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KOLHAPUR, MAHARASHTRA: 44-year-old Neeta Kashid has no time to rest. The community health worker’s day is packed with visits to women and children in her village in southwest Maharashtra, assisting them with health emergencies, providing maternal and neonatal support, conducting surveys and immunization campaigns, and acting as the face of the Indian government’s health and sanitation drives in the area. On top of all this, she has to tend to a small farm. Despite being a full-time frontline health worker, she makes less than minimum wage, and relies on extra income from selling produce to make ends meet.

“My salary is not enough to survive,” said Kashid, “I have two school-going children. I need to pay their fees and raise them.”

Kashid is one of roughly a million Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), part of an Indian government program that serves as a critical link between rural and poor communities and the public healthcare system. They were catapulted into the spotlight for their role in ensuring access to primary care for the rural poor as COVID-19 devastated India in 2021, winning a Global Health Leader Award from the World Health Organization.

But the award has also spurred increased scrutiny of their working conditions, not just for ASHA workers, but for community health workers (CHWs) all over the world. CHW programs have been lauded as a cost-effective way to reduce maternal and infant mortality, HIV, tuberculosis, and many other diseases over the past decades. But the reason they’re cost-effective is because this overwhelmingly female workforce is poorly paid, like Kashid, or not paid at all — in many countries they are an all-volunteer corps. 

A 2022 report by Women in Global Health, a global nonprofit, estimates there are 6 million female health workers who are unpaid or underpaid, and say they believe this is a conservative figure due to a shortage of available data. Their research built on a 2015 paper in Lancet which claimed that unpaid work by CHWs potentially contributed $1.4 trillion to the global economy — implying that the unpaid labor of mostly women health workers was subsidizing almost 2.5% of global GDP at the time.

A woman collects a blood sample from another woman's hand.
An ASHA worker collecting blood samples in the rural parts of Kolhapur. ASHA The community health workers were not trained for the COVID-19 jobs but were instructed to execute any job that was required at the frontline. (Abhijeet Gurjar for Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project)

“Why is it that we don’t put a price tag on this particular labor force and build that into the cost of these programs?” says Roopa Dhatt, a physician who is the executive director of Women in Global Health. “It is exploitation, and it should be called out.”

ASHA workers across India have gone on strike this year, and continue to strike in some states, demanding better pay and formal employment status, which would come with health and pension benefits. They are part of a growing wave of organizing around the world by health workers and experts calling on the governments, donors, and nonprofits who have reaped the benefits of CHW labor to match their rhetoric of praise with a living wage.

“[CHWs] are an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else,” says Madeleine Ballard, the executive director of the Community Health Impact Coalition, which advocates for the professionalization of CHWs around the world. “In the vast majority of communities around the world, CHWs are the working poor. In the context of poverty and limited access to decent work opportunities for women, this is not a free choice to volunteer, but it’s actually wage slavery. I don’t volunteer for my community 37 hours a week, you know?”

“The irony is a lot of these programs are funded by international organizations that have a real rhetoric around women’s empowerment,” Ballard adds. “And that’s used to provide moral cover for what are, in effect, programs in which female labor is cheap.”

Two women stand while weighing a baby.
Neeta Kashid, an ASHA worker weighing a born baby as her routine duty in Mhasave village, Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, the western states of India. (Abhijeet Gurjar for Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project)

A job so great it can’t be paid

CHW programs have evolved through what Ballard calls a couple of “hype cycles”. The Chinese government pioneered village health workers starting in the 1930s. These “barefoot doctors” became famous worldwide in the ’50s and ’60s, and by the ’70s had inspired programs globally as the international community rallied around the goal of providing primary healthcare for all by the end of the 20th century.

The economic crises of the ’80s marked a setback for the growth of these programs, but interest in them was revived in the new millennium as the HIV pandemic focused attention on providing services to rural communities across the African continent. CHWs came to be seen as an effective way to reach marginalized and vulnerable populations in tackling the biggest problems in global public health at the time, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Today, CHWs are going through another hype cycle as yet another pandemic rips through the  globe.

“The amount of money that goes into hospital care is so extraordinary, and the evidence that investing in hospitals themselves will improve the health of a population — it just doesn’t exist,” says Henry Perry, a doctor who’s a leading researcher on CHWs at Johns Hopkins University. “CAT scanners, open heart surgery, kidney transplants, all of this stuff is valuable, but it’s very expensive when you compare the return on investment to teaching community health workers how to diagnose and treat childhood pneumonia or detect hypertension.”

The ASHA program has its roots in a 2002 program that started in Chhattisgarh, one of the poorest states in India, and was adopted nationwide in 2005. In India’s case, the focus was on child mortality.

“ASHA became a necessity for services being provided by the government,” says Sujatha Rao, a former Health Secretary at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare who was involved in launching the project. “The key target was of course reducing maternal and infant mortality levels that were unacceptably high and had to be brought down.”

When the program was introduced, the responsibilities of ASHA workers were limited to creating awareness, providing counsel, mobilizing the community, and providing some primary medical care. Over the years, these responsibilities have increased, and so have their hours — going from working a handful of hours a week to a full-time workload.

“In 2009, when I joined as an ASHA worker, we had 5-10 indicators that we had to focus on,” said Netradipa Patil, a union leader representing more than 3,000 ASHA workers in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. “Now, we have to focus on 74 indicators.”

A woman stands outside a door carrying a blue tote bag and holding a sheet of paper in front of two women.
Neeta Kashid performing a survey during COVID-19 in Mhasave village, Kolhapur. ASHA employees were critical in reporting, surveying, medicine, counselling, medical screening, and filing various reports. (Abhijeet Gurjar for Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project)

Then came COVID-19. As praise poured in from all directions for their frontline work, ASHA workers themselves were floundering with little support. Kashid was physically assaulted by a villager for trying to enforce the government’s quarantine rules. Another ASHA worker, 43-year-old Usha Jadhav, had a heart attack which doctors told her was due to irregular meal timings and high levels of stress from her work.

For many experts, the struggles of CHWs during COVID-19 laid bare the lie behind a common trope used to justify their lack of pay: that women are innately motivated to serve their neighbors and community, and that to pay them would sully the spiritual benefits of their work.

Instead, researchers like Kenneth Maes at Oregon State University are finding that far from being in a satisfied state of fulfillment, CHWs in Ethiopia experience more psychological distress throughout the year compared to others in their areas, partly due to the strain of their work and partly due to their poor economic status.

Neeta Kashid, an ASHA worker with her co-workers visiting Mhasave village for routine work in the district Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the western states of India. (Abhijeet Gurjar for Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project)

“It’s emotional blackmail,” says Margaret Odera, a Nairobi-based CHW who is working to create a national association of CHWs in Kenya. “I have had people come visit us from the USA who say ‘you community health workers are doing a great job.’ And if we say ‘so you will pay us?’ [They say] ‘We can’t, because your job is so great that you can’t be paid.”

For Odera, the matter is straightforward. Doctors derive satisfaction from their work too, but they’re still paid; CHWs are health professionals providing vital services, and should be paid accordingly. 

She details the health statistics she’s gathered for her latest report to her supervisors: children who have been dewormed; children born inside the hospital and outside; children who are malnourished; mothers who are pregnant; community members with non-communicable diseases. The list goes on.

She recalls: “One time my son was asking me: ‘Mom, you go to the hospital every day. I think you’re a doctor. But at the end of the month, when I ask you to buy me something, you say you don’t have any money. What’s happening?’ And you know, I have nothing to say.”

On April 15, Fahima Hashim awoke to the sound of her nephew shouting her name. “The war has started!” he yelled. Her family hunkered down in their Khartoum home, hoping the conflict between two warring factions of Sudan’s military would be short-lived, and they’d be able to wait it out.

“I didn’t sleep at night,” Hashim recalled. “I’d sleep when everyone woke up, because I wanted to protect them from anything [that might happen] in their sleep.” 

After 14 days, supplies started to run low, and Hashim decided they needed to flee. It wasn’t the first time. 

In 2014, Sudan’s military dictator Omar al-Bashir accused Hashim of destroying the fabric of Sudanese society because of her work as the founder of Salmmah Women’s Resource Center, a group that documented violence against women and fought for reforms to Sudan’s legal system. She escaped to Canada and built a new life for herself and her daughter. When al-Bashir fell from power five years later, she thought it would finally be safe to return.

Women like Hashim were at the forefront of a grassroots movement to topple al-Bashir—one of the revolution’s most iconic images was of a young woman named Alaa Salah standing atop a car in front of army headquarters with her finger raised in fierce protest. These women had hoped al-Bashir’s downfall would earn them equal rights and freedoms alongside men at last. Instead, the transitional government—led by fundamentalist military commanders who had served under al-Bashir—sidelined women, continued to emphasize the primacy of Islamic law, and supported a coup in 2021. 

Far from securing equality and a seat at the negotiating table, Sudanese women continued to be targeted with sexual violence, systemic exclusion from the political sphere, and imposition of strict dress codes. 

“After the revolution, whenever women talked about representation or participation or [the need] to include women’s rights … [male politicians] just said ‘this is actually not the right time’ and ‘these women are so annoying,’” said 31-year-old activist Lina Marwan, who was arrested in January 2019 alongside 86 other young women during intense protests against the al-Bashir administration.

Despite the backslide, women such as Marwan and Hashim refuse to give up. They continue to coalesce in online spaces, leading emergency relief efforts, organizing health care, and helping women and children to flee the country. They’re still fighting for what they’ve demanded for nearly a century: a meaningful seat at the peace talks and a significant role in the governance of a new Sudan.

Three women sit on the ground. One woman writes on a notebook with a pen.
Women are interviewed under the shade of a tree outside at a camp for the internally displaced in al-Suwar. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Sudan has a rich history of strong women’s rights movements that stretches back to the 19th century. The formation of the Sudanese Women’s Union in the 1950s marked a critical moment as women took up the cause of independence from British colonial rule. In 2018-19, their momentous protests against al-Bashir in front of the Army Central Command led to them being called Kandakat after powerful historical queens.

“You could hear in the cell [that] the girls are talking and chatting,” said Marwan about her time in prison during that period. “The girls are beautiful and very strong and have a very revolutionary spirit, and they made a lot of joy inside this dark, lifeless place.”

But Sudanese leaders have always attacked values they deemed antithetical to Islam and Sudanese culture. Sudan’s first dictator, Ibrahim Abboud, banned the Sudanese Women’s Union in 1958. In the 1980s, Jaafar Muhammad Nimeiry’s military dictatorship imposed Islamic law on the country, removing a ban on female genital mutilation in the process. Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 on the back of a military-led Islamization project that institutionalized discriminatory anti-women policies, such as stoning and flogging for women who wore pants or refused to cover their hair.

“The women’s movement has always been a target for dictators. And that shows you how strong the women’s movement was,” said Quscondy Abdulshafi, an advisor at Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

When al-Bashir fell, Sudanese women saw a wide range of possibilities open up in front of them. Sudan’s new Constitutional Declaration contained strong language about the role of women and a 40 percent quota requirement for women’s participation in parliament. Religion was separated  from the state, and al-Bashir’s public order act was repealed—reflecting the hopeful nature of that moment for women.

But the promise was short-lived. The military-led transitional government soon revealed that it had not strayed far from the conservative Islamic ideology of al-Bashir’s regime. On reviewing civil society proposals for a new democratic government, the 10-member military council expressed a key reservation: “The declaration failed to mention the sources of legislation, and the Islamic Sharia law and tradition should be the source of legislation,” Lt. Gen. Shamseddine Kabbashi, a spokesman for the military council, told reporters at a press conference.

Following the 2021 coup, the military leaders dissolved the ruling body instituted by the Constitution Declaration and declared a state of emergency. Then, they turned on themselves. In April, civil war broke up between two rival generals. The transitional government had included the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary unit that faces several accusations of mass rape; this group is now at the forefront of the civil war. 

Today, women are experiencing widespread gender-based violence, sexual assault, and rape; pregnant women are struggling to give birth as the health care system crumbles; and women and children make up the majority of the refugee population fleeing across Sudan’s borders.

Since the outbreak of civil war, Sudan’s women’s movement has morphed from fighting for rights to fighting for lives. Women have become key providers of support services and emergency relief. 

“Women from civil society all around Sudan, they have a WhatsApp group called Women for Peace,” Marwan said. The group is providing health care for displaced pregnant women and distributing hygiene kits for women and girls. 

They’re providing some services for men, but the focus is on women. “Because throughout environmental disasters or anything that’s broken out in Sudan, men started to see women’s needs as secondary,” Marwan explained.

Other groups include Sudanese women doctors based abroad who participate in WhatsApp clinics, providing telemedicine services. Some, such as Sara Abdelgalil, a National Health Service physician in the United Kingdom, are also coordinating with organizations on the ground to provide online training for Sudanese medical students who still have access to the internet.

Meanwhile, from Canada, Hashim is helping high-profile activists escape the country. She’s organizing paperwork and visas with the support of women’s rights organizations, raising money for the harrowing bus journey from Sudan into Egypt, and securing funds to support women with rent and food for at least three months as they settle into their new lives. 

Hashim is also engaged with a WhatsApp group called Women Against the War, which supports Sudanese resistance committees. 

Foreign-policy experts such as Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network, a women, peace, and security organization, say research shows that the presence of women can make a massive difference in peacebuilding. Including women as negotiators, mediators, and signatories increases the likelihood of an agreement lasting at least two years by 20 percent, and the likelihood of it lasting at least 15 years by 35 percent.

“[Women] are bringing a very stark human lens into these political power discussions,” Anderlini said. “The women are going to be asking, ‘does your cease-fire include stopping rape? Does it include getting the RSF soldiers out of people’s homes? Stopping the looting? What are the elements of the cease-fire?”

Hashim wants to take it a step further: She believes that a new Sudan will rise only if women take control of the country. She says the women’s movement has already developed its own policies on climate change, health, and reproductive rights. They were working out their preferred educational policies when the war broke out.

“Enough is enough,” Hashim said. “I think men have destroyed Sudan. What has the army done? The war in South Sudan. The war in Darfur. It’s been 67 years since independence, and those men haven’t done anything [for] Sudan. They made it worse.”

“I think we should make a shadow government with all our ministers,” she said. “It can only be done by women, by feminists.” 

The 33-year-old woman had attempted suicide twice: the years-long investigations and trials had been that stressful. Even then, she said she had only reported a fraction of the sexual abuse she’d suffered, fearing she might be punished for false accusations if her allegations were dismissed under South Korea’s strict rape law.

“This is the painful reality faced by victims on the ground. Yet these politicians only keep talking about so-called false sex crime accusers as a winning strategy for elections,” said the woman, who requested not to be named for fear of public shaming.

The politicians she refers to are now in charge. President Yoon Suk-yeol came to power in May last year on a platform that included anti-feminist ideas, accusing them of causing the country’s low birth rate and denying structural sexism existed in the country, despite social and economic indicators that strongly suggest otherwise. One of his chief campaign promises was that he would go after people who lie about being raped.

Since Yoon took office, the number of people investigated in cases of “false accusations” has surged. While most of these cases don’t involve sexual assault, South Korean women’s rights activists say politicians and much of the media have focused on false allegations of rape, fomenting a hostile environment that silences genuine rape survivors.

South Korean President dressed in a blue suit stands at a podium.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during the 20th Presidential inauguration reception at the National Assembly on May 10, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Lee Jin-Man – Pool/Getty Images)

Not long ago, a feminist wave was sweeping across the economically advanced but culturally conservative country, launching Asia’s most powerful #MeToo movement and taking down powerful abusers, including a presidential contender. But these women are now facing a major political backlash. A men’s rights movement that rejects the notion of male privilege has rallied around the belief that false accusations of rape and sexual assault are widespread, and it helped fuel Yoon’s rise to the presidency. Though official statistics on the number of sexual assault cases reported in 2022 have not yet been released, The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy spoke to several women’s rights advocates who say they’ve already noticed a “chilling effect” on rape survivors thinking about filing a case.

“When victims call us for help these days, one of the most common questions they ask is, ‘Would I be charged with false accusation if I report my case?’” said Yun Gyeong-jin, an official at the nonprofit Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSVRC). “Now, many victims seem to think not once, but twice, three times before making a decision on whether to report or not. It’s a worrying situation.”

Earlier this year, South Korean prosecutors announced that the number of indictments in “false accusations” was 68.8 percent higher in the second half of 2022 compared to the previous six months, before Yoon began his term. A flurry of sensational headlines greeted the announcement. “Those who falsely claim ‘I’ve been raped’ will become convicts if caught by this prosecutor,” one proclaimed.

Prosecutors say the increase is the result of a course correction after the previous center-left administration restricted their powers. But feminists say the focus on rape is telling.

“Although the prosecutors’ latest crackdown targeted … false accusations of all kinds, only false sexual assault complaints were promoted and recognized as the most typical case of false accusation. It’s because we live in a world where catching false complaints of sexual assault is considered a key accomplishment,” said a joint statement by about 50 women’s rights groups.

At the heart of the controversy is a 1953 law that defines rape on the basis of physical violence, not lack of consent. The switch from coercion-based to consent-based rape law has been adopted in recent decades by several countries, mostly in Europe, reflecting United Nations guidelines that favor the latter. Feminists in South Korea have been trying to reform the law for years, but their efforts have created a sense of panic among some men who believe it would result in a flood of false allegations of rape.

“This is a law aimed at killing men,” wrote one commentator on FMKorea, a prominent right-wing website popular among young men. 

South Korea has become a global economic powerhouse, but it continues to suffer some of the widest gender inequities among wealthy countries. It has the largest gender pay gap—by a significant margin—among OECD countries, and women only account for 15 percent of managerial positions in government and the private sector. The country is considered exceptionally safe, except that nearly 90 percent of violent crimes are committed against women.

The global #MeToo movement inspired many South Korean feminists to hit the streets and voice their grievances like never before, and they successfully campaigned to legalize abortion and pushed through landmark legal changes on the widespread problem of tech-based sexual abuse, most notably spycam porn crimes. But this has also motivated a men’s rights counter-movement to fight back with vigor. When Yoon, a former chief prosecutor and presidential candidate, began to roll out campaign promises that echoed their rallying cries, they lined up behind him.

Hundreds of men and women in South Korea sit on the ground holding #MeToo posters.
In 2018, South Korea vowed to strengthen laws against sexual assault and implement measures to reduce harassment as the #MeToo campaign swept the country and sparked calls for meaningful action to tackle sexual abuse. (Photo by Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

During his campaign, Yoon promised to dismantle the country’s gender equality ministry, which is highly controversial with the men’s rights movement. When the ministry, after years of deliberation and pressure from feminist groups, suggested updating the rape law to base it on consent, the proposal drew such swift, angry condemnations from the ruling party’s lawmakers that they withdrew the idea in just nine hours. Now, the Yoon administration is considering removing reformation of the law from its gender equality ministry’s five-year plan to ensure it won’t be officially discussed during his term in office, which ends in 2027.

“The changes in the political and social climates are clearly having a chilling effect,” one prominent advocate for sexual assault victims told The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy. The advocate goes by the nicknames “Witch” or “D” in order to protect herself from the harassment that frequently targets women who speak out about rape in South Korea. 

Witch knows this harassment from personal experience. A survivor herself, she had to fight off a barrage of criminal accusations brought up by her rapist after she reported him. They included defamation, false accusation, insult, coercion, and even sexual harassment. After her assailant was eventually convicted and jailed, she adopted the insult her attacker’s friends had once hurled at her as a gesture of defiance against the witch hunt that she experienced for reporting the crime.

Since then, Witch has set out to help other victims who endure similar “revenge accusations.” She educates experts from prosecutors to court judges about legal hurdles that push many victims into silence and monitors sexual abuse trials on behalf of victims. 

Other women have turned up in courtrooms to join her in a show of solidarity since the #MeToo campaign kicked off in 2018. These women now fear their hard work will be undone by the growing political clamor to punish “false accusations”—a call that defies statistical realities. Witch said some survivors who had recently sought her help had given up on the idea of reporting the crime.

Approximately 0.78 percent of sexual assault cases in South Korea are pursued by prosecutors for false claims, according to state data. The country already has one of the world’s toughest laws against false accusers, punishable with up to 10 years in prison—compared to up to five years in countries such as the United States and Germany. 

Meanwhile, defamation is considered a criminal offense in South Korea, and speaking the truth can still be a crime. Article 310 of the Criminal Act states that a claim is not defamatory only if it is both true and solely for the public interest, and has come under widespread criticism from the United Nations and Korean activists.

The result, women’s groups say, is an environment where only 1.4 percent of those who experienced sexual violence in South Korea seek help from the authorities, according to a government survey. Those whose rape complaints are dismissed by the authorities can be potentially pursued for false accusation—a risk that now looms larger in the eyes of many victims.

The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy reached out to a spokesperson at the South Korean president’s office by text but did not receive a response.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said in a written statement it is taking a “victim-centered” and “strong punishment” approach to follow the president’s orders to protect victims of gender-based violence and plans to roll out an anti-stalking law this summer.

But these claims have gained little traction with the country’s feminists, who are struggling to figure out how to move forward.

“It feels like the clock of our society is sliding backward,” Witch said. “But women can’t go back to the past now,” she added, echoing several victims and advocates.

“We certainly feel bitter about the reality, but we also see this as an opportunity,” said Kim Dong-eun, another activist at KSVRC. Her group plans to capitalize on the public attention on the consent-based rape law and combat pervasive online misinformation about it, such as allegations from men’s rights activists that it would require people to sign a written consent form to have sex.

She draws some hope from the fact that Yoon’s pledge to dismantle the gender equality ministry has failed to materialize due to opposition from the rival center-left party, which took a strong stand on the issue after months of protest and pressure from women’s rights groups. 

“The odds seem to be stacked against us, but we’ll try our best to ride this out,” Kim said.

The survivor who had attempted suicide finally did manage to see her abuser convicted in court with the help of Witch. 

“I’m not a very educated person, but I know this much,” the 33-year-old woman said. “My life, my truth, and my right to be protected from violence are precious, and they are not some kind of a chip in someone’s political game.”

PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone—Standing in the scorching afternoon heat, Aminata Bilkisu Kanu takes off her sunglasses to wipe away the beads of sweat trickling down her face as she appeals to the crowd of mostly male voters.

“Think ‘women’ when voting in the June 24 elections,” she tells them. “We keep your resources within; the men take them away.”

The 24-year-old single mother is the first woman to run for the national parliament from Mamoi village, part of the Masimera Chiefdom in Port Loko District, located in the conservative north of the country. Patriarchal culture runs deep in Sierra Leone, but it is even stronger in the north and parts of the east, where customs do not allow for women to become a paramount chief, the traditional name for the district leader. 

But this election is the first since the country passed a landmark gender quota law earlier this year. The law clearly states that the workforce in any public or private institution must be at least 30 percent female, and Bilkisu is hoping this will help her shake things up.

“It is very tough for us!” she told The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy.

Ever since they were introduced in modern form in Argentina in 1991, gender quotas for national elections have been criticized by opponents on the grounds that they are non-meritocratic, undemocratic, and nepotistic. But that hasn’t stopped their adoption by the majority of countries in the world, and on June 24, Sierra Leone will become the latest to hold elections with a gender quota in place.

Today, there’s a growing consensus among academics that these quotas “work.” Studies from across the world have shown that, aside from putting more women in positions of power, quotas also typically lead to legislatures with higher qualifications and greater diversity in terms of class, age, and experience, and can shift budget priorities from defense spending to education and health care.

“It depends on what ‘works’ means,” said Alice Kang, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who coauthored a cross-national analysis on the effectiveness of gender quotas. “Does having a quota save a country from descending into authoritarianism? No, it doesn’t.

“[But] we found that quotas are perhaps the most impactful thing in terms of explaining why some countries have much higher levels of women’s representation than others. Back in the day, people thought religion, how wealthy a country was, or electoral systems made the difference. Compared to other factors, we found that [gender] quotas were having a significant and large effect.”

Scholars warn that the effectiveness of gender quotas varies widely from country to country, and their success is heavily influenced by factors such as the existence of strong enforcement mechanisms and the political will to implement them.

“The devil is totally in the details,” said Jennifer Piscopo, coeditor of The Impact of Gender Quotas, a book that dives into case studies from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

“Most Latin American countries have a proportional representation system, which means that when voters go to the polls, they’re voting for a party list,” she said. “A lot of the first quota laws said parties [had] to nominate 30 percent women. OK, great; so where do parties put their 30 percent women? They put the women at the bottom 30 percent of the list. If you’re at the bottom of the list, you’re probably not going to get a seat, because the further down the list you are, the less likely it is that the party won enough seats to get to you.”

Bilkisu is at the bottom of her party’s list. She’s candidate number nine out of 10 in her district for the All People’s Congress, Sierra Leone’s largest opposition party. Sierra Leone also has a proportional representation system; for Bilkisu to go to Parliament, her party must win 88 percent of the vote in Port Loko District to gain nine seats, far more than projected.

But Bilkisu remains sanguine. 

“The men are warming up to us,” she said. “The turnout is great in my door-to-door campaign. I see a lot of cooperation from them. So there is a chance for me.”

From exception to entitlement

Even in countries where quota laws are considered weak, researchers are finding that they still play a role in empowering women. 

In Nepal, researcher Punam Yadav found that political quotas “not only accelerate women’s representation in politics, but also strengthen their position in society. [Quotas] establish women’s credibility, pave the way for future generations and shift the social perception of women’s presence in politics from being an exception to being an entitlement.” 

Women who are elected in countries with gender quotas are often criticized as being less qualified than the men they replaced, or for being proxies of powerful men. But recent scholarship has begun to debunk these views. 

A 2017 study from Sweden partially titled “The Crisis of the Mediocre Man” found that “far from being at odds with meritocracy, this quota raised the competence of male politicians.” The study said this was the result of the departure of mediocre male leaders who faced a more competitive landscape due to the increased participation of women.

On the nepotism charge, Piscopo says the perception had a lot to do with cherry picking examples.

“OK, maybe there’s a woman who’s the wife of the party boss,” she said. “Well, how many brothers, or sons, of party bosses end up running for office? 

“At certain points, you run out of wives and daughters. There’s not an infinite supply, and you start tapping into networks that you ordinarily wouldn’t be tapping into.”

Parties reluctant to embrace quotas often claim they’re having trouble finding qualified women, Piscopo said, but she attributed this to a lack of political will to find them. She cited the example of Mexico, where women’s groups put out a full-page ad with the names of 1,000 women who were qualified to run for office after some political leaders said they couldn’t find any.

“Remember when Mitt Romney said he had ‘binders full of women’?” Piscopo said, recalling a famous campaign gaffe by the 2012 U.S. presidential candidate. “I love that quote. We all made fun of Mitt Romney, but actually, if we step back from the inartful phrasing, what he’s saying is civil society organizations made lists of qualified women for his cabinet and turned them over to him.”

Mexico is an example of how creative approaches can strengthen gender quota laws that are initially weak. Early efforts fell far short of reaching the gender quota, partly due to parties placing female candidates in races that were lost causes. In response, the country’s electoral agency categorized each seat as an easy win, an easy loss, or a competitive race for each political party based on previous results and demanded that female candidates be fielded in equal numbers in each of the three categories. The result is that Mexico now has gender parity in parliament.

Piscopo, Kang, and several other academics said it was especially critical that strong penalties exist for parties that fail to meet quota requirements, such as removing them from the ballot. When countries lack this political will, the number of women in office can remain stubbornly low. 

In Brazil, which implemented a 30 percent quota in 1997 but has only 17.7 percent women in its national parliament today, parties have been accused of promoting “ghost candidates”—submitting women as candidates to meet the quota without actually campaigning for them—sometimes without the women even knowing they’re on the ballot.

In Sierra Leone, a recent report by the Institute of Governance Reform, a civil society group based in Freetown, the capital, states the country is unlikely to hit its goal of electing 30 percent women, with parties accused of placing female candidates too low on their candidate lists to win. 

Meanwhile, the next Parliament of 149 members will include 14 paramount chiefs representing the country’s 14 geographical districts. Elections for the chiefs have already been conducted, and only one woman was elected. In nine of the districts, mostly in the north, women are still barred from becoming paramount chief. 

Nemata Majeks-Walker, the founder and head of 50/50, a women’s rights group that advocates for gender parity in Sierra Leone, said the passage of the quota was “mere lip service.” 

“I don’t feel there is the political will anywhere,” she said. “I think it is just a show, a mere show. It’s as if the men in Parliament were scared of the women taking their places.”

Bilkisu holds out hope that her party will make the changes needed to give women like her a fighting chance. 

“I want to encourage my party to amend its constitution in the future so that it will not only give us 30 percent on paper, but [also] ensure safe seats for women by enshrining the positioning of women at the top of the list,” she said. “If not, the 30 percent quota won’t work.”

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—Alba Lorena Santos had just returned home from running errands when her headache began. She saw blood running down her legs. She was five months pregnant.

Santos told her daughter to call their neighbor, a relative by marriage, for help. She fainted shortly after. When she woke up, she remembers the neighbor telling her the baby—a boy—had died.

The next day the neighbor returned and said the police were there to ask some questions. Still sick and feverish, Santos said she was put into a police car and asked: “Why did you kill him? Not even dogs do that.”

It was only later in court that Santos said she was able to piece together what took place over those two December days in 2009.

“The neighbor reported me,” Santos said. “She accused me of killing him.”

Abigail Cortez, a lawyer with the Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador, said Santos actually had an obstetric emergency, not an abortion, and should have received medical help. Instead, Santos was convicted for aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years. The neighbor’s testimony was a key part of the prosecution’s narrative that the baby had been killed, rather than dying as the result of a medical emergency.

Twenty-five years ago this April, El Salvador passed a total ban on abortions—no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health or life of the mother—transforming society in this Central American nation. Now, the ban might finally be overturned. 

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has begun hearing Beatriz v. El Salvador, investigating the case of a woman who was seriously ill from lupus, arthritis, and renal failure but denied an abortion even though the fetus would not survive outside the uterus. The woman died not long after. With this case, the court will rule for the first time on whether the absolute prohibition of abortion violates a woman’s right to life and health. 

The court’s verdict could have a far-reaching impact across the Latin American nations that have accepted the jurisdiction of the court by ratifying the American Convention on Human Rights, and set an important precedent for a region that’s one of the most restrictive in the world for abortion. In particular, it could spell the end of total abortion bans in five countries that recognize the court’s jurisdiction: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

With over 50 women incarcerated since the ban was passed, El Salvador is one of the most widely documented examples of a country imprisoning women for abortion. The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy have reviewed court documents or pardon requests related to 25 cases from 1999 to 2018 of pregnant women accused of aggravated homicide, attempted aggravated homicide, and abortion. They reveal how the country’s abortion ban made neighbors, doctors, police, and judges—the very people meant to help these women—turn against them instead.

“The system doesn’t seek the truth. It seeks to blame these women,” Cortez said.

But translating a favorable ruling into political change could still prove difficult. The court’s ruling is technically legally binding, but a lack of enforcement mechanism means countries don’t always follow through on implementing their directives. The ban continues to be popular, particularly as anti-abortion evangelical churches with strong connections to the United States have gained influence here, and advocates in El Salvador warn the United States could be heading down its path.

“El Salvador shows us the cruelty of the total criminalization of abortion,” said Cristina Rosero, senior legal advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Those who face greater barriers to reach the health system are precisely the most persecuted for the crime.”

Santos lived five hours away from the nearest hospital when she lost her child.

“My pregnancy was the result of rape,” Santos said. “Despite this, I’ve always said, if I wanted to abort, I would have done it in the first weeks.”

It would be years before she would see her two daughters again.

“My family abandoned me,” Santos said. “My brothers told me that I was a perra [dog]. One told me that I was a murderer.”

Eventually, Santos came to know other women in prison who were in the same situation as her. She and 16 others formed a group known as “Las 17,” and their lawyers were successful in mobilizing an international campaign for their release. In 2019, after a decade in prison, Santos was finally released, her sentence commuted after the Salvadoran Supreme Court found her rights were violated during her trial.

A woman and a man stand while holding signs that say libertad para las y mas
Members of civil organizations show signs as they wait the release of Maria del Transito Orellana, Cinthia Marcela Rodriguez and Alba Lorena Rodriguez who were sentenced to jail under charges of abortion at Ilopango Women’s Prison on March 7, 2019 in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Peña/Getty Images)

“They put us between a rock and a hard place,” said Juan José Guzmán, president of the Salvadoran Association of Gynecologists and Obstetricians. “The doctor almost turns into a judge.”

Guzmán has seen it all: hammocks slung on a pole to form a makeshift stretcher for women in labor in rural areas, a woman giving birth in the bed of a pickup truck, others arriving with babies in their arms because the hospital was so far away that they already gave birth. 

He recalled that, around the mid-2000s, doctors in the public hospitals in El Salvador were told they had to report any suspected abortions to authorities. If they failed to do so, they could risk prosecution themselves. 

Instead of worrying about patients’ care, doctors became worried about the legal repercussions of their actions, he said. Obstetric emergencies posed multiple quandaries: Should I notify the public prosecutor’s office? Should I call the police? Should I examine the patient, or would that contaminate the crime scene? Should I wait for forensic medicine, even though it could take hours? In emergencies, there’s no time to delay. Every second counts. 

“These situations are so difficult,” Guzmán said. 

In 2019, Cortez and her colleagues successfully sued the Salvadoran state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of Manuela, a woman who they said had arrived at the hospital with postpartum preeclampsia, was refused an abortion, and died soon after from lymphatic cancer while in prison. 

The court found that the state had violated Manuela’s rights to life and health and ruled that health care staff should no longer report patients to authorities for suspected abortions. This November, the Salvadoran government finally complied with the ruling and issued a new pre- and postnatal protocol saying doctors should not report patients to authorities and would not be punished for failing to report. 

A portrait of a woman's (Manuela) face sits in front of a group of people sitting down.
Women representatives of the feminist collective watch on a screen the hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR), over the case of Manuela. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

Forensic pathologists, whose autopsies on fetuses play a central role in the cases against these women, also became controversial figures in the medical community. 

Jose Miguel Fortín Magaña, the director of El Salvador’s Forensic Medicine Institute from 2010 to 2015, became a highly polarizing figure in the country when he said in 2014 that “the 17” were in prison for infanticide, not abortion, as documented by his institution’s autopsies. In other words, he was claiming their babies were killed after being born alive.

Fortín Magaña said that he recognized deep-seated machismo existed in Salvadoran society, but said he did not believe it could influence autopsies.

“Autopsies don’t have a political affiliation,” he said recently in his office in San Salvador. “They simply spoke of what had been the cause of death of these children.”

“Doctors give hard facts. You can like it or not, but it’s just a hard fact.”

But lawyers for the women have cast doubt on a key scientific test used in these autopsies. The floating lung test, called the docimasia, had been used to prove in court that babies had air in their lungs and were therefore alive outside their mother’s womb at some point before they died. 

In the test’s simplest form, the lungs are placed in water: If they float, they are believed to have been filled with air, meaning the baby had taken in breaths of outside air. In El Salvador, this test is often used to elevate the women’s crime to homicide rather than abortion. 

Gregory J. Davis, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Kentucky, called the test “invalid in unattended births” and said that the test has been considered unreliable for more than 100 years in an analysis provided to defense lawyers in 2014.

Some form of this test was used on at least 10 of the cases reviewed by the Fuller Project and Foreign Policy. Fortín Magaña defended its use. It has evolved, he said, adding more scientific forms of the examination, such as analysis of lung tissue. 

“From a medical perspective, there was evidence of the birth of these children,” Fortín Magaña said.

The role played by doctors in these situations is fraught in other ways as well. Hospitals have direct contact with public prosecutors’ offices to report potential cases of gender violence. However, this often leads to investigations into possible abortions, according to Guzmán and two police sources.

It’s common for police to arrive quickly to question women suspected of abortion. 

“The longer you wait, the more the truth is lost,” said police investigator Miguel, who requested his name be withheld as he was not authorized to give an interview. 

Under the Salvadoran Constitution, life is defined as starting at conception. This means any abortion case should be investigated as a potential homicide. Miguel arrives on the scene keeping this in mind.

“Your [the woman’s] objective was to abort and that everything went well and you didn’t have to go to the hospital,” he said, explaining how he approaches these cases. “But since the abortion was incomplete, you have a part [of the baby] in your body that can cause your death. So you arrive at the hospital and you [start to] prepare your story.” 

“As an investigator, I have to go while you are developing your story and you see that it has holes, so if I take too long, you fill the holes.”

Omar Flores, a lawyer who has worked on these cases, said the ban has created an “attitude of trying to obtain convictions.” For a case to qualify as a homicide, there must be a motive. In suspected abortion cases, Miguel said this could be a failed relationship, rape, or even the mother’s young age or her lack of resources to take care of the baby. 

Cortez and her colleagues at the Citizens Association said the police consistently breach protocols in place that are meant to ensure they act with sensitivity toward the women. The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy documented seven abortion-related cases that show the police failing to follow these rules, including one case where an 18-year-old was arrested in the emergency room while being treated for tearing during childbirth. The officer told the court the arrest was justified: “She was conscious,” the officer explained.

Miguel has attended workshops on gender violence and said it has changed how he approaches investigations, especially when dealing with victims who have experienced traumatic events.

A woman wearing teal pants and a gray t-shirt is escorted in handcuffs by four police officers.
Theodora de Carmen Vasquez (2nd-R) is escorted at the end of the hearing held to review her 2008 sentence – handed down under a draconian anti-abortion law after she suffered a miscarriage – in San Salvador on December 13, 2017. (OSCAR RIVERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite these workshops, several lawyers told the Fuller Project and Foreign Policy that machismo still prevails and can be seen in phrases and expressions used in court.

For instance, in one trial the judge defined perinatal asphyxia as “the aggression produced against the newborn baby near the moment of birth because of lack of oxygen,” a definition that assumes culpability and does not have a scientific basis. 

Meanwhile, El Salvador has a strikingly low conviction rate for rape and sexual violence. 

“I was the victim, and I was considered guilty,” Santos said. “My rapist, who was responsible for everything that was happening to me? He was all fine, outside with his kids and his family.”

The overall landscape remains precarious. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele once supported loosening abortion restrictions as the mayor of San Salvador for the left-wing FMLN party but has since backtracked after aligning with right-wing politicians to secure the presidency. Women’s rights advocates say the government already dragged its feet in implementing the Inter-American Court’s Manuela ruling on doctors no longer referring women to police for suspected abortions.

Meanwhile, women are still being tried for abortion in El Salvador—eight have ongoing trials. Santos looks forward to the day when women will no longer face this kind of prosecutorial environment.

“I hope more women don’t experience the same situation. When you go through these moments, you feel cornered on all sides,” she said.

LIMA, Peru—When Dina Boluarte was abruptly sworn in on Dec. 7, 2022, the fact that she was the first female president in Peru’s 201-year history was widely noted, yet barely explored by Peruvian media. Journalists had other things on their minds: Boluarte’s inauguration took place just hours after her predecessor Pedro Castillo was impeached for attempting to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, bringing down the curtain on a 17-month administration that had tipped the Andean republic into unremitting political instability and chaos. 

Boluarte’s professional credentials as a lawyer felt like a qualitative leap forward for the presidency—regardless of the fact that she, like her predecessor, had never held public office before becoming vice president for the self-declared Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party in the June 2021 elections.

The youngest of 14 children from a working-class family in the remote Andean market town of Chalhuanca, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, Boluarte said in her maiden presidential speech that her priority would be to fight for “the nobodies, the excluded, the others, to have the opportunity and access that has historically been denied to them.”

A woman wearing a sash with Peru's flag on it stands in a courtroom with a yellow suit and has her arms raised in the air
Vice President Dina Boluarte sworn in as Peru’s new leader after Congress removes President Pedro Castillo. (Photo by Congress of Republic of Peru / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“More than a politician, I am a Peruvian citizen and mother who fully understands the high responsibility that history has put on my shoulders,” she declared. “Responding to that high responsibility is [a show of] my respect for the millions of Peruvian mothers who day after day provide sustenance for their families.” 

Now, three months since Boluarte’s swearing in, her presidency has descended into a dark mess of severe human rights violations, its legitimacy decimated by allegations of principle-free political opportunism, brutal authoritarianism, and racism. It looks increasingly inevitable that Peru’s first ever female president will face a similar fate to Castillo, the country’s first ever campesino president (in Peru, the term means someone of indigenous ancestry who works the land), with a post-presidency dogged by legal problems and a potentially lengthy jail sentence.

At the time of writing, 48 Peruvians had been killed by security forces, some while protesting violently; some while demonstrating peacefully; and some who were just bystanders, including a medical intern treating an injured protester. Another dozen people died after protestors’ road blockades prevented them from receiving emergency medical treatment, and one police officer was found dead in a burnt-out patrol car. 

In a searing report released in February, Amnesty International warned that Boluarte had presided over an out-of-control police and armed forces that, motivated by “systemic racism ingrained in Peruvian society,” had repeatedly violated international human rights standards by using “lethal ammunition to control demonstrations.” Many Peruvians view Boluarte as having blood on her hands. Three-quarters want her to resign.

“We are not celebrating her presidency,” Indigenous feminist activist Tarcila Rivera Zea said. “For us, it has meant pain and sadness, with so many deaths. More than anything else, it is a feeling of frustration and disappointment.

A man wearing an orange backpack and white hard hat with yellow gloves raises his harms in front of a group of police with shields.
Protesters clash with the police during a demonstration against the government of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte in Lima on February 4, 2023. (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images)

Boluarte, 60, who is bilingual in Spanish and the indigenous Quechua language, started her presidency relatively well. Indeed, in her inaugural address, she distanced herself from Castillo, referencing her “revulsion” at his flagrant alleged graft and condemning his “attempted coup.” Having been expelled from the Free Peru party nearly a year earlier after openly disagreeing with the party’s more extreme politics—and after managing to stay clear of her predecessor’s endless corruption scandals—she had some credibility in the matter. 

But her legacy, to the extent she has one, will remain inseparable from that of her predecessor. This is not only a matter of the authoritarian excesses of her leadership over security forces, but also her emphasis on social conservatism, which has been one of the few areas of common ground between Free Peru’s presidential administrations and the hard-right congressional majority. Free Peru’s campaign manifesto has even been accused of advocating “machismo Leninism” for accusing the state of “subcontracting” its obligation to provide for the children of separated parents to absent fathers by requiring them to pay child support.

“It’s also a lesson learned,” Rivera Zea added. “What her presidency shows is that it is not enough to be a woman or speak Quechua if you don’t have that sensibility or identification with the historically excluded. She could have been a president who showed strength, wisdom, justice, and respect for human rights. Instead, she has aligned herself with the worst in Peruvian politics.”

Far from being carried on the back of a feminist wave, Boluarte’s rise to power came at a particularly challenging time for gender rights in Peru, even as some other Latin American nations have been relaxing restrictions on abortion and increasingly tackling gender violence. Peru was already one of the most socially conservative societies in Latin America, with what are thought to be some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the region, and where abortion is only allowed in cases where the mother’s health is at risk.

It is unclear whether Boluarte has ever identified with the feminist movement, although she has shown an appreciation of gender issues. “[Boluarte’s] not a feminist in the sense of a feminist activist,” Alexandra Ames, a political scientist at Lima’s University of the Pacific, said. “But she’s definitely a woman who feels that she has got ahead by working hard, harder than men would normally have to, and seems to have that awareness.”

While she was vice president, Boluarte also served as minister for development and social inclusion, a role that would normally have a strong gender component. During that time, gender rights came under a sustained assault from lawmakers, one that might have been met with effective resistance from a different executive.

Members of Congress sought to further restrict already highly limited abortion rights with a blanket ban, and change the name of the Ministry of Women to the Ministry for the Family—a switch that in Peru’s machista society could have potentially life-and-death policy consequences for, for example, women facing abusive partners. 

But the most damaging counter reform has been a new law allowing parents to block classes with a gender focus—or, as Peruvian conservatives call it, gender ideology. 

First introduced to the national curriculum in 2004, gender focus concepts, which include sex education, were aimed at raising awareness among boys and girls of the harms caused by Peru’s patriarchal culture—everything from wage disparities to femicide. Conservatives, often fundamentalist evangelical Christians, caricature gender focus as “cultural Marxism” that encourages premature sexual activity and pressures children into homosexuality and transgenderism.

“Getting rid of gender focus will do enormous damage,” warned Gloria Montenegro, former minister of women. “You’re getting rid of sex education, of a girl’s right to understand herself, to make informed choices, or have good self-esteem. What is so lamentable is that in Peru, we already have so many cases of physical and sexual abuse, of women being raped, often in their own homes, and this is going to make all of that worse.” 

Throughout the debate over the curriculum, Boluarte was notable for her silence. She did, at different points during her work as a minister, show protocolary support for gendered development policies, including to empower indigenous women. But she failed to provide any substantive leadership, much less confront the attack on gender focus.

Boluarte did restore gender parity in her government after Castillo’s notorious cabinet appointments, which were not just overwhelmingly male but frequently involved ministers with a track record of misogynistic statements and even domestic abuse—including, briefly, one prime minister

Ironically, however, that parity was just a return to the status quo ante in a country which, despite its entrenched patriarchy, had previously had some half dozen female prime ministers. Indeed, at one point, just before Castillo’s surprise election victory, almost all the major roles of state barring the presidency had been occupied by women, including the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, speaker of Congress, chief prosecutor, head of the judiciary, and chair of the constitutional court.

Boluarte’s term is scheduled to end in 2026, although the deadly repression of anti-government protests means she faces huge and potentially irresistible pressure to resign. Either way, her story as Peru’s first female president seems unlikely to end happily.

Montenegro said Boluarte’s mistake was not realizing she didn’t need to cross the political aisle to build a base of power. “She abandoned the Free Peru program, which, as a party of the left, had a strong social agenda, especially for rural Peru,” she said. “She’s an Andean woman; she should have understood. Where’s the political skill, the ability to broker political compromise and then sell that to the population?”

Protesters are now demanding a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution capable of addressing stark economic injustices. However, a new constitution could also entrench gender inequality. Although there have been no polls on the issue of gender rights in a new constitution, surveys show that most voters want a conservative Magna Carta when it comes to social issues, including prohibiting same-sex marriage and reinstating both compulsory military service and the death penalty.

As for Boluarte personally, the moment she loses her presidential immunity she faces criminal exposure as a head of government who presided over heavily armed police and soldiers gunning down anti-government protesters.

“She’s going to have very serious problems with the justice system,” Montenegro said. “She doesn’t seem to understand that there is no statute of limitations for human rights violations.”

On Aug. 16, 2021, the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban and the United States began its hasty withdrawal, journalist Zahra Joya woke up in despair.

Joya, then 28, was a woman to be reckoned with. Eight months earlier, using money from her government salary, she founded Rukhshana Media, a newsroom committed to listening to women and telling their stories. By 2021, it had already produced articles that won international acclaim. Now, the Taliban threatened to dismantle all she had built.

