Women's Rights - What Happened In 2008?
This first Friday File for 2009 presents a brief summary of some key events and issues that shaped the global women’s rights landscape in 2008.
By Rochelle Jones
Last year was a year of challenges and opportunities for women worldwide… Key events and issues in 2008 – resulting in both losses and gains for women - include: Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States (US); the severe and continued crackdown on women’s human rights defenders; Rwanda setting a new world record for female representation in Parliament; a global food crisis; a global financial crisis; UN Member States passing a resolution to establish a new UN Agency for women; and, unfortunately, increasing crackdowns on women’s freedoms due to fundamentalist forces. Below is a summary of some of these, with a focus on the overarching issues influencing our work and our lives.
In September 2008 Rwandan parliamentary elections saw women take 56 percent of contested seats, setting a new world record for female representation in Parliament.
The race for the US Presidency also dominated the political landscape in 2008 with many women’s hopes pinned on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Whilst Clinton was not successful in her bid for the Democratic Party candidacy in the election race, President-elect, Barack Obama recently selected her to serve as Secretary of State. Obama’s Presidential election has also stirred a great deal of interest from within women’s rights movements who are hopeful that his policies will depart from the Republicans’ penchant for neoliberal formulas which have negatively impacted women’s rights and gender and development issues globally. Reproductive rights is an issue of particular importance to women worldwide in which Obama’s more pro-choice approach should see a significant positive outcome for women.
With the US being the only democratic state that has not ratified CEDAW, “Obama has said he supports ratification of CEDAW as well as the Equal Rights Amendment. He has promised increased enforcement by his Office of Civil Rights to ensure effective protection from sex discrimination.”  Other UN mechanisms and major decision-making bodies like the Security Council have the potential to be significantly and positively impacted by Obama’s presidency, creating the potential for deep and long-lasting change for women. This is something that women’s rights movements will be watching closely.
Women’s rights defenders
Authorities in Iran continued to arrest, detain, interrogate and prosecute women’s human rights defenders – and in fact, 2008 saw an increase in the harassment of Iranian journalists and women’s rights activists, particularly those involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign. A joint open letter was sent to Iranian authorities - signed by many prominent international women’s and human rights organisations – deploring the actions of the government and urging them to respect the rights and freedoms of activists. Despite this, in December 2008, authorities shut down the office of Iran’s main human rights organisation headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi. Women’s human rights defenders in Iran continue to fight a difficult battle.
The global food crisis peaked in 2008, with the price of food increasing 55 percent from June 2007 to February 2008, including an 87% increase in the cost of rice in March. This has had a disproportionate effect on women in the global South. .
A global financial crisis of unprecedented magnitude hit world markets in 2008, with major impacts yet to be fully realised. History tells us that the disempowered and the poor – mostly women – are those who will bear the brunt. A UN General Assembly Interactive Panel discussed the human impact of the crisis,highlighting the need for a gender analysis. With the existence of the global “male bread winner paradigm”, under times of financial stress there is a tendency to “protect employment for men and compromise on women’s jobs…” Additionally, women’s work is most often in the informal economy with very little or no job security – these are the first jobs to go. The fact remains, however, that women cannot simply stop working, “so they end up in jobs with much worse and often unacceptable conditions.” There is also an impact on unpaid care work mostly performed by women because under financial duress many families cannot afford to seek professional medical assistance and are often sick and requiring care for longer periods.
According to Women Thrive Worldwide, there will be a considerable impact on women working in the manufacturing industry worldwide; as well as an exacerbation of the global food crisis – of which women are at the epicentre.
In September 2008 donor and recipient countries met for a High Level Forum (HLF3) in Accra, Ghana to assess progress in the implementation of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (PD), and to agree on a new 'agenda for action'. This was the first opportunity for donor and recipient countries, and civil society organisations, to review the progress on the implementation of the PD. Whilst civil society organisations expressed their disappointment that their views were not taken into account, the outcome document – the Accra Agenda for Action, or AAA, “does reflect some steps, however limited, in the right direction. It recognises the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment as a cornerstone for development and the need to integrate them in specific areas such as mutual accountability or policy and practice for fragile states” 
2008 saw a continuation in the rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide – profoundly impacting women. In Afghanistan, for example, there was a resurgence of the Taliban targeting women and girls. In September, Southern Afghanistan’s most senior female police officer was gunned down on her way to work. Afghan women and girls who defy traditional gender roles are increasingly being targeted by members of the Taliban – and just in December a group of girls were sprayed with acid on their way to school, leaving one girl blind. In Somalia in October, a 13 year old girl was stoned to death in front of hundreds of people, accused of adultery. 2008, however, also saw much research and advocacy on religious fundamentalisms by women’s rights activists – prompting greater global awareness and understanding of the phenomenon, and an increase in our collective power to change the tide.
2008 was the beginning of a reform process within the UN that could result in profound change for women. Ongoing discussions within the General Assembly (GA) during 2008 resulted in overwhelming support for new and improved gender architecture within the UN. This is indeed momentous for women – and in September 2008 “at a final meeting of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly, member states adopted by consensus a resolution that will officially move forward the gender architecture discussion into the next GA session. This means that states have agreed to take next steps toward strengthening the UN system in relation to gender equality and women’s empowerment… The Composite model could potentially create a new women’s entity that, if developed as supporters have been advocating for, would have strong country presence, significant funding capacity, high level leadership and a strategic normative and policy making function.”
 Rwanda sets world record for women in parliament. Oneworld.net 22 Sep, 2008. http://us.oneworld.net/article/357617-rwanda-sets-world-record-women-parliament
 Iran Shuts Down Rights Center. Washington Post. 22 Dec 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/21/AR2008122100676.html?hpid=moreheadlines
 AWID Friday File, June 20, 2008. http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Women-worst-hit-by-Food-Crisis/(language)/eng-GB
 The Financial Crisis: How it’s Affecting Women Worldwide. Women Thrive Worldwide. http://www.womenthrive.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=583&Itemid=152
 AWID Friday File. 9 Dec 2008. http://www.awid.org/eng/content/view/full/41936/(language)/eng-GB
 Top woman police officer in Afghan south killed. Reuters. 29 Sep 2008.
 Acid attacks and rape: growing threat to women who oppose traditional order. The Guardian. 22 Nov 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/22/afghanistan-gender-women-taliban
 GEAR (Gender Equality Architecture Reform) Campaign. Center for Women’s Global Leadership. http://www.cwgl.rutgers.edu/globalcenter/policy/unadvocacy/gea.html