Logo Logo
Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Donate

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.” 

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 thttps://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/25/india-is-building-a-women-only-social-safety-net/o 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.

Arj Rizvi’s breastfeeding journey had gotten off to a rocky start. She had just given birth to her first child—a son—and wanted to breastfeed. But after a few weeks of trying, her nipples had grown painfully sore and she was worried about producing enough milk to support her new baby’s growth.

“This is when you get demotivated,” said Rizvi, a 31-year-old auditor from Karachi, Pakistan. “You think the milk is not enough and your child is hungry, and then you start giving formula. I have seen many young mothers in my family who left breastfeeding because of this issue.” Even Rizvi’s mother, who had breastfed her own kids and supported Rizvi’s desire to do the same, urged her to supplement with formula.

While health care practitioners in the West aggressively encourage breastfeeding—sometimes to the detriment of women who struggle to maintain the practice—social norms in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia favor bottle-feeding, the product of decades of marketing by makers of infant formula. While some of these companies have changed their practices in response to public pressure, many Pakistanis still view breastfeeding as insufficient nourishment for a growing child—a view encouraged by a medical establishment that is often quick to recommend formula and reinforced by a stunning dearth of trained lactation specialists.

Zohra Kurji is a pediatric nurse at Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi—and the only practicing lactation consultant in Pakistan certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners, the global standard for education in the provision of breastfeeding support. “There was no support from doctors on how to initiate breastfeeding,” she said, recalling her work in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit in the early 1990s. “I saw these mothers struggle with tremendous amounts of guilt and frustration.”

When Kurji gave birth to her own twins in 1995, she said she was repeatedly told by physicians and family members that it was impossible to adequately breastfeed her infants without relying on formula. “The awareness of a supply-and-demand system of breastfeeding—the more milk a baby drinks from the breast, the more milk the body makes—did not exist in Pakistan back then,” Kurji says. She gave up after five months.

Her experience reflects a gradual shift in attitudes toward breastfeeding that started taking place in the 1980s. Having prospered in the West by promoting bottle-feeding as the key to women’s liberation, formula-makers began to seek new markets in the countries of the global south. In 1975, 95 percent of infants in Pakistan were being breastfed at 12 months. By 1986, years of campaigning by Western formula-makers helped drive down that percentage to 86 percent. Today, only 38 percent of Pakistani mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding for just six months, despite high rates of stunting—a condition characterized by low height relative to a child’s age, poor cognition, and other developmental delays. Breastfeeding has been shown to be beneficial for cognitive development and long-term protection against chronic disease, research that has led to a surge in breastfeeding in rich countries in recent decades. Currently in the United States, almost 60 percent of infants are breastfeeding at six months. Of the nearly 34,000 board-certified lactation consultants worldwide, more than half are in the United States.

“The women in villages I spoke to used to believe that not giving their babies formula was the worst thing they could ever do,” Kurji said, recalling her early work as a community nurse in rural Sindh province during the 1990s. “Such poor women will do anything to purchase formula, even if it means borrowing money and taking on debts because they believe the only way to have their babies turn out like the beautiful, chubby child they see on the formula boxes is by supplementing with formula milk.” Traditional practices—like feeding infants water, ghee, honey, and herbal tea—and employers’ lack of accommodation for working mothers also discourage the initiation of breastfeeding.

Nida Keshwani, a Karachi-based early childhood educator who knew of the benefits of breastfeeding, gave birth to her son in March. When he wasn’t progressing according to her doctor’s expectations, she was pushed to provide formula.

“The pediatrician felt my baby had lost a lot of weight, so he suggested I feed him formula milk three times for two nights and then come back and see him,” she said. “I kept insisting that I am not OK with formula feeding at all.” It wasn’t until Keshwani herself suggested that there might be a problem with her child latching or with her milk supply that he referred her to a lactation specialist. The next morning, Keshwani met with Kurji.

“Dr. Kurji checked me and taught me how to latch the baby properly to my breast,” Keshwani said. She also learned, for example, that the breast milk that comes toward the end of the feed has the highest fat content and that, by expressing the last few drops of milk, she could help her baby gain weight. “To date I have not given my baby any formula or had to bottle-feed him.” She feels that breastfeeding helped strengthen the bond with her son and brought her peace of mind during one of the most challenging phases of new motherhood.

For new mothers, that external support can make all the difference. Kurji was late in her second pregnancy when she enrolled in the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. Her daughter was born on the first day of class, but unlike during her first pregnancy, this time her decision to breastfeed was supported by those around her. The dean of the school encouraged Kurji to bring her newborn to class, even offering her a private room where she could breastfeed.

“I was the first student in the university’s history to bring my baby to class,” Kurji said. “Classmates used to do group assignments with me in the feeding room so I wouldn’t fall behind on my studies. My colleagues were very supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and other students soon started using the room for their own lactating needs.” She went on to breastfeed her daughter for more than two years. A few years later, she traveled to Texas to complete her international certification as a lactation consultant. “You could not take the exam in Pakistan at the time,” she said.

Families and health care practitioners are beginning to recognize the benefits of the practice. In August 2020, Kurji established Pakistan’s first dedicated lactation clinic, at Aga Khan University Hospital, to support mothers who choose to breastfeed. Online networks like Lahore-based LactNation, a breastfeeding advocacy group established in April 2020 that has grown to over 23,000 members on Facebook, are also empowering mothers with the tools and knowledge necessary for them to successfully breastfeed.

But while breastfeeding rates are ticking up in urban areas, women in Pakistan’s villages and rural areas—where children are most at risk of stunted growth and malnourishment in the early years of life—still lack access to accurate information. “The next step for our clinic is to bring more awareness on these issues to the middle and lower classes of Pakistan’s rural populations,” Kurji said. “We have to grow these initiatives … to secondary hospitals and health care facilities working directly with their communities. That’s where the need is greatest.”

In the meantime, more and more women in Karachi are seeking help for their lactation issues. After consulting with Kurji, Rizvi began using a nontoxic nipple ointment she could apply while breastfeeding, expressing her milk by hand, and wearing nipple shields that helped ease her pain. “I was very lucky I had Dr. Kurji to motivate me through this tough time,” Rizvi reflects. “Otherwise, I would have given up breastfeeding my son.”

Tomás Gimeno’s intended target—former partner Beatriz Zimmerman—is alive. Gimeno, a 37-year-old business administrator in Tenerife, Spain, instead inflicted his violence on their 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, killing the little girl and leaving her body in a bag tied to his boat’s anchor at the bottom of the sea. Gimeno and his other daughter with Zimmerman, 1-year-old Anna, are missing and presumed dead.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called the murders a “doubly savage and inhumane” form of violence known in academic circles as “vicarious violence”: harming one’s children to cause emotional distress to one’s partner or ex-partner. Although data on vicarious violence is limited, experts who have studied the phenomenon say it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by fathers.

Gimeno shared joint custody of his children with Zimmerman, despite a history of violent behavior. Although Zimmerman did not report instances of alleged abuse to the police, the ensuing tragedy is prompting new questions about whether abusive partners should be able to maintain custody of their children. Feminists in Spain have rallied under the slogan, “an abuser is never a good father,” applying a gendered lens to two issues long viewed as separate: a man’s relationship with his partner and his relationship with his children.

“We can’t disassociate violence against women from violence against children,” said Sonia Vaccaro, the psychologist credited with coining the term “vicarious violence” nearly a decade ago when writing a book on child custody disputes. Through her research and own sessions with patients, Vaccaro found that even when women were legally protected from abusive exes by restraining orders, some men would take their anger toward their exes out on the children they had access to—discontinuing their medical treatments or physically harming them, for example. “I called it vicarious violence because the violence is displaced onto a third party,” Vaccaro explained.

Although domestic violence does not necessarily evolve into vicarious violence, experts agree that divorce or separation is the most dangerous moment for victims of domestic violence and their children. In the United States, 809 children have been murdered by a parent in the process of separating or divorcing their partner since 2008. In 72 percent of these cases, the killer was the child’s father. In Spain, official figures reveal that 42 children have been killed in domestic violence cases since 2013, when such data started being collected. Although the data is not broken out by gender, Spanish authorities regularly refer to vicarious violence as a gender-based crime disproportionately perpetrated by fathers.

On paper, Spain is ahead of the curve in legally connecting intimate partner violence and violence against children. In 2015, a law passed making violence against mothers an act of violence against their children. Under the law, children are entitled to legal protection from their mother’s abuser.

But in practice, deeply entrenched notions regarding the father’s role as provider and protector persist. Judges often grant fathers full or partial custody even if they have a history of abusive behavior. “Every so often, a dramatic, headline-making case makes a splash in the press, and everyone is scandalized and indignant and wonders how this is even possible,” said Gema Fernández, managing lawyer at Women’s Link, a nonprofit focused on human rights. “But really, the courts are filled with similar cases. It’s a miracle we don’t see more violence.”

Spain isn’t unique in this regard. A May Council of Europe report evaluating countries’ adherence to the Istanbul Convention—a European treaty that sets out legally binding standards to protect both women and children from gender-based violence—found that Austria, France, Italy, and Portugal also prioritized the joint exercise of parental authority “even in the event of a final criminal conviction for violence committed against the other parent or where a protection order exists.”

In the United States, there is a similar emphasis on fathers’ rights even when there is a risk of abuse. A bill for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act noted “scientifically unsound theories that treat mothers’ abuse allegations as likely false attempts to undermine the father are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny parents’ and children’s reports of abuse.”

Just weeks before Olivia’s body was found, Spain had moved to strengthen legal protections against vicarious violence. In June, lawmakers passed a new child protection law that requires judges to suspend a parent’s visitation rights with their children if their partner or former partner obtains a protective order against them and there is evidence the children suffered or witnessed violence at home. It also bans the use of “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) in custody disputes.

Introduced by the late American psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, PAS is defined as “a child’s experience of being manipulated by one parent to turn against the other (targeted) parent and resist contact with him or her.” But many in the scientific community reject the theory, which has been criticized for perpetuating harmful, gendered stereotypes against women.


Related: ‘Women Are Routinely Discredited’: How Courts Fail Mothers and Children Who Have Survived Abuse


Gardner claimed mothers overwhelmingly played the role of “indoctrinators,” casting fathers as unfairly maligned victims. Despite a widely acknowledged lack of empirical or clinical evidence, claims of parental alienation are often successfully weaponized by fathers in custody disputes. (Gardner later generated controversy for his belief that society treats pedophiles too harshly.)

The controversy around PAS led Spain’s judicial council to advise against its use in 2013, leading some experts to question whether banning it accomplishes anything. “Lawyers rarely resort to the PAS defense today anyway,” said Altamira Gonzalo Valgañón, vice president of feminist lawyer’s association Mujeres Juristas Themis.

Instead, attorneys representing fathers accused of abuse often seek parenting coordination, a dispute resolution process originally developed in the United States, where a social worker or psychologist assists parents in coming up with a schedule and implementing mutually agreed upon rules. The arrangement may also include supervised visits, but it doesn’t always.

Although the American Psychological Association does not recommend parenting coordination for parents with a history of domestic violence because it “may present substantial risks or power imbalances,” Gonzalo Valgañón said some judges in Spain are pushing for its use across the board.

First introduced in Spain in 2011, parenting coordination counts as one of its champions Francisco Serrano, a former family court judge and reputed gender-based violence denialist as well as early architect of Spain’s far-right political party, Vox. “It has the same objective: forcing children to spend time with their father when they don’t want to,” Gonzalo Valgañón said. “It doesn’t matter what they call it. The concept is still around.”

Part of the push toward parenting coordination has to do with capacity. State centers tasked with overseeing court-ordered supervised visits for families simply cannot accommodate the need. According to Fernández, visitation centers are so overbooked that a parent might have to wait months before landing a one-hour slot to see their children. Without an adequate budget to expand the state’s capacity, Fernández doesn’t see Spain’s new law as a complete solution.

In 2011, she represented a mother whose daughter had been murdered by her violent ex-husband during an unsupervised visit. The mother, Ángela González, had reported her ex to authorities on multiple occasions and asked the court to impose supervised visits. She was denied by a judge who gave precedence to fathers’ rights. When Spanish authorities refused to pay her reparations, Fernández took González’s case to a committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In a landmark decision, the committee called for the state to pay up, which it did in 2018.

Ultimately, Spanish activists say preventing vicarious violence will require a change in mindset, not least among judges who regularly dismiss the mortal danger abusive men can pose to women and children. In a public letter following the discovery of Olivia’s body, Zimmerman pleaded for stricter mechanisms to protect children from violent fathers. “I hope that Anna and Olivia did not die in vain.”


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

Editor’s note: This story is the third in The Fuller Project’s ongoing series, “Ending America’s Forever War: What is next for Afghan women?”, documenting what the end of America’s longest war on foreign soil means for the women who have lived through it.


A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, America’s then-first lady Laura Bush took to the airwaves to deliver a radio address normally delivered by her husband, then-President George W. Bush. The administration had repeatedly evoked the plight of Afghan women to make the case for war.

“Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” the first lady said. She went on to describe America’s mission in Afghanistan as “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

Now, with the last of U.S. forces gone, Afghan women are reeling from what many see as a retreat from that mission. Over the last 20 years, they have become policewomen and prosecutors. They took to YouTube and studied art. They learned to play volleyball. Now, those pursuits could make them targets.

The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy asked six women still in Afghanistan to share their thoughts about America’s withdrawal. Some acknowledged the progress that had been made over the last 20 years but were angry that the United States hadn’t done more to ensure their safety. Others are mourning the loss of their education or career. While many expressed a sense of hopelessness, one said she is looking ahead to the day the Taliban will be gone for good. Despite the risk, several women bravely insisted on using their real names; three requested complete or partial pseudonymity.

Here’s what six Afghan women had to say.

Fatima Ahmadi, 28, former policewoman from Kabul

In the early hours of Monday, 2 a.m., I woke up to the sound of celebratory firing from the Taliban. It was then that I understood the last American soldiers have left Afghanistan. It saddened me because, when Americans were here, the Taliban were trying to behave better. But now they would openly harass women, because no one is hearing women. Women are not allowed to attend school after grade six. Soon, the Taliban would stop women from working outside, and even going outside. The Taliban have not changed. They still want to remove women from society.

The Taliban need U.S. support even though they say Americans are infidels. Until a few days ago, I had hope that I might be able to return to work. But now, when I am looking at the Taliban’s treatment of women, life seems impossible for women. I have used social media and posted my pictures. Now, my picture is on the internet, and I am frightened that the Taliban might kill me as infidel. Now that the U.S. left, I am very scared. I think the Taliban might stone me to death—if not because of working as policewoman, then as a woman whose picture is on social media.


Related: What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose


As a policewoman, I have no hope of returning to work. I know it is impossible. Now, our life is in danger because of the work we have done before. The United States should help policewomen, because it encouraged us to join the police. But now that our life is in danger, the United States should have helped us. If the Taliban kill me, what would happen to my two children? That is what scared me the most. They don’t have anyone to take care of them.

Thousands of policewomen like me are in danger right now. Some of them have a husband and can afford to stay home and hide, but what will happen to single mothers who were policewomen? I am so scared. Someone should hear our voice. While I am alive, I want to speak out about the situation of policewomen. What we are living is a gradual death.

Asiya Rahimi, 22, YouTuber

When the United States came to Afghanistan, they claimed to improve women’s rights and fight terrorism. However, after 20 years, the Americans left us where they started. It is true that in the past 20 years, women had an opportunity for education and work. But now we have returned to 20 years ago. We don’t have rights to education, work, and even to go out without a male chaperone. I think the United States used Afghan people as a tool to reach its objectives, and now they turned their back on us. I hate American politicians. I think they are responsible for our misery.

Kobra (last name withheld), 23, art student at Kabul University

The United States destroyed our life, our future. They could have departed more responsibly and prepared. Now, our female professors are not allowed to work. The Taliban ordered separate classrooms for men and women at the university level. Where should we find enough women to teach us? Do you know what that means? It means women cannot attend university. This is the legacy the United States left for us.


Related: As the Taliban Resurges in Afghanistan, Girls Are Already Losing Schools


Anonymous, 32, former anti-corruption prosecutor, Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan

For the Taliban, women are not human. They only recognize men as human and treat women as possession of men. So, how can we expect the Taliban to recognize women’s rights? They vaguely talk about women’s rights based on sharia, but we are not sure what is their definition of sharia.

We never thought the international force will leave so quickly the way they did. They abandoned Afghanistan. Now, we are left alone with the fundamentalist group that the Western countries couldn’t defeat in 20 years. The Taliban’s treatment of women is no secret to the international community. But they left us to the Taliban.

It was painful for me. I never thought they would abandon us like this. When the U.S. military left Bagram base while Afghan government was still in power, they destroyed their camps and equipment. I saw a picture that broke my heart. It showed a U.S. soldier destroying the camps. That sent a message to us: “We are leaving. Everything is over. We will never return, no matter what happens to Afghans.” But I believe an oppressive regime like the Taliban will not last forever. I am looking forward to the day the Taliban are gone and I can restart working toward my dreams.

Zahra Hussaini, 26, women’s rights activist

The U.S. withdrawal that was completed on Aug. 31 was a cruelty done to Afghan women. The political game the United States and other Western countries played in Afghanistan sank Afghan people into misery.

When the United States came to Afghanistan, they did some things—like including women in society. In the past 20 years, we had some change, especially that women have reached some position in politics, sports, technology, health, art, security, and all other aspects of life. We have fought for our rights, and we sacrificed to get where we were. Many women have lost their life for gender equality, for women to have an opportunity for a more equal society.

We know that the Taliban are a threat to Afghan people, particularly for women. The Taliban do not want women to be in society, to work or participate in all other aspects of social life.

But the U.S. withdrawal means we returned to 20 years ago. Now, women are marginalized. They are sent back home. Women can no longer work. They cannot be a singer. They cannot be an actress. They cannot participate in sports. Women cannot advocate for themselves. It is very sad for women who are left behind. It is very painful to return back to 20 years ago and live like our mothers and grandmothers under the Taliban. It is sad. Women have lost their hope. Their dreams are turned to a nightmare. We can no longer live as an active part of our society.

Anonymous, 16, high school student who had been training to play volleyball for Afghanistan’s national women’s team

When the United States left, it did not care about us Afghan women and girls. But when they came, they promised to change our situation. Now, they left us worse than before. The Americans showed us some forms of freedom but didn’t help us to free ourselves. They left us in our cage. Now, I cannot live the life I wanted.

When BeLinda Berry was in graduate school in 2017, she posed nude for a photographer who was a friend of hers. “I was living on my own, exploring my sexuality and my freedom,” she said. The experience was empowering. 

The photographer posted the images in an online portfolio accessible to anyone with the link. Soon after, a girl from her Ohio hometown reached out to tell Berry her images were showing up in invite-only local Discord channels dedicated to “revenge porn,” a misleading term commonly used to describe intimate images shared online without the consent of the subject. Someone also posted the photos, with her name and hometown, to a now-shuttered website called Anon-IB, which trafficked in so-called revenge porn and child pornography. “Suddenly, there were people anonymously posting, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been wanting to see these tits for years. Does anybody have any more?’” she said. 

Berry didn’t even try to go to the police. “I didn’t feel like I had a right to make a case because I had the photos taken of me, and I knew to some degree that they would be out in the world,” she said. “There was a lot of internal victim-blaming.”

At the time, Ohio didn’t have a specific law against nonconsensual intimate image sharing. What’s more, Anon-IB was based abroad in the Netherlands. Berry, now an advocate with the nonprofit March Against Revenge Porn, was on her own.

In recent years, as awareness of the issue has risen thanks to high-profile leaks involving celebrities and public figures, many countries and local governments have outlawed the practice. Under pressure from advocates, big online platforms have begun implementing their own policies. But victims and lawyers report the laws just aren’t working. Although the internet has no borders and content travels freely, remedies vary vastly across jurisdictions, and there is very little cross-border cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, the crime—which disproportionately affects women and people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual—is flourishing.

When multiple jurisdictions are involved, even when they have intimate image abuse laws on the books, police will often try to pass the buck, said Honza Cervenka, a lawyer with British-American firm McAllister Olivarius.

“If I’m in Scotland and my perpetrator is in Virginia, I go to my local Scottish police, and they say, ‘No, you have to go to Virginia because that’s where your perpetrator lives.’ I call the perpetrator’s local precinct in Virginia, and they tell me, ‘You’re not here. In order to start a complaint, you need to go to your local police station, and then perhaps we can collaborate on this case with them,’” Cervenka said. “But in reality, I’ve never seen that collaboration be done successfully.”

Globally, regulations overwhelmingly criminalize sharing an individual’s intimate images without their consent, but the specifics differ widely. In some jurisdictions, it’s a sex crime akin to harassment. In others, it is treated as a privacy violation. In New Zealand, a specialized government-approved agency tries to negotiate a settlement between the parties before the case is turned over to the courts. The Philippines is more punitive: Sentences range from a minimum of three years in prison to a maximum of seven years in prison.

One particularly contentious issue when it comes to crafting legislation is the question of intent—whether the person sharing the images wanted to harm the victim. In places like the U.S. state of OhioNew Zealand, and the United Kingdomcritics say laws fail to bring perpetrators to justice because of the intent language. According to research conducted by advocacy group the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), most people who share intimate images without the subject’s consent are doing so without aiming to hurt the subject.

The disparities are particularly palpable in the United States, where 48 states and the District of Columbia all have their own relevant laws. New York, for example, has an “intent to harm” clause whereas Illinois, which law advocates view as the gold standard, does not. 

For victims, these variances mean navigating a morass of different rules. “What would ideally be a simple avenue to get justice becomes a complicated maneuvering exercise between exactly what the intent element is in Minnesota as opposed to what the intent element is defined as in New Hampshire,” Cervenka said. “Many victims just give up.”

One solution, at least in the United States, would be a comprehensive federal law. But thus far, no bill has been successful in Congress (although attempts are still being made). 

In the United States, the main disagreement has been around scope. If a law is too narrowly defined, it would apply in only a limited subset of cases, argue victims’ advocates. But if it’s too broad, it risks being overly punitive and silencing speech, say civil rights groups.

In countries with weaker free speech protections and rule of law, this dilemma becomes even starker. “A lot of our concern has been about how the crime is described,” said Erika Smith of Take Back the Tech, a global anti-tech-related violence campaign. “Is it so broad that anything can fit in? Because we know that governments will twist the laws and use them against marginalized groups.”

This kind of misuse has been reported in Pakistan, for example. Similar concerns have been raised about Mexico’s recent law, which includes potential sentences of up to six years in prison. Candy Rodríguez, spokesperson for Acoso. Online, a group that supports victims of online harassment in Latin America, said the law was a sign of progress but an overly punitive stance would disproportionately affect marginalized communities. “It is mostly people of color or the poorest who receive prison sentences in Mexico,” Rodríguez said.

In the absence of adequate protections, victims of nonconsensual intimate image sharing sometimes seek remedies in more established legal territory like privacy or copyright law. The latter is fairly harmonized around the world and allows victims, who often just want their images to disappear from the internet, to more swiftly deal with the problem. After Berry said she held the copyright to her images, Anon-IB took them down. (Generally, copyright law only applies to images that were taken by the victim, such as selfies.) 

In the European Union, victims have some recourse with the General Data Protection Regulation, the behemoth online privacy law implemented in 2018. The law includes a “right to erasure,” requiring tech companies to take down content about a person if that person requested it. But the process is complicated and lengthy—not particularly helpful when haste is key. If not removed immediately, intimate images often get downloaded and disseminated broadly.

Although Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook have cracked down on intimate image abuse in recent years, advocates say there’s much more work to be done. Unless they have a copyright claim, victims have to rely on the goodwill of individual platforms to erase their images.

Online platforms are generally protected from being held liable for content posted by their users unless legislators choose to carve out exceptions. The United States, where most Big Tech companies are based, does not make exceptions for intimate image abuse, which critics say makes it very difficult for victims to hold platforms accountable. But Brazil, for example, does.

“That changed things a lot,” said Mariana Valente, a Brazil-based researcher and author of a 2018 report on laws governing intimate image abuse globally. “Brazil has been fairly able to enforce local law with platforms, but it’s taken years. They resisted a lot at the beginning,” Valente said. “This also has to do with the relative importance of the Brazilian market.” Smaller countries might not have as much leverage.

So far, there is little concerted effort on the part of governments or law enforcement agencies to collaborate on these issues.

Ideally, there would be a multilateral regulatory regime with an enforcement arm, said attorney Ann Olivarius of McAllister Olivarius. “There should be an international law. … Not just a treaty or international protocol, but a real law.” 

There is precedent for international cooperation on cybercrime. Governments have long been collaborating in the fight against child pornography, for example. But nude adult selfies are a much harder sell. In the end, changing attitudes may be just as important as legal reform. 

“We’ve had situations where police officers will gawk at the photos,” said Mary Anne Franks, head of the CCRI and one of the leading advocates for stronger laws to protect victims. “They’ll ogle them. They’ll laugh about them. They’ll pass them around the station. The idea that that law is actually going to be useful for that victim in that situation is a legal fiction. You want to move society to a place where it see this as something very wrong…and that has serious consequences”

Although Berry has managed to have her images taken down and Dutch authorities seized the servers of Anon-IB in 2018, her images are still out there. Every now and then, she’ll get clusters of Facebook friend requests from people she hasn’t spoken to in a decade. “Then I’m like ‘Oh, somebody probably found the photos again,’” she said.

TEL AVIV, Israel—With Israel’s newly formed government, women’s rights activists are heralding a new day for the country.

The new unity government has ended the country’s nearly three-year political deadlock, and the 12-year rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. After surviving Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to thwart its formation, the newly sworn-in “change government” of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Islamist parties faces its most difficult challenge yet: governing. With little agreement on anything more than uniting a deeply divided nation and keeping Netanyahu out of office, many here wonder how long the government can last.

Yet one largely overlooked area of consensus—and hope for many—is the issue of women’s rights. In addition to including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s 73-year-history, this government also boasts a record number of female ministers—nine out of 27.

The fragile government, with a knife-edge majority of 61 out of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, must find as much common ground as it can to survive, secure the legislative wins it needs to prove to voters that the alliance of ideological rivals was justified, and show Israeli citizens that the country can in fact thrive without Netanyahu at the helm. (The new government is supposed to be led for the first two years by right-wing, pro-settler Naftali Bennett and the remaining two years by centrist Yair Lapid.) Tackling problems like gender inequality and domestic violence could prove to be unifying causes for this fractious coalition, according to experts.

“There are huge differences between these parties,” said Abraham Diskin, former chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “What unites them is animosity toward Netanyahu. But everybody can agree that violence against women should be restricted.”

Israel’s political future could influence the future for women in Israel, as well as elsewhere in the greater region, where Israel’s strong ties with the United States, in particular, affect everything from sanctions on Iran to U.S. military spending.

Women’s rights advocates say they see a silver lining in the diverse coalition’s lack of ideological accord. Because the new government intends to avoid controversial subjects that could lead to its collapse—particularly those relating to the Palestinians—it plans to focus on domestic issues which the parties can agree on, including some causes that are paramount to women.

Israel’s political right and left are in fact united on many fronts, particularly women’s rights (abortion, for example, is heavily subsidized by the state). Their one major sticking point is the conflict with and treatment of the Palestinians.

Despite recent Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 243 Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas-fired rockets that killed 13 people in Israel in May, and simmering tensions over land disputes, the new government is expected to try and focus on anything but that issue. It will be difficult to ignore: Days into the new leadership, Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza, targeting Hamas, which had launched incendiary balloons into Israel in retaliation for a government-approved far-right Jewish march through Jerusalem in which some shouted, “death to Arabs.”

In addition to passing a budget for the first time in three years, building badly needed new hospitals and mending the country’s post-pandemic economy, the new government plans to advance gender equality, fight the widespread gun violence plaguing Israel’s Arab community, and tackle a long-simmering crisis of domestic violence that was intensified by COVID-19, according to coalition agreements released ahead of the government’s swearing-in on Sunday. There is a great deal of work to be done, experts say, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which set back advancements in gender equality across the globe, and after 12 consecutive years of Netanyahu’s rule.