Today, 18 months later, her newsroom is a fraction of what it once was, and most of her staff toil in secret. But they persist, often anonymously—shining a sliver of light into the increasingly dark world of the women of Afghanistan.

The United States and other Western governments should take note. The women of Afghanistan, after 20 years of relative freedom, will not be content to slink into the shadows. Their continued protest and fight are an essential lever of power for the United States and all other countries that share a stake in promoting recovery and ultimately peace and security in Afghanistan.

How a nation state empowers or disempowers women is a key predictor of how it will behave among the community of nations. More than two decades of research have affirmed that women are essential to security, and their well-being and empowerment play a determinant role in the prevention of war and assurance of peace. We also know that women have a central role in advancing democratic freedom.

Simply put, it is in the strategic interest of the United States to create and maintain a foreign policy that prioritizes women. To do so, it will first have to understand what it got so terribly wrong in Afghanistan.

Whatever gains women made in Afghanistan during the past two decades have mostly slipped away over the last 18 months. In 2021, women held 27 percent of the seats in Afghanistan’s National Assembly, worked in government positions, and attended university. Afghanistan and the international community financed the training and deployment of thousands of midwives, reducing the maternal death rate from 1,600 women per 100,000 births in 2002 to 638 women per 100,000 births in 2017.

Now, a steady drumbeat of onerous restrictions ensure that women are kept in their homes, unable to access jobs, health care, and education. This year, the Taliban ordered all female health care workers to wear a full hijab, including face coverings. In late December 2022, Taliban leaders issued a decree that bars Afghan women from working for nongovernmental organizations. The lost income from barring women from the workforce could cost Afghanistan as much as 5 percent of its GDP or about $1 billion, according to the United Nations—plunging the country deeper into poverty, exacerbating food insecurity, and threatening stability.

The United States and its allies in the war on terrorism invested billions of dollars to bolster the status of women in Afghanistan, pushing programs to elevate basic health care, include women in governance, and advance educational opportunities. Many of them fell short.

For example, the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs—with support from the internationally funded, U.N.-administered Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan—set a goal of hiring 5,000 female police officers by June 2014, yet it failed to plan for and build restroom and locker room facilities to accommodate them. Afghanistan never reached its goal. That, in turn, created a counterinsurgency security gap. In a gender-segregated society, female police officers are essential for conducting searches of women at checkpoints. Now, some suicide bombers disguise themselves as women to evade searches.

We already know in many cases that the programs created to advance women’s inclusion lacked a key component: the voices of Afghan women on the ground, the only people who truly understand how to navigate the strictures of Afghanistan’s male-controlled society. The United States’ 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act affirms that women’s rights should be at the center of peace and security planning. Yet in the reality of the war-fighting bureaucracy, women are often an afterthought. Indeed, the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, two essential documents that guide the country’s peace and security posture, included few references to gender issues except with regard to gender-based violence.

Engaging in a war and subsequent stability operation without this key intelligence has real consequences. The United States “often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls,” which led U.S. agencies to set unrealistic goals, wrote John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in his August 2021 report, “Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.” As Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, pointed out at a recent Atlantic Council panel I moderated, had the United States done more to empower women and done it better, Afghanistan might look different today. “When the dust settles and we finally go back and analyze all the things that went wrong [in Afghanistan], one of them will certainly be that we did not fully ensure the meaningful participation of women in Afghanistan,” Verveer said.

These shortcomings deserve close examination, both for reasons of accountability and the potential to learn from these mistakes. From its start, the George W. Bush administration used women’s rights and empowerment as a justification for its war in Afghanistan. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” then-first lady Laura Bush said during the administration’s weekly radio address, delivered on Nov. 17, 2001—a little more than a month after U.S. ground troops began their assault. She focused on the suffering of women and children under the brutal rule of the Taliban. In the Obama administration, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Taliban that women’s rights were nonnegotiable, and she led efforts to advance understanding of the connection between gender and security within government.

Yet 20 years of war and more than $2 trillion later, the Taliban are back in power, and women are once again veiled, shut in their homes, and excluded from civic life. Given the grandeur of past gender goals and scope of the United States’ failure, U.S. taxpayers deserve a reckoning. The U.S. response to the fall of Kabul raises stark questions about whether women’s rights are valued, especially in the midst of a crisis. As the Taliban took over Kabul, officials scrambled—caught off guard—and turned to civil society to help evacuate and get visas for women leaders, who faced imminent danger.

If the United States wants to maintain peace, stabilize rogue nations, and ensure that its next military endeavor succeeds, it must examine how its policies and practices to support and empower women went so dreadfully wrong in Afghanistan. We need to know what went well so we can replicate it—and what failed so we can fix it.

The bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission is tasked by Congress with conducting a review of U.S. military, intelligence, foreign assistance, and diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan. The 16 commissioners include only two women, a composition that hardly lives up to the United States’ own Women, Peace, and Security Act, which affirms the importance of women having a full seat at the policymaking table. If this commission is tasked with examining 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan and gleaning the lessons learned with regard to women’s rights, then it is seemingly off to a poor start.

Afghanistan—the failures endured and the inroads achieved—provides some of the most important potential policymaking lessons in recent history related to applying a gender lens to foreign policy, lessons that stand to be lost if not given their full due by this commission. Gender issues are such a pervasive contributor to the United States’ failures in the country that one could argue they deserve to stand at the center of this effort, if not as a stand-alone commission.

We don’t know—and may never know—whether a different approach to women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan would have changed the outcome, but we need to ask the questions. The findings should inform U.S. security strategy going forward.

Until we have better answers, we must do what we can to keep what little the United States built for the women in Afghanistan from crumbling further and to support Afghan women leaders, both inside and outside the country, who have established inroads to support others—even if the effort takes decades. The Taliban are erasing women from public life in Afghanistan, wrote Richard Bennett, U.N. special rapporteur on Afghanistan, in a recent report. Women said they feel targeted and unsafe, but “they continue to resist violations of their human rights,” he wrote. “We know that what has happened to us is not right. Some of us could have left the country, but we did not. We decided to stay and fight for women’s place in Afghan society,” the women told Bennett.

Afghan women don’t have the option to walk away from the consequences of the failed promises that now govern their daily lives. The U.S. government shouldn’t either. The United States cannot hide in the shadow of its failures and hope to dodge its responsibilities. The situation is dire, and the world is watching.

The arc of history is long. If the United States give up on supporting women in a forceful way, then it will pay for it down the line. Not investing in the well-being of women is a factor in military failure. If the United States and its allies want any chance at maintaining stability and security in the region, then they must support women leaders at every level, both in and outside of Afghanistan, to promote immediate and long-term work as well as spur other countries to do the same. Most importantly, they must listen to the women of Afghanistan. That’s why we at the Fuller Project continue to support Afghanistan’s female journalists by publishing their stories and amplifying their voices—women like Joya.

Joya’s life in Afghanistan mirrors the triumphs and struggles of the women and girls of Afghanistan. She began her life under Taliban rule, dressing as a boy to attend her elementary school. In 2001, after the United States chased the Taliban from the country, Joya shed her disguise, finished her education, and embarked on her journalism career. She was often the only woman in the newsroom. The absence of women’s voices motivated her to create Rukhshana Media, named for a young woman stoned to death by the Taliban.

Joya belongs to a generation of women who experienced an Afghan society free of the Taliban. She is accustomed to freedom, and she feels its absence acutely. She feels, she said, like she has traveled back in time.

These days, Joya works in exile after Taliban threats against female journalists forced her to flee Kabul. She edits stories from her remaining colleagues in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took power in August 2021, 2,490 women worked as journalists. By December 2021, that number had dwindled to 410, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“It’s very painful and sad,” Joya told actress Angelina Jolie in an interview for Time magazine’s Women of the Year. “Honestly, we don’t do simple journalism these days; we are trying to write for our freedom.”

She is ready to do her part to pull Afghanistan back. She wants to hire more journalists, tell more stories, and maintain the freedom of expression she sees as her birthright.

That is democracy building worthy of investment.

PATTAYA, Thailand—The neon-lit red light district screams of sex.

In an apartment near Pattaya’s infamous Walking Street, Auchanaporn Pilasata studies her reflection in the mirror, applies another layer of plum-shade lipstick, and touches up her black eyeliner. In the corner of her mirror are two photographs: one from when she looked like a scrawny 15-year-old boy, and another, post-transition, as the stunning woman she is today.

The 37-year-old, who goes by Anna, has been a transgender sex worker for 17 years. While transitioning, she left a low-paying job in a cosmetics packaging factory on the outskirts of Bangkok to become a cabaret dancer in nearby Pattaya, a beach town with a reputation for wild nightlife. She took a temporary job at a “special” massage parlor to earn some cash. Her very first client propositioned her for sex.

“He said, ‘I give you 3,000 baht [$85]. One hour,’” Anna recalled. “[When] I worked in factory, [I made] 6,000 baht in one month. This is the beginning [of] my story [as a] sex worker.”

Thai sex workers wait for customers in the street of Soi Nana on Sukhumvit road, a notorious hang out for foreigners looking for sex workers. (Photo by Olivier CHOUCHANA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Thailand has long been one of the world’s major sex tourism destinations. Estimates of sex work’s contribution to GDP vary widely because the industry operates almost entirely underground. But in 2015, the black market research company Havocscope valued it at $6.4 billion per year—about 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP that year.

Despite earning billions annually, the industry is effectively illegal, controversial among Thais, and highly stigmatized. Now, the debate over sex work is spilling into public forums, with a progressive lawmaker introducing a bill in parliament to legalize it. Its proponents argue that criminalization has deprived sex workers of basic labor rights and protections enjoyed by other workers, making them more vulnerable to health risks, harassment, exploitation, and violence—while making sex work itself no less visible.

Visiting Thailand and not noticing any sex workers? It’s like going to “KFC and you never see fried chicken,” Anna said.

The majority of sex workers in the world are women, and a 2017 projection by the Thai Department of Disease Control conservatively estimated that 129,000 of 144,000 sex workers in the country were female. But it’s men who make the decisions about what they can do with their bodies.

Women held 16 percent of Thailand’s parliamentary seats in 2021, the same figure as 10 years ago. By comparison, women made up 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s governing assembly and 28 percent of the U.S. Congress that year.

The fight for legalization is an uphill battle. Conservative factions within the country and global anti-trafficking organizations remain strongly opposed to sex work. The U.S. Agency for International Development calls Thailand a “source, transit, and destination country” for trafficking, and opponents of the bill say the sex industry enables widespread abuse of women and children across the country and in neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

Surviving day by day

Historical reports of sex work existing in Thailand date back to the 1300s. The modern sex industry in Thailand boomed while serving a wave of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s, Japanese soldiers during World War II, and U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. But many Thais grew resentful of its visibility and notoriety. The country adopted the Suppression of Prostitution Act in 1960, followed by the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, which outlawed almost all of the activities associated with sex work and income earned from it.

The push against prostitution was further bolstered in the 2000s, when the U.S. government, the religious right, and abolitionist feminists came together in an unlikely alliance. Their goal was to eliminate prostitution. The U.S. movement gained traction globally as those forces traveled to campaign against sex work in countries abroad, including Thailand.

Within Thailand, officials often downplay the prevalence of prostitution in order to present a more positive view of the country to the outside world and appease constituents opposed to sex work. After a Jan. 14 inspection, police said they were “satisfied” after finding no “illegal prostitutes” working in Pattaya, much to the amusement of social media commentators.

“Why don’t they ask all the girl [sic] standing all around if they have seen some sexworkers,” one Facebook user posted.

In practice, the revenues from sex work sustain a robust illicit economy and can be an important lifeline for women whose backgrounds range from educated college graduates to poor rural farmers. Many believe that some form of legal recognition, either decriminalization or legalization, would help to reduce violence against sex workers and give them rights and benefits that would help them, particularly during difficult financial times.

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and global tourism dried up, around 91 percent of Thai sex workers lost their jobs due to lockdowns, border closures, and social-distancing measures, according to the World Health Organization. As illegal workers, they did not qualify for government relief benefits during the pandemic.

“A lot of [sex workers] could not pay the rent and they had to sleep on the street,” said Supachai Sukthongsa, the Pattaya manager of Service Workers in Group (SWING), a services and support group. “They worked and cleaned up at the bar in exchange for small money and food, just enough to survive day by day.”

The pandemic also reduced access to health care services. Whether they get their business through dating apps, pimps, or on the street, sex workers face numerous risks to their health and safety. The Sex Workers Project, an advocacy organization based in New York, found that sex workers globally face a 45 percent to 75 percent chance of experiencing violence on the job. Transgender women such as Anna face an added layer of danger from clients who turn violent after discovering their identities.

“When I go to the police station,” Anna said, they don’t “help me because [of] my job, because I work illegal work here in Thailand.”

Two women sit in the back of a police truck.
Two Thai women are transported in a pickup truck after being arrested by the police for selling sex on the streets in Pattaya city. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sex workers frequently accuse Thai police of extorting or ignoring them. Researchers such as Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist and professor with expertise in sex work in Thailand, also accuse police of being heavily involved in sex tourism and profiting off of the industry.

“The authorities, especially the police, have a vested interest in keeping prostitution illegal,” Weitzer said. “They get payoffs.”

Gen. Surachate Hakparn, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, said he believes legalizing sex work could cut down on such activities.

“I admit that there is corruption going on, but it’s only a fraction of police officers doing that,” he said. “From a law enforcement perspective, if it is legalized, it’s good for the police. We don’t need to keep disciplining our subordinates about corruption. And we can put the resources and time into something else.”

Push for legalization gathers momentum

Globally, the legal status of sex work is divided into three broad categories: criminalization, legalization, and decriminalization.

The legalization model regulates the registration, health care, and welfare of sex workers. In contrast, the decriminalization model simply removes penalties for pursuing the activity.

There are also hybrid models, such as the Nordic model in countries such as Sweden and Norway, which blend elements of legalization and decriminalization.

It’s the criminalization model that’s employed by about half the world, including most of the United States. It involves the criminalization of every party: the seller, the buyer, and third parties such as pimps or traffickers.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, published by an Australian human rights organization, Thailand is home to about 610,000 human trafficking victims. Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says most of these victims are trafficked for manual labor, some women and girls are forced into sex work.

While the U.S. government says the Thai government is doing an increasingly good job fighting against trafficking, hard-line anti-traffickers remain vehemently against legalization.

“It’s consumption with nothing in return,” said Sanphasit Koompraphant, the chairperson of Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Alliance. “It’s sexual exploitation.”

But the criminalization model most anti-traffickers support has come increasingly under attack from sex work activists.

A growing body of research shows that criminalization forces sex workers to operate under more dangerous conditions, increasing risks of sexually transmitted infections, physical abuse, and exploitation—including by police. Aside from stigmatizing the work, bans also mean that many sex workers will end up with a criminal record if caught soliciting, making it harder for them to get other jobs and pushing them deeper into the sex industry.

Weitzer argues that criminalizing sex work has not succeeded in stopping its proliferation and has strong parallels to the U.S. war on drugs.

“The evidence is clear that it’s a complete failure,” he said.

In June 2022, Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, a progressive parliamentarian with the upstart Move Forward Party, drafted a bill that would establish designated zones for legal sex work. To ensure compliance with its proposed regulations, he said the bill calls for random checks to be carried out to verify licenses, the age of the sex workers, and whether illegal drugs are present.

He said the bill also outlines how the industry will be taxed and specifies locations where it can’t be practiced or advertised, such as near temples and schools.

“It has to [be] away from the children,” Tunyawaj said.

But some sex workers also oppose legalization. Juno Mac, a prominent sex worker and activist, said legalization can create a “two-tiered system” in which wealthier establishments can afford to comply with regulations, while marginalized sex workers operating independently cannot.

Rather than the special regulation and taxation that comes with legalization, Mac prefers decriminalization, which treats sex work like any other work.

Sex worker rights activist seen wearing a cosplay of Gangubai Kathiawadi movie during a pride parade demonstration. (Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Weitzer noted that decriminalization also has limitations, with the lack of regulations allowing existing bad actors—rampant throughout the industry—to continue exploiting workers.

But its supporters say the decriminalization model is more likely to help sex workers better integrate into mainstream society.

“If [we have] legalization, that means that we have the specific law to say this kind of job [is] legal. But we don’t want to have a specific law,” said Surang Janyam, the founder and director of SWING. “If we have specific laws for sex workers, we should have specific laws with every occupation. Decriminalize will [make us] equal as other people.”

Whether through legalization or decriminalization, Weitzer said the odds are stacked against changing the legal status of sex work.

“The majority of legislators are opposed to it, and every time it’s been proposed in the past, I don’t think it’s even gotten out of committee,” Weitzer said.

The last major push was in 2003, when proposed legislation was debated but failed to pass.

Tunyawaj’s June 2022 bill was not reviewed by the board of the parliamentary committee for youth, women, and other vulnerable groups until November 2022. At that point, the committee recommended transferring it to Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. The draft bill will be reviewed again in the next term of the government, and Tunyawaj hopes that having the backing of the Ministry will improve its chances. The fate of the bill now rests in the hands the new government, which will be elected in May.

If reelected, Tunyawaj promises to “keep pushing this bill.”

His coalition is growing. Surachate said the main thing missing is political will.

“The government can solve this matter, if they take it seriously,” he said.

Neha Wadekar is a Nairobi-based journalist.

Navaon Siradapuvadol contributed reporting to this article.

This story was supported by the United Nations Foundation.

JHARGRAM, India—The U.N. World Food Programme describes it as “eating last and least.” Alaka Mahato calls it “eating light.”

The small rice and vegetable field behind her home that supplies much of her family’s food yielded only 40% of its normal half-ton harvest after unusually heavy rains last November, well after the monsoon ended in September. The result is that the 52-year-old’s budget for groceries is suffocatingly tight, and her pantry is bare: no onions, potatoes, or any of the other staples found in most Indian kitchens. 

On days when there isn’t enough food for her household of three, Mahato will make do with what’s left after her husband and youngest daughter finish eating—a handful of rice and some water. Sometimes she asks her adult daughter, who lives in a separate household, for financial help, though this creates conflict at home.

“My husband says we will not take money from our daughter. But then we will have to die,” Mahato says.

Food sits in two different pots on the floor.
Many kitchens in Jhargram lack most of the staples common in South Asian pantries, such as potato and onions. (Ritwika Mitra for The Fuller Project)

Around the world, women eat less than men under tough conditions such as conflict, famine, or disasters. The World Food Programme predicts that climate change will produce economic and environmental shocks that will exacerbate this inequality, and it says this impact can already be seen in places like Mahato’s hometown. Jhargram, a district not far from the Bay of Bengal and the Sundarbans rainforest, is one of West Bengal’s many climate hot spots—areas that are especially affected by global warming. Over the past decade, agriculture here has been disrupted by intense flooding, cyclones, and sea level rise.

The hunger gap between the genders had been shrinking in recent decades, but it rose dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. CARE International, a global humanitarian organization, estimates that 150 million more women than men went hungry in 2021, compared with a difference of just 17.9 million in 2018.

Its analysis drew from several global data sets, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest report on the state of food security, which found that the hunger gap grew in 2020 and 2021, fueled by widening disparities in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. The U.N. attributed this to the disproportionate impact that the pandemic-triggered economic crisis has had on women, saying they were more affected by job and income losses and bore a larger caregiving burden, looking after sick family members and children out of school. 

Researchers at CARE say this should serve as a warning about the likely impacts of climate shocks on hunger levels among men and women. One shortcoming is that sex-disaggregated food indicators in major global data sets focus mainly on women’s reproductive role, such as statistics about anemia among women of childbearing age. This means policymakers can fail to detect a nutritional crisis in which men are relatively well-fed compared with women, unless it shows up in anemia statistics. It also means food crises disproportionately affecting elderly women don’t register at all.

“Yes, it’s true that women eat last and least, but what we’re trying to unpack is the root cause,” says Gregory Spira, the head of the gender, food, and climate justice programs at CARE. Not only do patriarchal norms in many vulnerable countries result in policy responses designed primarily with men’s needs in mind, he says, but they also create social pressure on women to put men’s needs ahead of their own.

A woman sits on her bed.
Bedani Shabar, an indigenous widow, says food was almost impossible to find during India’s COVID-19 lockdown in 2021. (Ritwika Mitra for The Fuller Project)

“When there’s a shock or misallocation of resources, we really see women not having the power to take action. Women don’t have the power to make decisions about what they eat, when they eat. Without that decision-making power, women cannot control basic questions. As climate change advances, there is increased competition when it comes to food and everything else, and women lose out because they’re disadvantaged compared to men.”

The CARE report highlighted the problem in India, where many women and girls suffer from hunger in spite of strong economic growth that has led the International Monetary Fund to project the country will become the world’s third-largest economy by 2027.

India slipped from 94th place in 2020 to 107th out of 121 countries in this year’s Global Hunger Index, a report compiled by Irish and German aid agencies. The country is home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people, according to the World Food Programme. 

The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy interviewed several women in Jhargram, including Mahato, who said they regularly eat less than their husbands and children. The impact can be glimpsed in the prevalence of anemia cases in West Bengal among females ages 15 to 49, which rose from 62.5% in 2015-2016 to 71.4% in 2019-2020, according to the latest available data from the Indian government’s National Family Health Survey. Officials in the region point to climate change as the primary factor behind the increase, with the data covering a period before the pandemic had a significant impact in India. 

The late rains last year came after Jhargram, like much of the southern part of the state of West Bengal, had already been hit by several cyclones and floods in recent years. The region is home to over 30 million people. 

“If there is drought, there is extreme drought. When there is rainfall, there is extreme rainfall,” says Joy Chakraborty, an assistant director with the local government’s department of agriculture in Jhargram. “The maximum temperatures are shooting up, and the soil is so hot that you will find it difficult to breathe.”

Most of the population here belongs to groups officially designated as marginalized tribes or castes, a population the World Food Programme says will “face the brunt” of a climate-driven rise in hunger. Chakraborty says almost everyone here relies on a system of government rations—food supplied by the government to those who live below the poverty line. 

Under strain from the impacts of climate change and the pandemic, the system is falling short. Indigenous women have staged protests over claims that they haven’t been paid for work they’ve performed under West Bengal’s guaranteed rural employment scheme, as the state budget struggles to cope with the demands placed on it. The Right to Food & Work Campaign, a network of advocacy organizations in the state, said at a news conference that the nonpayment of wages significantly affected hunger among single women and widows.

Women are increasingly becoming primary breadwinners for their homes as climate change pushes men to migrate away to find work outside their towns and villages. As agricultural production in the area suffers due to climate change, males are prioritized in terms of getting fed, leaving women and their girls so hungry they say they struggle to function and focus at work and school. Predatory behavior has also increased as local economies collapse and people become more desperate. Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in trafficking in the Sundarbans, with young girls getting kidnapped by neighbors or sold by family members to traffickers or into early marriage.

A young girl stands next to plants picking them.
Bedani Shabar fears a balanced diet is and will remain a distant reality for her 10-year-old daughter Padmarani. (Ritwika Mitra for The Fuller Project)

Bedani Shabar, a woman belonging to an Indigenous group who also frequently eats less than the rest of her family, says the food distribution system broke down during the first pandemic lockdown in 2020. “There was a lot of distress then,” she recalls. “It was a situation where there was no food. And there were no rations. We had to survive on rice with salt.”

Then there’s the lack of protein. Families receive only rice, wheat, and whole-wheat flour from the government.

“No eggs, no milk, no lentils,” says Shabar’s 10-year-old daughter, Padmarani, when talking about her diet. Mahato’s 14-year-old daughter, Urmila, says she can’t focus at school and gets frequent headaches. She says her periods are irregular, missing one every other month—a common problem for girls who lack adequate nutrition.

Three out of five pregnant women in West Bengal are anemic, and their protein-poor diet will have generational impacts, warns Abhay Bang, a doctor and community health researcher, adding that the effect will be particularly pronounced in the area’s Indigenous communities.

“When an Indigenous girl transitions into adulthood, she has smaller body size, less height, and low weight—when she gives birth, the baby born to her will also be small in size,” he says. “The next generation will be affected, and this cycle will continue.”

Maher Sattar in New York contributed to this article.

When headlines scream of war, economic collapse, and rising authoritarianism, stories about women and how they drive change are often silenced. Yet women are on the front lines of every crisis and conflict. In 2022, they have pushed against entrenched interests to chip away at social norms and rules that often keep them from reaching their full potential. They have won office, changed laws, enlisted allies, and made real progress in the struggle for equality.

Since 2018, The Fuller Project has partnered with Foreign Policy to examine critical issues pertaining to women’s rights around the world. This reporting features in our shared “The Full Story” column and beyond. Here is a collection of the most profound ways women have made an impact this year, as chronicled by The Fuller Project and FP.

As we look to 2023, there is reason for hope.

1. Iran’s protest movement

Since the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police—which enforced strict religious rules, including an Islamic dress code—Iranian women and their allies have poured into the streets of Tehran as well as localities large and small to protest their government’s decadeslong oppression of women. Protesters are risking arrest and death: At least 481 demonstrators have so far been killed by Iranian authorities, according to reports from the Human Rights Activists News Agency in Iran.

Iranian women’s bid to reclaim their rights has earned widespread international support and prompted solidarity protests in cities from Seoul to Toronto. Many Iran fans at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar even held signs emblazoned with the movement’s slogan: “Women, Life, Freedom.” Iran’s players faced swift reprisals from their government when, in support of the protesters, they refused to sing the national anthem at their opening match against England.

This month, Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, announced that the government had abolished the morality police in an apparent concession to protesters. The announcement did little to quell the unrest. As Sina Toossi argued in Foreign Policy, “it would be a mistake to assume the government’s move represents anything other than an incremental shift.”

2. Climate change advocacy

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that women account for 80 percent of those displaced by climate change. Yet because women often work in the informal economy, the toll that environmental catastrophe takes on their livelihoods may be undocumented or unrecognized. The Fuller Project’s Disha Shetty reported from Pune, India, in July and found that an unbearably hot summer in South Asia led to a precipitous drop in productivity and income for women who work in or near their homes.

It should come as no surprise, then, that women are at the forefront of the global climate movement. From the Fridays for Future movement led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg—which counts 14 million members in 7,500 cities—to the Green Generation Initiative led by Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wathuti—which has planted more than 30,000 trees in that country—to the Rise Up Movement led by Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate—which works to save the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s rainforest—women have demanded and received a seat at the negotiating table. Participating countries at the U.N. climate change conference in November, known as COP27, agreed to create a “loss and damage” fund to support developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. An idea previously considered fringe, these activists helped bring loss and damage into the mainstream.

3. Latin America’s green wave

Protestors stand outside celebrating the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia.
Pro-Choice demonstrators celebrate outside the Justice Palace after the Constitutional Court voted in favor of decriminalizing abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation on February 21, 2022 in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Guillermo Legaria Schweizer/Getty Images)

This year, a grassroots movement of women demanding reproductive autonomy continued its march across Latin America. The so-called green wave began in Rosario, Argentina, in 2003 with a gathering of 10,000 women in green bandanas who demanded the decriminalization of abortion and right to contraception in their country. It soon spread across the nation and culminated in a massive protest outside Argentina’s National Congress in 2019. In 2020, Argentina legalized abortion until 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Argentina’s green wave sparked protests in Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, and Colombia. In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that criminal prosecution for abortion is unconstitutional. This year, Colombia decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks, Ecuador legalized abortion in rape cases, and Mexico’s Quintana Roo became the last state in the country to decriminalize abortion following the 2021 court ruling.

All these steps toward reproductive rights in Latin America have appeared starker when compared to the trajectory of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark precedent Roe v. Wade case, which had guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion. Ten U.S. states have already enacted total bans on the procedure. Foreign Policy mapped how the U.S. downward spiral on abortion rights goes against the global current of liberalization, and The Fuller Project’s Erica Hensley chronicled how American women are fighting back.

FP’s Catherine Osborn argued that the green wave has been more successful than U.S. abortion rights activism because it is fundamentally focused on the intersection between issues. “Claims that legalizing abortion would not only promote privacy and individual choice (Roe’s linchpin) but also improve access to health care and decrease social inequalities have been key in victorious lawsuits in Latin America,” she wrote.

4. Ukraine’s women farmers

Even as Russian soldiers occupied her apricot orchard—and even as the bombs fell close enough that she could see the smoke plumes from her wheat fields—Nadiia Ivanova kept farming.

“I have 45 fields, large and small, and I found a Russian missile in each one of them,” Ivanova told Amie Ferris-Rotman, who was reporting for The Fuller Project near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, a Ukrainian-controlled territory near the Black Sea.

She is one of some 10,000 women who run farming enterprises in Ukraine and are fighting to keep up production. Ukraine is often referred to as the breadbasket of Europe and is a large supplier of wheat to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a global food shortage and a hunger crisis in the Middle East and Africa that disproportionately impacts women and girls. It grew so severe that the U.N. intervened over the summer to broker a deal with Turkey to ship grain safely out of Ukraine via the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s women farmers have persisted, however—housing and feeding Ukrainian soldiers as well as fighting to ensure their crops get to market. The women see food as their opportunity to do their part in the war effort.

“These are our weapons,” said farmworker Valentyna Fedorenko, holding up a bucket of fresh green cucumbers. “By feeding the people, we are equipping them to fight.

5. Afghan women resisting the Taliban

In the year since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, two decades of gains in women’s employment and education have all but disappeared. Fuller Project reporters have collaborated with Rukhshana Media, a woman-led Afghan newsroom, to document the new realities for women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan; in “The Full Story,” we have highlighted the plight of queer Afghans. The picture is grim.

The Taliban have ordered women to remain in their homes, barred women from most jobs, and reimposed mandatory face coverings for women in public. Women also may not travel without a male guardian. The new restrictions have limited women’s access to health care, education, and work. The U.N. said the lost income from barring women from the workforce could cost Afghanistan as much as 5 percent of its GDP, plunging the country into deeper poverty and exacerbating food insecurity.

Despite these setbacks, some Afghan women are rising up in rare protests—at great personal risk, reported FP’s Lynne O’Donnell. “Many activists want the world, and especially the United States, where successive administrations greased the path to the Taliban’s return to power, to do more to hold the regime to account,” she wrote.

These are stories of women fighting for rights, for themselves, and for others. Thousands more remain to be told.

KATHMANDU, Nepal—Around half the world’s population is expected to watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup final, but Sirmita Pasi won’t be among them.

Her husband, Ramsagar Pasi, departed for Qatar two years ago, tired of not finding employment in Banke, a mostly rural area in western Nepal. He was leaving to become a construction worker on soccer stadiums for the World Cup, she said, and made two promises. On his return, he’d upgrade their house, which was made of hay, mud, and wood; and he’d provide a quality education for their two children.

Instead, he came back this April in a coffin. He’s one of 6,500 South Asian migrant workers a Guardian investigation estimates died due to unexplained circumstances after working long hours in extreme heat in Qatar, in the decade since the country won the right to host FIFA’s flagship tournament. 

In almost all cases, their death certificates list cause of death as natural, unknown, cardiac failure, or respiratory failure. A World Health Organization expert called these descriptions “meaningless,” as they don’t explain what caused the cardiac or respiratory failures.

Pasi said she was told her husband died from a heart attack. She couldn’t believe it, even when she saw the 32-year-old’s body arrive at their courtyard.

“He was so young, so healthy,” Pasi said, who assumed more than $5,000 in debt from her late husband.

The most controversial World Cup in recent memory is now drawing to a close. Despite high-profile campaigns by human rights and LGBTQ groups, the event has delivered record viewership numbers for FIFA and the Qatari government is considering a bid for the Olympics. As the world moves on, widows like Pasi are left picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

In Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere in South Asia, these women bear what sociologists call the “triple burden”—taking on their husbands’ share of child care and housework as well as becoming the primary income earner. In South Asia, they also have to cope with the social stigma of being a widow, lack of agency, and conflicts with relatives over their husband’s assets. Widows who are immigrants also have difficulties obtaining official documentation of the death of their spouse.

But one of the biggest headaches for widows is debt, with most migrants borrowing heavily from local money lenders at high interest rates to fund their move abroad. Responsibility for the loans is passed on to their wives after their deaths, and now, thousands of widows across the subcontinent are saddled with thousands of dollars in debt.

“I have so many problems, not just one or two,” Pasi said. “How to earn, how to get food, how to raise my children.”

“How are you watching this”?

Namrata Raju, India director at Equidem

In Nepal, the government disburses compensation of about $5,000 to the families of dead migrants. Rights groups said this accomplishes little more than covering the debt the workers typically take on to go abroad.

Compensation schemes tend to be run on shoestring budgets where they do exist. Bangladesh’s program is funded by the government and also offers a modest $5,000. In India, which has experienced the highest number of deaths, states like Kerala with large numbers of migrants abroad offer a similar amount in compensation. Nepal’s fund is financed by the workers themselves, who contribute about $30 each before they leave the country.

#PayUpFIFA, a campaign of unions, fan groups, and advocacy organizations led by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is calling for FIFA and the government of Qatar to step in and provide $440 million in compensation to workers who’ve been exploited or injured and to the family members of those who’ve died.

The government of Qatar has said 400 to 500 workers have died. They argue the number of deaths is not unusual considering there are 2 million migrants in the country, making up an estimated 95 percent of the labor force. 

But campaigners said the numbers are indeed stark given most migrants are young and able-bodied and that the government’s estimate excludes thousands of deaths due to unexplained causes.

“In a well-resourced health care system, less than 1 percent of deaths should be effectively unexplained,” said Ella Knight, a researcher on migrant labor rights at Amnesty International. “Some of the data we’ve looked at out of Bangladesh shows that 70 percent of migrant deaths [in Qatar] were unexplained.”

People carry a body in a coffin outside of an airport in Nepal.
People load a coffin carrying body of Nepalese migrant worker who died in Qatar at Tribhuwan International airport in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo by Rojan Shrestha/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The amount the campaign is demanding is equivalent to the total prize money for the tournament. It’s received an ambivalent response from FIFA, which said it is willing to engage in continued dialogue. The demand has been laughed off by the Qatari government, whose labor minister called it a “publicity stunt.” 

The death of yet another migrant worker during the group stages of the tournament—a Filipino man who fell while performing repairs at a FIFA training base—provoked some reflection but not the kind campaigners were hoping for. Upon hearing about the accident, Qatar’s World Cup chief, Nasser al-Khater, observed: “Death is a natural part of life, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your sleep.”

Namrata Raju, India director at Equidem, one of the groups taking part in the #PayUpFIFA campaign, said a major obstacle in gathering support is that Qatar has business ties with most countries in the world—and so does FIFA.

“It’s a crisis of conscience,” she said. “This is a global labor question. Because how can a labor market like this exist in a modern era? Why should any country or any company be premised on modern-day slavery? It’s a question for every single football fan around the world. How are you watching this?”

Problems That Keep Compounding

Worried about the quality of the public education system in Nepal, the Pasi family had enrolled their two children in a private school with the expectation that Ramsagar’s income in Qatar would pay for it. Now, Pasi said she’ll be forced to pull her kids out of the school because they don’t have enough money for the next academic session’s tuition, which begins in April.

So many widows are in deep financial trouble after their husbands died in the Persian Gulf that researchers said they’ve discovered lenders exploiting their sense of vulnerability. 

Lekh Nath Paudel, a doctoral fellow at the University of Lausanne researching families of Nepali migrant workers, said financial institutions, such as microfinance organizations, tell women they could lose everything if their husbands die abroad, and they convince them to invest remittances into projects, such as small farms, that are often connected to those financial institutions.

Women farmers harvest crops on their farm.
Women in South Asia have to take on the “triple burden” of household duties, child care and being the sole breadwinner in the absence of their husbands. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“The fear of the death of migrant workers and the fear of injuries to migrant workers is being used as a tool to do emotional blackmail,” Paudel said. “Instead of leading to prosperity as promised, you’re more indebted because the money you’ve been sending back has been put into a particular enterprise, and often, the investment doesn’t work out. This triggers another round of migration.”

The loss of a husband can also be the loss of an important ally. Many women in South Asia, especially poor women like the wives of migrant workers in the Gulf, live with their in-laws. If their husbands die, then they have very little clout in conflicts with their in-laws over land, assets, and any compensation they might receive as a result of the death.

“Most widows are facing the problem of being denied any rights to property if they don’t do as the father-in-law or mother-in-law wishes,” said Sanju Jaiswal, who said her husband died in Qatar while working there as a food delivery worker.

Mohna Ansari, a former member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, said this problem is especially acute in the southern parts of Madhesh, which borders India and is Nepal’s smallest and most populous province, home to 6.1 million people of the roughly 30.4 million people in the country.

Many of the widows of migrant workers in that area come from across the border in India. Ansari said these women frequently don’t have citizenship papers or even marriage certificates, as in-laws hold off on getting these documents registered to maintain leverage over them.

“The in-laws are often suspicious that if they get the legal documents made, the wife will take control of the money or property and run away,” Ansari said. “She’s never seen as a full family member.”

In these circumstances, “the wife never gets the compensation—never,” she added.

Rubi Khatun, a widow in Madhesh province who is originally from India, said she still doesn’t have Nepali citizenship even though she was married to a Nepali man for 13 years. She said her husband was always working abroad and was never present in the country long enough for them to process their official documents. 

Two years ago, she said her 30-year-old husband returned from Qatar suffering from kidney problems and died soon after.

“After he died, I went to Kathmandu to claim compensation from the [government’s] foreign employment board,” Khatun said. “But I couldn’t get anything because of my citizenship.”

Khatun said the failed trip to Kathmandu cost her 50,000 rupees (or $384)—more than six times the $61 monthly salary she makes as a hotel cleaner raising two children by herself.

Although the compensation amount being demanded by the #PayUpFIFA campaign was chosen for its symbolic value, if it is successful, then it could have a concrete impact on the lives of indebted widows. In Pasi’s case, her husband originally borrowed about $1,400 (or 180,000 Nepali rupees) to pay recruiters to find him a job in Qatar. But the first job didn’t work out, and he had to take out more loans to find another gig. 

With 36 percent annual interest compounding these loans, she said the total owed has become more than $5,000. Pasi, a day laborer who earns $3 to $4 per day on other people’s farms, is now responsible for this amount.

“The money was taken from local money lenders,” she said. “The interest keeps multiplying every year. Money lenders keep coming to my home. They ask, ‘Give me money.’ Since we have problems even managing food, how can we settle loans? I’m really in a helpless situation.”

Maher Sattar is a Senior Editor at The Fuller Project (in New York).

Bhadra Sharma is a freelance journalist (in Kathmandu, who has written frequently for The New York Times and the Kathmandu Post)

The same week in February that Abbott, one of the top producers of baby formula in the United States, began a series of recalls that triggered a national shortage, the World Health Organization (WHO) released an important but little-noticed report. The researchers cataloged another problem with baby formula: There’s an overreliance on it in much of the world, and that’s the result of aggressive and misleading marketing by the companies producing it.

“Formula milk marketing knows no limits. It misuses and distorts information to influence decisions and practices,” the authors wrote. The report researched formula marketing practices in eight countries around the world but was largely overshadowed by news in the United States. 

The current shortage of formula in the United States underscores the need for substitute milk and there are circumstances when formula is indispensable, especially for working parents, parents with premature babies, or parents who are struggling to lactate. The need is so essential that the Biden administration announced earlier this month that it would import 44,000 pounds of Nestlé infant formula from Switzerland to distribute throughout the United States.

But the global health consensus is that breastmilk, whenever possible, is always better for infant health than commercial products. The benefits of breastfeeding have been well-documented: It improves immune systems to better protect babies against infections, and it reduces mothers’ risks of diabetes and even cancer. In wealthy countries, robust public health campaigns together with tighter scrutiny on corporate advertising mean mothers face better chances at making informed decisions about when to use milk formula.

Formula milk companies in Vietnam, meanwhile, deploy some of the most aggressive marketing strategies in the world, according to the WHO. Women are bombarded with television commercials and social media posts, often distorting science to legitimize claims and sell their products. Representatives of these companies, known as “promotional girls,” even stroll the halls of hospitals to befriend new and unsuspecting mothers.

The marketing is effective. About 76 percent of babies in Vietnam are fed formula, either partially or completely. The United Nations has set a target to bring that number down globally to 50 percent by 2025 — a goal the world will likely miss.

“It’s in rapidly advancing economies like Vietnam where they put a lot of energy,” says Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, a nutrition expert at the WHO. “They know that there’s going to be a growth in the market there. People’s incomes are rising, women are getting more and more active in the workforce, and so they do a lot of marketing.”

About one-third of all new mothers in Vietnam say they’ve been given samples, higher than any other country surveyed by the WHO except China. But the problem is global. The WHO research team also found such aggressive marketing tactics in Bangladesh, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. In one of the most outrageous cases, the WHO documented healthcare workers in Mexico whisking infants away from lactating mothers and unnecessarily introducing day-old newborns to formula.

These strategies persist despite the International Code of Marketing and Breast-milk Substitutes, a framework on best practices similar to the global tobacco agreement. The two products are in fact the only items for which worldwide recommendations on marketing exist. The non-binding nature of the Code, however, has meant that companies continue to put profits over people, particularly in countries where public health infrastructure and enforcement mechanisms are weaker.

The WHO adopted the framework in 1981 after the London-based nonprofit War on Want published a seminal report entitled, “The Baby Killer.” The report investigated the aggressive and inaccurate marketing tactics of multinational baby milk formula companies at the time. Researchers accused Nestlé and Abbott — still major players in the market today — of peddling formula to mothers who could not afford them and would have been better off breastfeeding. From Jamaica to Jordan, they documented how early adoption of milk formula led to higher rates of infection and, in the most extreme cases, malnutrition, as low-income mothers sought to extend costly formula by diluting the solution. The report shocked the public and moved the world to action.

Today, though, the WHO says that globally only 44 percent of babies under six months are exclusively breastfed. Meanwhile, formula has ballooned to a $55 billion industry. Those profits in part reflect the growing number of women worldwide who are joining the workforce and opting for formula because they have fewer opportunities to breastfeed their babies. But it is also the result of pushy marketing practices in countries where local health infrastructure is weak and lactation counseling services are unable to keep up. From China to Nigeria, new mothers contend with a panoply of information touting formula milk over breastfeeding.

The internet provides these companies with a powerful and easy tool they did not have decades ago. Digital marketing is cheap, and through social media influencers, Facebook parenting groups, and Google search ads, breastmilk substitute companies push their products — and their questionable health claims — through means that are not easily recognizable as advertising.

To Huong, 35, who lives in Vietnam, saw firsthand the marketing tactics of formula milk companies when she gave birth via C-section to her first child seven years ago. She believed — from friends, family members, and the mess of information she found clicking around the internet — that women who had C-sections could not breastfeed.

“I wasn’t confident,” she said. “And then after my delivery, I did not have breastmilk readily. So I went with formula.” She didn’t know at the time that with some help from a counselor, it was likely she could have breastfed her child.

Selecting which brand of formula to buy proved as stressful as her decision to use it at all. She said she was “overwhelmed by different ads,” which promised everything from infant digestive health to reduced crying.

Alive & Thrive, a global maternal and infant health organization, worked with a technical team last year to examine the Vietnamese market. Scraping more than 16,000 online posts, from social media content to e-commerce websites, they found more than 4,000 violations of the Code, with Japan’s GuunUp MBP the leading culprit in the country — 80 percent of its posts failed to meet Code standards. Other multinationals, from US-based Mead Johnson to Switzerland’s Nestlé, were also caught employing questionable marketing tactics.

In one example, Alive & Thrive researchers found Mead Johnson providing discounts for its Enfagrow brand of infant formula — a violation of the Code to market products for children under 24 months old. In the advertisement, the company used a photo of their product meant for toddlers as a means of staying compliant. Alive & Thrive also found that Nestlé, through its Facebook page in Vietnam, sought to contact parents directly — another Code violation.

Manufacturers have even capitalized on parental fears around Covid-19, pivoting their marketing to focus on vague claims their products improve immunity. According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, one Vietnamese brand used a photo of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on a Facebook post about the pandemic, suggesting by proximity that its formula might combat the virus.

In response to requests for comment, Nestlé Vietnam did not response to specific allegations but issued a statement saying the company responsibly markets breastmilk substitutes and that it has “a strict policy and robust compliance and governance system in place to hold our actions to account.” The other companies mentioned in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

Vietnam passed legislation in accordance with the Code a few years ago, meaning the government can take action against those who break advertising rules. But Vu Hoang Duong, a regional technical specialist at Alive & Thrive, said there “are too few to scan all the violations on digital platforms.” The Ministry of Health has just three inspectors in charge of Code enforcement. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

As a result, the work of countering pseudo-science and the confusing barrage of advertising often falls on mothers committed to promoting the benefits of breastfeeding over milk substitutes. To Huong, who regrets feeding her child formula, has a message for women in Vietnam: “Thoroughly research the origin and ingredients in formula milk before giving it to your baby. And if you’re having trouble, seek help from a breastmilk counselor!”

Vo Kieu Bao Uyen contributed reporting.

The loneliest lactation consultant in the world

Pakistan has 50 million women of childbearing age and only one globally certified person to help them feed their newborns.

Editor’s Note: The names used to identify sources in this story are the ones they use to protect their identities in Afghanistan. They are not their real names

Azad was working the night before Kabul fell.

The 20-year-old finished her 5-hour shift dancing at a wedding at dawn and went straight to bed. She woke up a few hours later to a text message that read: “Taliban entered Kabul.” She thought her friend was joking. She called her partner but there was no response. She called again. Nothing. 

Azad is a trans woman. And her partner of three years was suddenly missing. 


Even before the United States fled and the Taliban reclaimed power last year, Afghanistan was a near impossible place to be a queer person. During the two decades that the United States occupied the country, homosexuality remained criminalized by vague legal language that endangered all queer people, forcing them to essentially live underground.

Artemis Akbary, a queer activist and co-founder of the country’s first organization to support LGBQT+ Afghans, said the support Western countries pledged to queer Afghans both before and after the US withdrawal never materialized.

“Unfortunately, in the past two decades, there wasn’t any organization that worked for the LGBT community in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the period of time that the United States occupied the country. Akbary’s group has so far sent money to 100 queer Afghans in need of food and a way to escape.

While it’s always been difficult to be queer in Afghanistan, survival was at least possible. 

Aliya, 24, is a gay man who lives in western Afghanistan. He said that before the return of the Taliban, it was often the public that posed the most risk. And while the police would sometimes assault them, the government wasn’t actively prosecuting their queerness as a crime. Queer Afghans at the time were able to socialize in certain safe spaces and use the internet to learn about their identities, or advocate for their rights.

Now even that small sliver of freedom is gone.  

