2011 was a year of transformations.
It began with thousands of people in the Middle East rising up to demand an end to repressive government and a say in their futures.
That spirit of transformation continued throughout the year. The world welcomed the new country of South Sudan, the culmination of a years-long peace process. A global network of activists sprang into action to thwart a policy that threatened Afghan women. The United Nations launched a new agency dedicated to guaranteeing women’s human rights worldwide.
What do all these things have in common? These successes, and others, were made possible by women—in their local communities and in global centers of power—who came together to demand change.
Women Grow the Seeds of the Arab Spring
The protests of the Arab Spring took the world by storm. They upended regimes that had reigned for decades, and women were at the center of it all.
Western stereotypes of Arab women portray them as one dimensional victims of oppression. But it was women, often young women, who sounded the call that brought people to the streets. In Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz posted a video calling on people to demonstrate on January 25—and it went viral. It started a wave that could not be stopped. And that wave continued, day after day, spreading through the region, because women kept its momentum going.
Women know that their work is not over when an old regime crumbles. In Egypt, women have again taken to the streets to demand an end to the ongoing military rule. They have been beaten and assaulted, stripped and harassed. But they’re not stepping down. Our work ahead is to stand by the brave women who helped topple dictatorships and help them protect the gains they’ve made.
Working for the Peaceful Creation of South Sudan
A generation of Sudanese people grew up in war. Women bore the brunt, struggling to sustain their families through violence. But through it all, they organized to demand peace.
The years-long peace process peaked with the creation of the world’s newest nation in July—South Sudan. With communities still recovering from decades of conflict, many worried that the split would trigger a slide back into war.
But women’s organizations refused to let that happen. Leaders like Fatima Ahmed, founder of the human rights organization Zenab for Women in Development, educated voters, trained women as election monitors and spoke out for peace.
People are still at risk, and continued violent attacks have wracked communities. But peace is more than just a one-time win—it must be nurtured and lived. So the Sudanese women’s movement continues to work for peace and for protection of women’s human rights—on both sides of the new border. Now, Fatima is hard at work advocating for women’s human rights in the review of the Sudanese constitution.
Protecting Women’s Shelters in Afghanistan
Naseema knew that her abusive husband was going to kill her if she didn’t escape. Thanks to an activist-run network of women’s shelters, she and her children were able to flee the country—and save their lives.
But under a law proposed by the Afghan government earlier this year, Naseema could have been forced to return to her husband from the shelter.
The new law would have shifted control of women’s shelters from the courageous women’s organizations that now run them to government officials who could determine entry based on virginity tests and choose to send women back to abusive husbands.
Women’s rights activists, in Afghanistan and beyond, mobilized to prevent this terrible move. And we won: the bill was scrapped. Now, Afghan women still have the freedom to turn—no questions asked—to shelters where they can escape life-threatening violence and abuse.
Launch of UN Women
For decades, advocates fought for the full recognition of women’s human rights. The United Nations was a key site of this struggle. Yet women’s human rights endeavors at the UN were chronically underfunded. UN bodies set up to address women’s issues were small, disjointed and lacked authority.
All of that began to change in 2011 with the launch of UN Women, an agency dedicated to guaranteeing women’s human rights. For years, leaders like Charlotte Bunch, the founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, organized a concerted campaign, strategized with activists worldwide and lobbied with UN representatives—all to make UN Women a reality.
Despite this milestone, many challenges lie ahead. Countries have been slow to direct funding to the fledgling agency. This is a serious blow to an agency mandated to improve conditions for half of the world’s people. But just as we fought to create UN Women, we must stand by the agency to keep it strong—for the sake of women worldwide counting on it.
Women Stand Up for Peace
Time and again, we see that peace cannot be won without the voices and leadership of women. In war, women are often specifically targeted with violence, including rape and sexual assault. What’s more, women often sustain the most vulnerable in their communities, including children and the elderly. Yet, too often, women are denied a seat at the peace negotiating table.
But in 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women. It was a rare recognition of the integral role women play in demanding peace and rebuilding their communities.
In Liberia, Leymah Gbowee led a protest movement of women who held years of vigils for peace. They refused to be silent and demanded that militants lay down their arms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia’s first female president, paving the way to recovery. Another winner, Tawakul Karman, is a Yemeni peace activist. Her demands for greater press freedoms, the release of political prisoners and the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally led to his resignation.
A Global Call for Justice
2011 began with popular uprising in the Arab world. And as 2011 comes to a close, the uprisings have circled the globe. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in New York City and around the world, reveals a growing refusal to go along with business as usual. The 99%, suffering for years under neoliberal policies that benefit the rich and impoverish the poor, are taking a stand.
And the movement isn’t going away anytime soon. Its demands resonate in communities worldwide that are all too familiar with the destructiveness of economic policies that treat basic necessities as tradable commodities instead of as human rights.
There are viable alternatives to neoliberal policies. They have already been articulated by women who confront daily the heaviest burdens of economic injustice. These women are Guatemalan women factory workers who organize for fair labor practices and Iraqi women who take a stand against the takeover of their government by oil companies. They offer the solutions that we all need and that resonate with the calls of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
We enter 2012 into a changed world, one that has been remade by the committed work of women activists. With each win, the forward momentum continues. We’ll remember 2011 for its uprisings and revolutions. Let it be also a forerunner to new possibilities in 2012.
Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE.