laura Pautassi (Argentina), the care crisis which exploded in Latin America in the last decade was due, on the one hand, to demographic transition, and on the other to the depletion in family strategies which made women responsible for reproductive work, illustrating the absence of public policy and social apparatus in the care of young children, the sick and the elderly. Embedded in the principle of recognition of care as a human right, she proposes an agenda of social policies aimed at gender. Hermínia Gonzalvez Torralbo (Spain) examines the crisis in care from the angle of international migration and shows how transformations in social well being policies, within the framework of capitalist globalisation, have made clear the decisive role of women who migrate alone, without their families, in the global care networks. In her comparative research between Brazil, France and Japan Helena Hirata (Brazil/Japan), came to a similar conclusion. Her study shows how, in different societies, the many parties involved in care – the state, market, family and philanthropy – come together and act in an unequal, assymetric way. She also shows how the central position of women in the many different modalities of international sexual division of labour, clearly show a racial and ethnic division of work.

The second section of articles is focussed on feminist movements fighting inequality in terms of the political participation of women.

Souad Eddouada (Morocco) analyses the challenges that the implementation of the Family code of 2004 represents in Morocco. This incorporates the demands of the feminist movement from a secular approach, disassociated from the principles of Islam, in terms of family relationships, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance and she suggests an alternative approach of gender equality, based on principles that precede the reform.

Nayereh Tohidi (Iran) provides an historic panorama of the feminist movement in Iran from 1905, revealing contradictions in the statute of women’s rights in a country that combines a high level of education and low fertility rates, with reduced participation in the work force and in parliament, as well as the curtailment through customs based on the Islamic law of sharia. She stresses that, despite the obstacles, the women’s movement is alive and active.

An evaluation of the implementation of quota laws that the majority of Latin American countries have sanctioned in order to guarantee wider participation of women shows that the effectiveness of the mechanism has varied due to its format and the way it is linked to the electoral system. Despite subtle advances, there are still a number of obstacles to women’s political representation. Lucía Martelotte (Argentina) postulates shunning the claim for quotas in its current format, in favour of a demand for parity.

The contribution of black feminism is highlighted by Djamila Ribeiro (Brazil), who stresses inequalities within the Brazilian feminist movement, which would find it difficult to recognise black women as political participants. She advocates the importance of thinking in terms of intersections between class, race and gender in building a new civilisational framework.

Based on experience at the 13th Forum of AWID, held last September in Salvador (Brazil) and on a campaign launched by the organisation on social networks, Semanur Karaman (Turkey) looks at the issue of transnational solidarity between women. In the article the author emphasises that for solidarity to achieve its objective of perfecting feminism through a movement that brings together diverse movements, overcoming economic, gender, race and social class barriers, the women involved must be alert to the way in which their solidarity materialises and the context to which it is directed.

Two articles discuss reproductive rights. According to Diya Uberoi (USA) and Beatriz Galli (Brazil), regulation of conscientious objection should take into account the rights of those providing medical services in exercising their moral and religious convictions and women’s rights to health. The authors map conscientious objection regulation policies in Latin America and stress the importance of legally guaranteeing women’s fundamental rights. Sylvia Tamale (Uganda) discusses the legal, religious and traditional obstacles in obtaining access to contraception and the insurmountable barrier met by the demand for legalisation of abortion in Uganda, despite ratification of the Maputo Protocol in 2010.

The next section brings together analyses with regards to different forms of gender violence. In recent decades, argues Natalia Gherardi (Argentina), solid standardisation has been established in international law for the prevention, punishment and eradication of violence against women (CEDAW 1979, Belem do Para Convention 1994). Nevertheless, she claims, alarming levels of violence persist and there are numerous challenges in both the implementation of laws and in monitoring them.

In Egypt the increase in episodes and in the level of violence in cases of sexual assault during protests led to mobilisations aimed at condemnation and criminalisation. However, says Mariam Kirollos (Egypt), if the protests of January 2011, in Tahir Square and the fall of Mubarak created optimistic expectations among human rights activists, which finally happened some years later, the law itself is a dead letter and has had practically no impact on public acceptance of assault.

In Brazil the Maria da Penha law is now ten years old. It was considered a milestone victory as it was the culmination of a campaign at the forefront of the feminist movement and was put together by a consortium of feminist organisations. Wania Pasinato (Brazil) weighs up its implementation, challenges and obstacles and pays particular attention to analysis of controversial legislative bills which could potentially distort it.

Finally, Mariana Joffily (Brazil) tries to understand why sexual violence perpetrated during the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone were not exposed at the time of transition to democracy and concludes that a space for re-signifying this type of crime could only be constructed decades later, following a series of social and legal victories in gender equality.

In the knowledge that achieving rights for women only happens through the involvement and dedication of women themselves, this edition tells the stories of a number of individuals who dedicate their lives to fighting inequality and strengthening the feminist cause.

Interviews – Three outstanding feminists, the Italian, Silvia Federici, the Brazilian, Sonia Correa and the Bolivian, Maria Galindo, the latter in partnership with the Revista DR, were interviewed for this edition.