In late January, five months into Taliban rule, Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International released a report stating that LGBT Afghans, and others who don’t conform to rigid gender norms, “faced an increasingly desperate situation and grave threats to their safety and lives under the Taliban.” Some of the 60 Afghans interviewed for the report described how the Taliban gang-raped, assaulted, and threatened them.

“The [Taliban] have taken our rights to live. We can’t dare to leave our house. We are just waiting for our death,” Aliya said.


Like most non-binary Afghans, Azad’s parents disowned her when she was just a teenager. She said her father once tried to kill her by forcing her to drink alcohol. Eventually, after her father realized he couldn’t change Azad, he ended his own life. 

After her father’s death by suicide, she left the family. She was 15. She started working as a dancer at underground parties, a practice known in Afghanistan as bacha bazi, an illegal practice where wealthy and often powerful men pay young boys and trans people to dance for them. The practice often includes sexual abuse and rape. It was during this time that she met her partner in a Kabul restaurant where queer people were once free to safely socialize. Azad, for the first time, had found someone who would soon come to love and stand by her.

So it was with enormous relief that, after an agonizing 3-day wait, her partner finally called back. 

They met back at their house. He told her the Taliban arrested him at a checkpoint in Kabul. When the Taliban gunmen searched his phone, they discovered text messages and pictures that revealed his identity as a member of the queer community.

“They asked him about my whereabouts, but no matter how much they pressured my boyfriend, he didn’t give me up,” Azad said, crying as she described how the Taliban raped and tortured her partner. “They raped my boyfriend. They pulled two of his fingernails with pliers and gave him electric shocks. They pulled out his hair one by one,” she said. “When I saw my boyfriend, his shaved head and his torn body, I lost all my hope.” 


According to the half dozen queer Afghans interviewed for this story, the Taliban appears to be actively searching for them, adding a level of terror to their already dangerous existence.

Amir, 21, used to run an Instagram page supporting gay rights in Afghanistan. But he hasn’t posted since August, fearing the Taliban might use his social media to trace him. “It was very effective in helping me understand that I was not alone,” he said in a phone interview about the importance of social media to him. 

Shahriar, 20, said most of his queer, trans, and intersex friends on social media have also gone silent. Two of Shahriar’s friends who wanted to establish a media presence to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights are among those who “disappeared” since the Taliban returned, he said. 

Akbary confirmed that the Taliban is working to entrap queer Afghans. 

“In the first week of the takeover, the Taliban befriended a gay man on Facebook and told him that they can get him out of Afghanistan. When he met them, they raped him,” Akbary said. 

For those Afghans who can’t hide their identity, just going outside is a danger to their lives.

“Afghanistan is hell for [LGBTQ+] people, especially for those whose bodies give clues to their gender identities. They can’t hide their bodies, [which means] they can’t go out and provide for their basic human needs, like food. And, there are no family and friends who offer help,” said Faryal, an activist who fled to Europe after the Taliban took over. 

Aliya said that a few weeks ago he got sick and was on the way to see a doctor when two Taliban fighters stopped him. “You are a boy. Why do you look like a girl?” one of the Taliban fighters asked him. They asked for his cell phone but he pretended he didn’t understand pashto. They gave up. Now, to keep his friends safe, he only has numbers of his closest friends on his phone. 

“If the Taliban caught one of us and tortured them, they can find all of us because we know where each of us lives,” Aliya said, adding that he knows more than 100 queer Afghans in the province where he lives.


After the assault, Azad and her partner tried to raise money to flee to Pakistan, but it wasn’t easy. For a new passport and a Pakistani visa it would cost her almost $1,000. With the help of a nongovernmental organization, they managed to raise enough for one of them to leave. So after four months, Azad fled to Pakistan, where she remains today.

“You must go and save yourself,” she remembers her partner telling her. “I will find a way to join you.”

Earlier this month, he finally did. Raising $400 he was able to cross illegally into Pakistan. 

“No one, not even my family, has been kind to me except my boyfriend,” Azad said. “I am so happy that he has joined me safely.” 

Iryna Slavinska shelters underground in Ukraine at a location she cannot disclose. Her voice sounds steady, undeterred by the wail of sirens in the background. An executive producer for Radio Culture at Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcasting company, she is normally responsible for a team of reporters, producers, and editors. Now, in war, she has become “an ordinary radio presenter.”

While reporting, Slavinska learned that her colleague Oleksandra Kuvshynova was the fixer killed alongside Fox News cameraperson Pierre Zakrzewski. “Unfortunately, this happens a lot to Ukrainian women journalists in war,” Slavinska said. Women reporters on the ground face the impossible trade-off of working or fleeing with their children and parents, she said. “And then, of course, there’s the issue of security in terms of sexual violence.”

Just as women reporters face unique barriers to safety, work, and life amid war, so do Ukrainian women—yet we rarely get their story. Women’s voices constitute less than a quarter (23 percent) of the total experts, protagonists, or sources quoted in global digital news about the war in Ukraine, according to our analysis of the GDELT news monitoring database. Although Ukrainian women and children feature in a fraction of stories, these stories are often emotionally engaging and therefore more memorable, especially to readers who are accustomed to news that disproportionately features and sources men.

Coverage of women is also often skewed toward traditional narratives that obscure women’s resilience and leadership. “Reporting on women and girls is accidental,” said journalist and media expert Katya Gorchinskaya, who formerly ran the independent Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske. “Most images of women we see are those of victims, who are disproportionately affected, of course, but there are examples of leadership.” Women form 16 percent of total military personnel, many of whom are serving on the front lines. Other women are volunteers or medics helping on the ground and in cities, whose stories are mainly told on social media, according to Gorchinskaya.

During war, policymakers make high-stakes decisions quickly with whatever information is at hand, like the recent approval by U.S. Congress of $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Journalism helps inform such decisions and how humanitarian aid is targeted. When reporting is framed by a male perspective, it can magnify the bias that already exists within government and multilateral institutions that are dominated by male leadership.

Of the more than 3 million refugees that have fled Ukraine, the majority are women and children. “There is a significant cohort of elderly people, most of whom are women, who are staying put in cities and villages. This group is completely invisible and neglected by the state, the nongovernmental sector, and by news. The same happened to these people in 2014,” Gorchinskaya said.

Women and children often bear the brunt of war and carry the burden of recovery in communities. Women and girls need protection from the heightened risk of gender-based violence during war and traffickers who prey on vulnerable populations. They also have reproductive health needs that require a gender-sensitive and culturally aware response. “They urgently require specialized care—sexual, reproductive, maternal, and child health care—as well as treatment for trauma, infectious disease, and chronic conditions,” said Anil Soni, CEO of the World Health Organization (WHO) Foundation. As of Thursday, the WHO’s appeal for $57.5 million faced a large funding gap, with $8 million committed.

Gender minorities are at increased risk of harm if Russian President Vladimir Putin gains political control over Ukraine. Autocrats like Putin tend to undermine movements for gender equity and other marginalized groups, not to mention freedom of the press. (Under Putin’s new censorship law, reporting on the war in Ukraine carries a potential prison term of up to 15 years.) Domestic violence in Russia was reclassified from a criminal to an administrative offense: Under new 2018 legislation, in a wide array of circumstances, abusers can avoid jail time by paying a small fine. Last year, Russia announced a plan to reduce abortion rates by half, putting population growth goals above women’s right to choose.

The predominance of men reporting on and featuring in news is a fact that is true in countries around the world, where globally only 1 in 4 of the people you read, hear, and see is a woman. For black women and women of color the representation gap is far wider, and people with nonbinary identities are often overlooked in the news.

During war and crisis, the gender gap in coverage widens further. Take International Women’s Day on March 8, day 13 of the invasion. Typically, this is the most important day of the year for coverage focused on women and generates the highest levels of coverage. This year, the coverage of women dropped by 63 percent in the United States and 36 percent globally to its lowest level since 2017, the first year this data was collected, according to our original analysis using data from the GDELT database.

During COVID-19, women’s share of voice shrunk as well amid crisis reporting and responses. In all the countries where AKAS conducted research, women were outnumbered by men by three to six times in digital news. In the United States, men appeared in digital news four times more often than women.

In a small Polish town in September last year, a 30-year-old woman named Izabela checked into the hospital. She was 22 weeks pregnant with her second child, and her water had just broken prematurely. Her life was in danger, but instead of aborting her pregnancy, the doctors stalled. 

“For now, thanks to the abortion bill, I have to lay here and wait,” Izabela, whose full name has not been made public, texted her family from the hospital. She was referring to an earlier ruling by the country’s constitutional court that strengthened Poland’s already restrictive abortion laws. “They are waiting until it dies or something starts happening, and if not, then I can expect sepsis. Awesome.” 

Early the next morning, after the fetus died, the doctors decided to perform a cesarean section. But it was too late. Izabela died at 7:39 a.m. Her death sparked protests across the country, with people marching under the slogan “Not One More.” 

Related coverage: Poland’s abortion rights protests lead to a louder call for gender equity

Poland is among a group of more than 30 countries that in 2020, led by the Trump administration in the United States, signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration, a commitment to “express the essential priority of protecting the right to life.” While the document isn’t binding, the signing was symbolic of a growing backlash to an otherwise global trend toward broadening reproductive rights.

The declaration’s signatories included countries that already have some of the world’s strictest abortion regulations, such as Egypt and Senegal. It also included governments widely recognized as authoritarian, such as Belarus and Saudi Arabia. 

However, Poland, Brazil, Hungary, and the United States also signed the declaration—all established democracies with generally robust economies, but where in recent years democratic norms have been under threat. As it turns out, reproductive rights don’t exist in a vacuum: They are inextricably linked to democratic institutions, with threats to one reinforcing threats to the other. 

Anu Kumar, the head of Ipas, a global nonprofit that supports abortion access, pointed out that when most people think about how leaders restrict democracy, they think about the freedom of the press or expression or voting. “We don’t necessarily always include reproductive freedom in that package of democracy,” she said. “But we should, because this is a place where authoritarian regimes often go, if not first, then pretty quickly afterward.” 

In the United States, states that have over the last decade introduced restrictions on voting rights are often the same ones that have tried to limit abortion access—and, notably, both efforts disproportionately affect people of color. Last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that significantly restricts voting the same week that a law that essentially bans abortions in the state at six weeks took effect. Following the election of President Joe Biden, some U.S. anti-abortion groups expanded their work to campaigning for voting restrictions.

Meanwhile, the pernicious practice of partisan gerrymandering has grown more prevalent, empowering anti-abortion activists and politicians. In states like Georgia and Missouri, gerrymandering concentrated power in the hands of conservatives. Harsher abortion laws followed soon after. 

“It’s a slow, iterative process on the ground in building [reproductive rights] up,” said Alicia Ely Yamin, a senior fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy at Harvard Law School. “On the other hand, tearing them down seems quite easy.” 

Undermining reproductive rights in one country, especially one as influential as the United States, often has ripple effects. U.S. administrations have for decades swung back and forth on funding family planning around the world, depending on their party line, while American anti-abortion groups look to wield influence far and wide. “Anti-rights organizations are global institutions,” Kumar said. 

President Donald Trump and his administration, under which the United States fell in global democracy standings on several measures, bolstered anti-abortion efforts primarily by making ideologically motivated judicial nominations in both the federal court system and the Supreme Court. Their efforts have culminated in an ongoing Supreme Court case that is the most serious threat to abortion access since it was enshrined in U.S. law by Roe v. Wade in 1973.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party took things further, completely overhauling the country’s constitutional court, effectively putting it under the control of party leadership. As a result, in late 2020, the constitutional court ruled that abortion in cases of fetal abnormality was unconstitutional, a broad designation that bans almost all abortions. Law and Justice has repeatedly, since its 2015 election victory, undermined democratic institutions and civil society—the judiciary, but also the free press and nongovernmental organizations—earning it repeated rebukes from the European Union.

Debora Diniz, an anthropologist and leading Brazilian reproductive rights advocate, is worried that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is up for reelection in October, will also reshape the country’s highest court.

Bolsonaro has attacked the free press, spread harmful disinformation about the country’s voting system, and repeatedly clashed with the country’s judiciary, even joining a rally that called for the military to intervene in the country’s supreme court. In Brazil, most changes to abortion law must happen on the supreme court level. “One of the main risks in the reelection of Bolsonaro is that he remakes the majority of the supreme court for the next 20 years,” Diniz said.

Related coverage: Analysis: The feminine appeal of macho populism

Reproductive rights have been under attack in Brazil since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. Abortion was already only permissible if the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of rape, incest, and anencephaly, a type of fetal abnormality. But whether legal or not, it has been hard to access over the last several years. Lawmakers have introduced at least 30 bills to restrict abortion even further. In one of the most controversial cases during Bolsonaro’s tenure, his minister of women, family, and human rights said a 10-year-old rape victim who legally had an abortion should have instead delivered via C-section. Brazilian reproductive rights advocates and scholars are being threatened and silenced. Diniz herself now lives in exile because of her work.

While democratic backsliding often leads to the erosion of reproductive rights, the relationship works in the other direction as well: Targeting reproductive rights has proved a useful political tool for illiberal leaders, a bargaining chip that helps them gain power and maintain it. 

For both Trump and Bolsonaro, their anti-abortion stances allowed them to forge an alliance with evangelical Christians, which helped them get elected. Bolsonaro was for years a “nobody politician,” Diniz said. “He became nationally known when he started to speak about gender issues, and particularly about sexuality, about abortion, and about this idea of family.”

In Poland, the 2020 decision to broaden the abortion ban was not necessarily part of a long-term plan from Law and Justice. “It’s something that sort of happened because the whole system was allowed to erode,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. 

Law and Justice’s successful campaign to undermine the judiciary provided an opportunity for the anti-abortion fringe to get a piece of what they wanted—and, in turn, the ruling party calculated the move could mobilize its base and save it from losing its ultra-conservative voters, said Ewa Marciniak, a political science professor at the University of Warsaw. 

Bolsonaro and his supporters in Brazil, Trump and the Republicans, and the Polish right have all positioned themselves in opposition to the same convenient bogeyman, labeled with the umbrella term of “gender ideology” (which is less used in the United States but equally present as an idea). This convoluted concept has for years been promoted by the Catholic Church and encompasses everything from marriage equality to transgender rights to abortion, portraying them as immoral and a threat to traditional values. 

“There’s this framing of ‘gender ideology’ as a foreign ideology that is somehow invading, and that could take different forms in different places. It could be imperialistic or it could be Marxist or it could be Nazi,” Harvard Law’s Yamin said. “Gender ideology” becomes associated with the United Nations or the European Union or international human rights courts—global institutions tasked with maintaining peace and the well-being of all people, and frequent adversaries of leaders who trespass against that mandate. 

In Hungary, the populist, right-wing leader Viktor Orban is centering his reelection campaign on an anti-gender agenda, which observers believe he is pursuing as a distraction from the country’s economic woes and his government’s corruption scandals. Orban’s main crusade is against the LGBTQ community, but his government has also further restricted access to abortion, all wrapped up in “family values” rhetoric. 

“Ultimately, they all would like to not have the restraints of human rights and democracy on the way they want to operate,” said Alejandra Cardenas, the senior director of global legal strategies at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy group. 

“Gender ideology” rhetoric falls on fertile ground in countries where large swaths of society are deeply patriarchal and religious, but also where economic inequality is significant. This is true in the United States, Poland, Brazil, and Hungary, as well as countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, which have also expanded their abortion restrictions in the last three decades—and where democracy has broken down.  

Abortion opponents have successfully “tied the destruction of the nuclear family values to ‘this is what is causing your feeling of social and economic insecurity and pain,’” Yamin said. 

In Poland and Hungary, pro-natalist policies like monthly cash incentives for each child and tax breaks help the same people who oppose abortion stay in power. “I think that these days voters are attracted to Law and Justice not because of its worldview, but because of the social support,” Marciniak said.

