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Moments of light in the darkness: Progress towards gender equality in 2020

To mark the end of an unprecedented year we’ve rounded up some moments of light amongst the darkness in the fight for gender equality. 

1. Survivors around the world continued to make their voices heard

It takes great courage for survivors of gender-based violence to come forward, especially publicly. This year, we have been honored to support survivors who have bravely shared their stories from Georgia to Singapore and the United States to India.

Centering the voices of survivors is central to our work to demand access to justice and the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world.


2. The United States edged closer to embedding gender equality in the constitution

Photograph of a campaign bus parked outside the Richmond Capitol Building in Virginia

The US Constitution does not guarantee equality of the sexes. While women’s suffrage is constitutionally protected, nowhere does the Constitution prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. This is not for lack of trying.

In January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, a pivotal number because 38 states are needed to pass the amendment to reach the three-quarters threshold required by Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution. However, the Trump Administration has thus far refused to accept the ratification as legitimate, prompting the Attorneys General of Virginia, Illinois, and Nevada to file a lawsuit against the Archivist of the United States for his failure to add the amendment to the Constitution. Equality Now, in conjunction with its global partners and with pro bono support from Davis Polk & Wardwell, have submitted an amicus brief in support of the AGs’ case

Read more: Virginia votes to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment


3. Harvey Weinstein found guilty of rape

In February, a man who had long been sheltered by his wealth, power, and a culture of blaming and shaming the victim, was found guilty of rape by a jury of his peers. This monumental victory is a direct result of the bravery of the women who risked their personal and professional lives to speak publicly about the sexual violence they experienced at the hands of Harvey Weinstein.

We salute the women warriors — Dawn Dunn, Miriam Haley, Jessica Mann, Anabella Sciorra, Tarale Wulff, and Lauren Young — who testified against Weinstein at great personal risk. Without their bravery and their sacrifice, this watershed case that exemplifies the #MeToo era could not have been won.

Read more: ‘Thank you’: Six brave women did the hard work of holding Harvey Weinstein accountable


4. As lockdown measures came into force around the world, our partner rescued a 12-year-old girl after four years of child marriage in Kenya’s Kajiado county

A Kenyan woman standing next to a child who has her back to the camera

In March, our partner, Dorcus Parit, Executive Director of the Hope Beyond Transitional Centre became aware of a 12-year-old girl, who had been ‘married’ for four years she worked with local law enforcement to rescue her.

“No one was willing to help me. I did not have a way out…Then last Saturday, some people came with the police early in the morning and took me from my husband’s place. We then went to my father’s homestead where he was arrested.

I do not want to go back and I am happy to be here but I am still worried about my two sisters because my dad was planning to marry them off this month.” – Grace (not her real name)

We continue to work, together with partners including Hope Beyond, to ensure Grace and girls like her get the justice they deserve.

Read more: Girl, 12, rescued from early marriage in Loitoktok


5. Sierra Leone finally lifted their discriminatory ban on pregnant girls attending school

In a case filed by Equality Now and our partners, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice ruled in December 2019 that Sierra Leone’s ban that prohibited pregnant schoolgirls from attending school violated the right of pregnant girls to education. In March 2020, the government of Sierra Leone lifted the discriminatory ban, stating:

“We have a moral and constitutional duty to protect the girl child and to change her outcomes. My government is focused on and committed to inclusive national development meaning the radical inclusion of every citizen regardless of their gender, ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic or other circumstances.”

Marking a year since the historic ruling, Hannah Yambasu, Executive Director of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES), told us:

“I see a bright future for our girls as long as we don’t relent.”

Read more: Victory at ECOWAS Court for girls in Sierra Leone


6. Syria ended reduced sentences in “honor” killing cases

In 2009 Syria amended Article 548, which previously exempted men who killed their female relatives for “honor” from punishment. This amended law, rather than treating “honor” killings as any other murder, merely imposes a minimum two-year prison sentence. In 2011 Syria again amended Article 548, which previously imposed a minimum two-year prison sentence, to raise the minimum sentence to five years but placed a ceiling of seven years maximum. The punishment for murder is hard labor for 20 years.

In March 2020, the Permanent Mission of Syria to the United Nations informed Equality Now that they repealed the provision and there are no longer reduced sentences for “honor” killings in Syria.

Read more: Syria – The Penal Code


7. Pennsylvania and Minnesota outlawed child marriage, becoming the 3rd and the 4th US States to do so

In May 2020, after tireless campaigning by our partner Unchained At Last, Pennsylvania and Minnesota joined Delaware and New Jersey as the only US States to have a law banning marriage under the age of 18, no exceptions.

Approximately 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, many much older.