Silvia Federici (Italy) harbinger of the current debate on the crisis in care, remembers different moments in her intellectual path and is optimistic about the practices of new generations of feminists. Federici, an untiring militant who was one of the first to raise debate on the importance of domestic work in the subordination of women, when at the beginning of the 1970s, together with Maria Rosa della Costa and Selma James, she launched the movement “Salaries for Domestic Work”, with the aim of drawing attention to this labour which is necessary to the functioning of capitalism.

Fulfilling the role of critical consciousness in this edition, Sonia Correa (Brazil), in contraposition to the use of the category “woman” advocates the use of the category gender, which allows us to overcome the binary model of the sexes, detaching feminism from the female body. Correa, Coordinator at the Observatório de Políticas de Sexualidade, warns of an increasingly serious conservative restoration on a global scale and takes a critical look at the role of emerging countries in the debate on sexual and reproductive rights.

For the militant anarcha-feminist Maria Galindo (Bolivia), founder of the Mujeres Creando movement in Bolivia, the priority should be the construction of a social fabric that allows for the action of women as political participants, as well actions of “concrete politics” such as collective savings management cooperatives. Unlike Correa, she criticises the use of the category gender, which she considers to be part of the neo-liberal agenda to frame the cause of women.

Profiles – This edition also has profiles of five young women who dedicate their lives to bringing improved living conditions to the lives of women in the southern hemisphere: the Kurdish militant, Ayla Akat Ata; Chinese journalist, Yiping Cai; Egyptian activist, Yara Sallam; South African lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe; and the South Korean historian, Christine Ahn.

Institutional panorama – Finally, with a view to contributing to fortifying the women’s cause, we have a conversation with the consultant Ellen Sprenger (The Netherlands) on international trends in the field of financing organisations that defend women’s rights, in which she gives some tips on how to raise funds and build solid relations with financers.

Art – This edition is the first in the history of the Journal to have an illustration on the cover. The illustration is by the artist Catarina Bessell (Brazil) and is the image of a women’s strike organised in Poland last October, protesting the tightening of legislation on abortion in the country. The image is one in a series done especially for SUR 24 which also includes illustrations of images of women’s strikes in Argentina in the same month, in response to a particularly brutal episode of violence against a woman in that country.


Maria A.C. Brant
Executive Editor

Oliver Hudson
Managing Editor

First of all we would like to offer our special thanks to Albertina de Oliveira Costa, guest editor of this edition of SUR. A long-time friend and adviser of Sur Journal, Albertina was invited to contribute to this edition because of her well-known history as a feminist and as an academic dedicated to the subject of women, but her competence and dedication far surpassed our expectations, This edition would not have been possible without her.

We are also extremely grateful to the following people who helped on this edition: Adriana Guimarães, Akemi Kamimura, Alana Moraes, Barney Whiteoak, Bruna Angotti, Carmen Hein de Campos, Celina Lagrutta, Courtney Crumpler, Daniel Lopes, Evandro Lisboa Freire, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Scire, Glenda Mezarobba, Hildete Pereira de Melo, Ione Koseki, Ivi Oliveira, Lena Lavinas, Jane do Carmo, Jaqueline Pitanguy, Josefina Cicconetti, Karen Lang, Kelly Komatsu Agopyan, Lia Zanotta Machado, Luis Felipe Miguel, Luiza Bodenmüller, Maité Llanos, Marcela Vieira, Maria Rosa Lombardi, Mariana Giorgetti Valente, Mariana Patrício, Murphy McMahon, Natália de Araújo Lima, Pedro Maia Soares, Renato Barreto, Sebastián Porrua Schiess, Sheila de Carvalho, Tatiana Roque, Vivian Calderoni e Yumi Garcia dos Santos. We would particularly like to thank Jessica Horn, our guest editor for Africa.

We would also like to mention the organisers of the 13th Forum of AWID, held in Salvador (Brazil) last September, for opening their doors to us and helping in contacting participants. The event made us even more certain of the urgency and relevance of the topic we chose for this edition. Thanks are also due to the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, University of Texas, Austin, for our continued partnership and to the Revista DR, for our new partnership.

We are particularly grateful, of course, to the authors of this edition, as well as to the editorial team and the Executive Committee of the Journal. A special welcome to Maryuri Mora Grisales who has joined the team. We would also like to mention the Communications team at Conectas Human Rights for their dedication on this edition, especially Laura Daudén. Our continued gratitude for the support and guidance given by Conectas Directors – Jessica Carvalho Morris, Juana Kweitel and Marcos Fuchs.

Finally we would like to make special mention to Ana Cernov, who coordinated Conectas’ South-South programme over the publication of the last four editions of SUR and who left the organisation at the end of this edition. We will truly miss her competence and dedication, and especially her kindness towards the team and all our other colleagues within the organisation, but we are sure her gentleness and intelligence will be appreciated and will leave their mark wherever she is.


This edition of Revista SUR was made possible thanks to the support of the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Oak Foundation, Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), as well as several anonymous donors.