“They are interested in very particular types of families—they want those families to reproduce,” Kumar, the nonprofit leader, said. Those families don’t include same-sex couples or immigrants. White supremacy, whether in the United States or Hungary, is the through line, she said. 

BAMYAN, Afghanistan—On a note tacked to the wall of a health clinic in December 2021, in the now Taliban-controlled district of Kahmard, there was a new directive: “From now on,” it read, “no women can come to health centers without a mahram.”

A mahram is a male chaperone.

Restrictions like these are showing up all over the country. In the southern province of Ghazni, a 42-year-old midwife said the Taliban have been preventing doctors from examining women without a mahram present since November 2021. (We are not identifying Afghans who spoke to us by name to protect their safety.) 

“When the Taliban understood the two women were not accompanied by men, they forced them out of the clinic and beat them with the butts of their rifles,” she said, citing a recent example. They had brought a sick infant in for a checkup.

The new requirements—officially announced by the Taliban’s ministry of virtue and vice in late December—are preventing many Afghan women from seeking the health care they need at a time when COVID-19’s omicron variant is spiking across the country. At the end of January, Afghan health officials reported a 70 percent increase in positive COVID-19 cases, with positivity rates reaching upward of 47 percent. (The World Health Organization said any positivity rate above 5 percent is dangerous.)

Accessing COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and treatment was already difficult in Afghanistan. The country’s health care system depended almost entirely on foreign aid for almost two decades. But when the United States abruptly withdrew in August and the Taliban reclaimed power, that aid dried up. As a result, almost all of the programs designed to fight the coronavirus in Afghanistan have been forced to shut down

On top of that, the United States froze Afghanistan’s central bank assets, plunging the country into a severe economic crisis. Around 90 percent of Afghans are now living below the poverty line, and many families are unable to afford food—compounding the health care crisis.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on developing Afghanistan’s health care system over the last 20 years, access to quality health care remains far below international standards. Those standards are particularly low for women, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

“Women and girls struggle to access even the most basic information about health and family planning,” the report said. “There is an unmet need for modern forms of contraception; prenatal and postnatal care is often unavailable; specialty care, such as modern cancer and fertility treatment, is largely nonexistent; routine preventative care such as pap smears and mammograms are almost unheard of; and a large proportion of births are still unattended by a professional.”

None of this, however, has distracted Taliban leaders from pursuing the kinds of gender apartheid policies that made them famous when they first ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. During that period, the Taliban issued edicts and decrees that banned women from work and education, denied them access to health care, and severely restricted their social mobility.

On Aug. 17, 2021, in the group’s first press conference after the Taliban retook power, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid reassured the world that the group would respect women’s rights within “the framework of Islam” this time. 

But the promise of a changed Taliban faded quickly. A week later, the same spokesperson urged women to “stay home” because fighters hadn’t been trained to respect them. Since then, the Taliban have tightened their restrictions on women with every passing day. 

“Measures like requiring a mahram to escort women to health appointments or banning them from seeing male health care providers have a major impact on women’s ability to access care,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Access to health care is one area where the Taliban have always claimed that they are committed to protecting women’s rights. But we see that their policies are still cutting many women off from urgent and sometimes life-saving care.” 

In early February, at a health clinic in Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province—the first province to ban women’s access to health care without a male chaperone—a local doctor said a pregnant woman in labor arrived on her own. After giving birth, fearing she’d be punished for not being married, she fled without her child. 

Three days later, after local Taliban officials found out, they detained the midwife who delivered the baby, along with her husband, and are now moving to prosecute all 18 employees of the clinic, according to several health care workers connected to the clinic. The charge? Violating the order not to provide health care to women without a male chaperone. 

Taliban officials in Kabul, for their part, deny these stories are true. “I don’t confirm it. Such a thing has not happened,” a spokesperson for the Taliban’s ministry of virtue and vice said. 

The evidence, however, is overwhelming. Five months into the Taliban’s new rule, a group of United Nations human rights experts warned that the “Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalizing large-scale and systematic, gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.”

A health care professional who works in the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, said Taliban leadership lacks coordination between departments and regions and each jurisdiction seems to be operating its own set of restrictions. 

In one way, however, the professional said the Taliban were consistent everywhere: “All their animosity is with women. Almost all their restrictions target women,” the professional said in a phone interview.

Shakiba Hakimi and Laila Yousufy contributed reporting from Afghanistan for Rukhshana Media.

BENGALURU—Saraswathi was paying close attention to the election in her native Tamil Nadu last April. The COVID-19 pandemic had ravaged the 47-year-old’s finances, and both the incumbent party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the opposing Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party had promised relief in the form of monthly cash transfers to women. Saraswathi, who, like many Tamilians does not use a surname, had voted for the incumbent in the last two elections. But this time, she said, it was time for change.

“We suffered in the pandemic, and the previous government wasn’t able to do anything to help,” she said, her face sunburned and splattered with age spots from decades of farm labor under the southern Indian tropical skies. Saraswathi voted for the opposing party and, when the new government took over, she received roughly $50 in cash support for women hit hard by the pandemic.

Women are the fastest-growing political constituency in India. Sixty-seven percent of the country’s registered women voters—as many as 294 million individuals—cast their ballots in national elections in 2019. While registered male voters still outnumber female voters, a greater proportion of women turned out to vote in the 2019 national elections than men—the first time in India’s history that the gender gap in voting flipped. Politicians across the country are taking notice. Over the last several years, political parties in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Goa have launched a slew of new social programs aimed at empowering women—and winning their increasingly important votes.

Related coverage: As India’s credit sector falters, so do women’s livelihoods

In August 2021, the incumbent All India Trinamool Congress party government in West Bengal confounded polls by winning a third term—a victory widely attributed to strong support among certain groups of women, including tribal, Muslim, and low-income women, as well as women from India’s privileged castes. The party’s leader and chief minister of the state, Mamata Banerjee, had launched several programs targeting low-income women and girls. In elections in Assam last year, female voters played a similarly pivotal role in the Bharatiya Janata Party retaining power, after the party introduced a series of direct benefit transfer programs for women the year before.

“This idea that women as a constituency are different from men was noticed by many in the Bihar elections [in 2005], when Nitish Kumar promised cycles for girls,” said Mukulika Banerjee, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. Access to bicycles was widely reported to have helped reduce the school dropout rate among girls, something that Banerjee said Kumar “was definitely rewarded for.” Women’s voter participation in elections in the state increased from 42 percent in 2005 to nearly 60 percent in 2020, according to data from the Election Commission of India. And Kumar, now the chief minister of Bihar, continues to tout social welfare programs for women as a key part of his party’s platform.

Campaigning on cash benefit programs ahead of elections has become so widespread that it has gained the attention of India’s judiciary. The Delhi High Court, the apex court in the union territory of Delhi, is now hearing a case against two parties—the Indian National Congress and the Telugu Desam Party—for promising cash transfers ahead of the 2019 Andhra Pradesh elections. In late 2021, the court issued a notice to the Election Commission asking it to take stronger action against “corrupt electoral practices” like offering cash incentives.

But defenders of the programs say the incentives are simply redress for long-standing inequities. “It’s not about handouts or benefits,” Banerjee, the anthropologist, said. “It may have as much to do with the politics of recognition. It is about recognizing that women are living with structural inequality.

Whether for political purposes or not, putting money into the hands of women has real economic benefits. “Resources controlled by women unambiguously improves their bargaining power within the house,” said Karthik Muralidharan, a professor of economics at the University of California San Diego. In many parts of India, women are bound by patriarchal customs. Gudiya Devi, a newlywed from the state of Bihar, has no access to household finances, which are controlled by her husband and parents-in-law. “I have to depend on them for basic necessities,” Devi said.

There is evidence that giving cash transfers to women leads to greater expenditure on things that benefit the whole family, such as food, education, and health care. Saraswathi, who has benefited from several women-only social welfare programs, often hides the money she receives from the government from her husband. “Otherwise,” she said, “he would spend it all on alcohol.”

Related coverage: India’s suffering female farmers have the most to lose

A more empowered female population has also been shown to benefit the economy as a whole. A policy experiment conducted by researchers at Yale University in rural Madhya Pradesh found that women whose wages are directly deposited into their own bank accounts are more likely to work outside the home. Female labor force participation in India has been declining since 2005 and fell even further during the pandemic. Direct deposit programs that give women autonomy over their finances can help slow or reverse that trend.

Kamalam, a 41-year-old entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, who also does not use a last name, was a housewife until a decade ago, when she began receiving benefits from a range of government programs, including microloan, livelihood, maternity, and now pandemic support programs. “I opened a bank account to save money for myself, but over time I ended up starting my own dairy farm,” she said. “Now even my husband helps me with the farm work.”

While it’s easy to dismiss the onslaught of women-only cash transfer programs as political pandering, the financial benefits for women and the economy are real.

Saraswathi’s old thatched dwelling, which she shared with her husband, has been replaced by a modest, one-bedroom brick house, thanks in part to a loan from Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a national housing program launched in 2015 to encourage affordable housing. To be eligible for benefits, low-income families must include a female member of the household as a co-applicant. Saraswathi’s role in securing these benefits gave her a level of control over the household finances that she previously did not have, including a say in what paint colors and tiles would be used for their new home.

But the extent to which cash transfer programs like these can achieve their purported goal of helping to address entrenched gender inequities remains to be seen. While Saraswathi’s name was required for her family to be eligible for housing benefits, this was not the case for ownership of their new home. The house, adorned with shiny tiles and colorful walls that Saraswathi chose herself, is in her husband’s name.

Inside India’s COVID-19 disaster
Read local reporting from women on the ground in India.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has been called many things during her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy. Some laud her as diligent, decent and trustworthy. Foreign media liked to label her the “leader of the free world.” Others see her as a savvy power-player, who waits to see how the political winds are blowing before making decisions.

Whatever labels have been affixed to this often-inscrutable woman, there is one that she herself has consistently dodged: feminist. 

In 2017, Merkel awkwardly refused to call herself a feminist during an on-stage event. In an interview with German publication Die Zeit she later explained that, for her, feminists are women like the famous German activist Alice Schwarzer or those who fought for suffrage. “I don’t want to adorn myself with false laurels,” Merkel said. “I can’t say that I fought for women’s rights all my life the way they did.”

But in September of this year, with the end of her tenure in sight, Merkel appeared to have a change of heart, saying she believes that “men and women are equal” and declaring, to rapt applause that, “in that sense, I am a feminist.”

Born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954, Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany, where her father was a Lutheran pastor. She learned early on how to navigate in a man’s world, first as a scientist, then in Germany’s male-dominated political scene and her own conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Her old boss, the former chancellor Helmut Kohl, used to call her “my girl.” On the international stage, she has withstood attempts from the likes of Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin to insult and undermine her. 

This kind of subtle sexism may help explain why Merkel has resisted the role of feminist hero. “I rarely only address women,” Merkel told die Zeit. “After all, I am not just the Federal Chancellor of women in Germany, but the Federal Chancellor of all people in Germany. Parity in all areas just seems logical to me. That’s not something I have to constantly bring up.”

While Merkel’s unchanging uniform of boxy jackets and black pants serves as a way to keep the media’s focus on what she does rather than what she wears, her fashion choices have also been interpreted as her way of de-feminizing herself to survive the patriarchy.

Anke Domscheit-Berg, a member of parliament from the opposing Die Linke (The Left) party, views the chancellor’s aesthetic choices as a kind of smokescreen.  “It was like armor,” she said. “A type of protection against being considered a woman…She always refrained from almost all polarizing themes—and gender rights themes are always polarizing.”

In her early years as chancellor, Merkel supported female-friendly laws and initiatives such as paid parental leave, the expansion of public kindergartens, and the legal right to a kindergarten spot for children from the age of one. But she advanced few new childcare or other initiatives to improve women’s status in the latter part of her tenure.

In 2015, Merkel backed a law mandating “female quotas” on non-executive supervisory boards, but only reluctantly and after long opposing the move. In some instances, she appears to have dragged her feet on efforts to advance gender parity. Despite stubbornly low numbers of women on corporate boards, she and her party were against a proposed law requiring big, listed firms to have at least one woman on executive boards of three or more members. Under pressure from the party’s coalition partner, the CDU finally agreed and the law passed this year. Today, Germany has only one female CEO of a blue chip DAX-40 listed company. 

In her own party, Merkel has sought to elevate women to high-profile roles, in some cases with unfortunate results. She moved Ursula von der Leyen from the Family Ministry to the  Defense Ministry. After von der Leyen’s ministry became mired in a contracting scandal, Merkel pushed for her to become European Commission president. Her other protégé, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer became Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, and defense minister. After a series of gaffes, she resigned in February 2020.

In 2017, Merkel’s coalition government passed the Wage Transparency Act, which enables workers to know what colleagues in similar positions are earning. However, the law only applies to employers with at least 200 people on staff and puts the onus for requesting remuneration information on employees. German women suffer one of the biggest wage gaps in Europe. Data from the European Commission shows a gender pay gap of 14.1 percent in 2019 in the European Union as a whole, while Germany’s gross hourly difference by gender was 19.2 percent.

While Merkel’s record is arguably mixed when it comes to increasing women’s representation in leadership, her efforts in the key area of female self-determination—reproductive rights—are decidedly not. “Thirty-two years after the fall of the Wall, I still don’t have the same [reproductive] rights as I had in East Germany,” said Domscheit-Berg, who comes from the same area in eastern Germany as Merkel. “I find that terrible.” 

Abortions were a legal right for a woman in the former East, who could have a termination on demand until up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. They also had access to free birth control. In Germany today, while abortion is permitted up to 12 weeks, women must first undergo counseling and a three-day waiting period before getting the go-ahead for the procedure. Birth control is only free for women up to the age of 22.

Another German law criminalizes doctors who publicly “advertise” abortion beyond listing it as a service, including offering information online about methods, costs or recovery after the procedure. Doctors found to be in contravention of the law can be fined or jailed. 

Merkel, who has not spoken publicly for or against abortion, did not openly advocate for a change in abortion laws during her tenure. It is only now that she and the CDU are out of government that the law against “advertising” abortion is set to be abolished by the new coalition in Berlin.

That reticence to publicly weigh in on divisive issues is characteristic of the outgoing chancellor. “She is very discreet,” said Stephanie Lohaus, a Director and Head of Communication at the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business in Berlin. “We can’t tell from the outside what fights she has fought.”

For her part, Merkel has downplayed her significance for women, cautioning that “one swallow doesn’t make a summer.” But despite her spotty record on women’s rights, her symbolic legacy looms large.

“I find that in comparison to 30 or 40 years ago, what we have, not just in the German government but [more generally], amounts to more than one swallow,” said Katharina Wrohlich, a professor of Public Finance, Gender and Family Economics at Potsdam University and head of Gender Economics research at German Economic Institute.   

As the de facto leader of Europe, the woman nicknamed Mutti (“mom”) has steered Germany and the EU through political upheaval, from the 2008 eurozone debt crisis to Brexit. In 2015, she deployed her political capital by refusing to shut Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees, a move that galvanized popular support for the far-right party Alternative for Germany, but that also positioned Merkel as Europe’s moral authority.

“Just the fact that she was in this office and was able to hold power for so long and has this strong sense of leadership—whether you agree or disagree with her she is a leader—in that way of course she is an example for women and girls,” said Lohaus. Many German teenagers today have only ever known a female chancellor.

Alice Schwarzer, the feminist icon evoked by Merkel to explain her discomfort with applying the label to herself, described the outgoing chancellor’s main legacy as being that she “is admired by women all over the world… The very fact of her existence is a feminist statement.” Merkel herself put it even more plainly. At an event commemorating 100 years of women’s suffrage in Germany, she noted that, “Today, no one will laugh when a little girl says she wants to be a minister or the German chancellor.”

This story was published in partnership with The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy.

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