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Women Still Face Cruelty. That’s Why They’re Still Fighting Back: Stories from 2021

Around the world, women have been speaking up and taking action. They’re doing so not exactly with one voice but are making clear that they are unsatisfied with inferior treatment and want change. At the same time, discrimination, mistreatment, and violence against women persists. We read about it in the news, see it online, and sometimes witness it in our daily lives.

I tried to catch up on some stories that capture this moment by reviewing articles in the New York Times in 2021. Although the list I’ve put together here is far from comprehensive, I was struck by the dichotomy: There are so many diverse and powerful voices uplifting women, but there remain many individuals, groups, and institutions committed to shouting those voices down.

Women in Protest: On the Road, Online, and in Politics

I begin with a story about “Auntie” Su Min, a retired factory worker of 56 who left her husband to drive from central China throughout the country. “Why do I want to take a road trip?” she sighed. “Life at home is truly too upsetting.” Sleeping in her car tent, her daily messages are shared by 1.35 million followers across different social media platforms, including her YouTube channel. “Before, I thought I was the only person in the world who wasn’t happy,” Ms. Su said in an interview. But by sharing her experience online, she said she’s realized how many people are just like her.

A young woman of 26, Brenda Dama of Kenya works long hours in Saudi Arabia as one of four million domestic housekeepers in the Gulf. But she still finds time to post sarcastic videos on TikTok. Her most viral post, “Don’t Got It,” points to all the proper working conditions she does not have. Dama is criticized by her employer and bullied by online critics, but still keeps posting because of support from her followers. And Dama is not the only domestic worker making waves on social media. Nieza Tuñacao created a TikTok series titled “OFW Diaries,” which highlights housekeeper dilemmas and reaches over a million Filipino workers. Tunacao says, “They say I am their happy pill.”

Following the military coup in Myanmar in February, a group of unionized garment workers, mostly women, broadened their efforts of trying to improve conditions within their industry and turned next to opposing the new regime. They organized protests with overseas fashion companies, successfully halting H&M, an American clothing firm, from buying garments from Myanmar plants. One union leader, Mai Ei Ei Phyu, explains why they’re protesting: “I do what I do now for my son and daughter and the next generation, so they don’t have to live under the hardships of a dictatorship as I did when I was their age.”

Harrowing Stories from Around the World

The stories we’ve covered so far have been inspirational. Sadly, there are many more stories of despair—reflecting the realities of millions of women worldwide. For example, UNICEF reports that millions of girls are at risk of child marriage. In Nepal, where great numbers of migrant workers have been driven home from the Gulf by Covid-era unemployment, one result has been a serious rise in teenage pregnancies and child marriages. The problem in Nepal is not arranged marriages (legal age of marriage is 20) but rather that, with so many unemployed in Nepal, young women see no hope for finishing school. They end up starting relationships and having children. Now they are hoping that their children will one day be able to go to school.

Children and families in Nigeria face a more deadly threat. Gangs of raiders, inspired by Boko Haram, have expanded their efforts to capture children from boarding schools in the northwestern areas of the country, seeking to ransom them for amounts approaching millions of dollars. Provincial governors have taken some action in freeing the captives yet are accused of lax policing, as well as skimming funds from the ransom.

In the U.S., the wave of brutal attacks and killings of Asian-Americans reached a peak in March and April 2021, when the beating of a Filipina woman on a New York City street was caught on surveillance video. The footage not only documented the brutal incident, but also revealed indifferent bystanders. Although there were widespread protests, these attacks continued as clear statements of ethnic prejudice

In July, the New York Times asked, How Did Allison Highwolf Die? The article told the story of Native American woman Allison Highwolf, whose death six years earlier was shrouded in suspicion. However, police declined to treat it as murder. This was yet another loss of an indigenous women in North America over the course of 200 years—centuries of tragedy that continue to reduce the indigenous population.

In the United Kingdom, government neglect of crimes against women arose in a different way. Ministers in the British Conservative government released a report recognizing that prosecutions and convictions for rape in England and Wales had dropped by half in recent years. The government apologized for its “systematic failings” to deal with the complaints of victims appropriately, even as the estimated number of rapes grew. Worse yet, it appears that only about one-fifth of rapes were reported in Great Britain during this time.

Rising Up to Make a Change

There are many more tragic stories. But the energetic campaigns of women—who have often themselves been the victims of mistreatment or abuse—provide a glimmer of hope.

Women in Argentina, for example, led in establishing a national consensus supporting legal access to abortion. (This follows the 2018 adoption of legal abortion rights in Ireland.) Professional women in the U.S., especially Black women, have taken leadership in analyzing domestic work and community activism. And in Nigeria, female leaders in numerous business fields have organized themselves as a Feminist Coalition. In Australia, March 4 Justice brought out thousands in protest of sexual assault. Their rally cry: “Enough is enough.”

Many of the powerful campaigns that support women’s issues, however, don’t involve mass protests. They happen at the individual level. Danijela Stajnfeld, a Serbian actor , left for the U.S. after she was raped, yet returned years later to accuse her attacker publicly and document it with a film, now gaining significant traction in her case.

Also rising up to make a change were four women journalists at The Washington Post, who analyzed global data on women’s unemployment after Covid-19. Their examination of labor force data from dozens of countries revealed that 54 million women were pushed out of the workforce in the first year of the pandemic.

Women around the world were affected in different ways. In Peru, after the lockdown, many women fell into the informal economy, where jobs are not regulated or protected by the government. In Thailand, travel sanctions brought collapse to tourism, a center for women’s employment. In France, women’s employment fell sharply, but the country’s safety net helped them to narrow the income gap. Despite such differences, the data reveal that many women’s employment problems are widely shared. A better understanding of women’s experiences worldwide could help identify opportunities to help them reenter the workforce.

Women are not united into a single group, nor are they focused on a single issue. But there is a resonance in the debate, which reflects wide concerns. More to the point, there are real problems in the treatment of women almost everywhere, at every level of society.

Experience has shown that the various forms of deeply rooted prejudice and discrimination—exaggerating differences by race, ethnicity, religion, and gender—last for a long time and change only slowly. But the steady buzz of critique today seems to be growing louder, making it clear that there is no good reason for the oppression of women.

Many steps must follow in order for this buzz to translate into real change, but it still has real value. With so many powerful and harrowing stories being told online, so many tragedies in the news, and so many protests in the streets, we can all spend more time thinking about what it would take—and what it would be like—to have actual equality across gender lines.

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