Read more: Unchained At Last’s tracker on US laws against child marriage


8. Kenya took steps to address sexual and gender-based violence across the country

In June 2020, Makueni County established the first and only government-run safe house in Kenya for women and girls at risk of sexual violence. After seeing existing shelters run by NGOs overwhelmed by the number of survivors in need of safety, Kenya’s Makueni County established a County government-owned safe house with the capacity to support 18 people, providing a safe space and access to counselors and GBV champions tasked with supporting the well being of survivors.

Four people stand outside the anti sexual & gender based violence office

Also in 2020, Kenya’s National Police Service launched ‘Policare’ – a one-stop center for survivors of gender-based violence. Through the center, GBV survivors will have access to police officers, forensic investigators, medical personnel, psychologists, prosecutors, magistrates, lawyers, gender experts, and correctional personnel all under one roof.


9. Switzerland approved a new law, allowing fathers ten days of paid paternity leave

Switzerland’s Federal Law supplementing the Swiss Civil Code of 30 March 1911 provides that women are entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, but there was no requirement to provide paternity leave for men.

In September, Switzerland voted in a referendum approving an amendment to the law to allow 10 days of paternity leave to begin in January 2021. We welcome the news and encourage the government to continue to review the issue and consider additional paid paternity leave so that all parents are treated equally.

Read more: Switzerland – Federal Law supplementing the Swiss Civil Code of 30 March 1911


10. Kamala Harris shattered glass ceilings in US Presidential Election

In November 2020, Kamala Harris became the Vice President-Elect of the United States, the first woman, and the first Asian American. The sound of that 231-year-old glass ceiling breaking was exhilarating.

Kamala Harris became Vice President-Elect because hundreds of thousands of activists and millions of voters believed that representation matters. This victory stands on the shoulders of trailblazing women across the country.

2021 must be the year we embed equality in the law once and for all. In doing so, we can ensure that women’s rights cannot be trampled on by political trends and that every woman is represented and protected. We hope that Vice President-Elect Harris will champion this.


11. Sudan vowed to end child marriage

In November, Sudan announced a number of measures to protect the rights of women and girls. As well as vowing to enforce the ban on female genital mutilation, the council of ministers committed to adhering to the African Charter on child rights. We welcome Sudan’s commitment to end child marriage, in a country where around a third of girls are married by the age of 18 and hope that country rises to the challenge of enforcing the law throughout 2021 and beyond.

Read more in the Guardian


12. Landmark sexual violence case filed before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Brisa didn’t get justice when she was raped as a teen. Now, almost 20 years later, her case could set a legal precedent in Bolivia and for the Americas.

On November 20th, 2020, the petitioner’s brief of Brisa Liliana de Ángulo Lozada v. Bolivia was filed before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) by Equality Now, Hughes Hubbard, and the rest of Brisa’s legal team. Brisa is seeking holistic and transformative reparations and asking the court to order Bolivia to develop a comprehensive strategy to address sexual violence against children and adolescent girls, especially incest, including changing the rape law to one base on consent, broad prevention measures, and measures to ensure effective administration of justice based on guidelines that reflect international best practices.

Read more: An Important Step Toward Accountability for Sexual Violence in Bolivia and Beyond


13. Argentina legalizes abortion

In December 2020, Argentina’s senate voted 38 to 29 to decriminalize abortion in Argentina, making it only the fourth Latin American country where abortion is legal.

The news was met by scenes of joy in the streets from activists who have campaigned tirelessly for women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Congratulations to everyone who has worked so hard to make this happen.

Read more in the Guardian


14. Denmark criminalized sex without explicit consent

In December Denmark’s parliament passed a new law criminalizing sex without explicit consent, as well as widening the circumstances that could constitute rape.

Anna Blus of Amnesty said: “This is a great day for women in Denmark as it consigns outdated and dangerous rape laws to the dustbin of history and helps to end pervasive stigma and endemic impunity for this crime.”

The new law is set to take effect from January 1st.

Read more in the Guardian


15. The global movement to end female genital mutilation continued to build momentum

Our 2020 report ‘FGM/C: A Call for a Global Response’, released in March in partnership with End FGM European Network and the US End FGM/C Network, showed the practice is present in at least 92 countries across the world, but only 51 had laws that specifically address FGM.

In 2020, we’ve seen progress towards ending FGM around the world:


The solidarity between human rights movements around the world has never been so strong

The world will never be the same, and while it is difficult to see silver-linings, we can look to the future with hope. We have an opportunity to define a new and inclusive future and we must not let it slip by. Now is the time to build a world we want to live in, using the law to create an equal world that works for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends, our communities. Are you in?