“To say that Netanyahu’s government would not get an outstanding grade on advancing women’s rights would be an understatement,” said Gali Etzion, who heads the legislation department at NA’AMAT, Israel’s largest women’s rights NGO.

While Israel offers arguably more freedom to its female citizens than elsewhere in the Middle East, it struggles with many of the same problems women face in other developed nations.

Women in Israel earn 67 percent of what men earn, according to the 2020 Gender Index conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. And among Arab women, the gaps are even more stark. Only 30 percent of Arab women participate in the labor force in Israel, compared to 60 percent of Arab men, 60 percent of the general female population, and 68 percent of the general male public.

Domestic violence, particularly against Arab women, has also plagued the country. Arab citizens make up 21 percent of Israel’s population of nine million people. But of the approximately 20 Israeli women who are reported killed by a partner or family member each year, many of whom previously sought out help, over half of them are Arab women, according to NA’AMAT, citing government data. Etzion and other activists say the actual figures are much higher than those reported to authorities

In 2017, in response to the growing outcry over domestic violence, Netanyahu’s government approved a $77-million five-year plan to combat the crisis. Yet the budget necessary to carry out that plan was never allocated. Women’s rights activists hope that fulfilling that plan will be one of this new government’s early achievements.

“Although this will be a very difficult and complex government to operate, I’m definitely hopeful,” said Etzion. While it is anyone’s guess how long this government will last, “there are members who have worked overtime to promote gender equality and women’s rights,” she said. “I do have great expectations and I do believe that there are people in this government for whom gender equality are their core values.”

Indeed, for many of the women in Israel’s new government—and some of the men—women’s rights are among their fundamental priorities. Most prominent among them is Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, Israel’s new transportation minister, a former journalist and feminist activist who has championed women’s rights for decades. As a member of Israel’s parliament since 2013, Michaeli has advanced over a dozen pieces of legislation to protect and assist women in crisis, and fought for more government funding to aid survivors of sexual assault, according to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.

Incoming Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who broke away to form his own party, New Hope, was an early leader of the right-wing effort to replace the now-former prime minister. Along with Oded Forer, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, both politicians are former chairs of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, which Etzion worked closely with to help pass various laws to protect survivors of domestic violence. Among them was a bill Sa’ar passed on his last day in the Knesset before he left to form his new party. That legislation changed the laws regarding custodianship to prevent a parent who either killed their spouse or raped one of their children to continue to be the guardian of their children.

“When people have a mission to do something, they can work together,” said Etzion. “I think gender equality should cross party lines and different beliefs.”

One priority that many women in Israel and the Jewish diaspora have long waited to see fulfilled is the expansion of the small egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In 2016, after years of activism by the feminist group Women of the Wall, Netanyahu approved a plan to expand the space at one of the holiest sites in Judaism. The Western Wall is the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple, built by Herod the Great around 516 B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Bowing to political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that had significant power in his government, Netanyahu quickly scrapped the plan. The new government reportedly plans to implement it.

For Arab women in Israel, one of the most hopeful elements of this new government—aside from its end to the premiership of Netanyahu, who often vilified Israel’s Arab population     —is its plan to combat crime and illegal weapons in the Arab community, which suffers from high levels of discrimination, poverty, and unemployment.

“This is the most important issue for Arab-Israeli women,” said Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, an Arab citizen of Israel and the director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This affects our sons, our husbands, our brothers, ourselves.”

Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am—an Islamist Arab party, which seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state and calls for the right of return for Palestinians who say they were expelled in 1948—made history by joining this coalition and campaigned on this very issue. “Here, I expect great achievements from Ra’am,” said Haj-Yahya. “Abbas understands that if there is no improvement on the issue that is most important to the Arab-Israeli community, he won’t be able to justify his joining this government. Budgets will not be enough. This is an issue of survival.”

Part of Ra’am’s agreement to join the coalition government was its pledge to adopt a five-year plan worth nearly $1 billion aimed at curbing crime in the Arab sector, in addition to a $150-million plan for development in the long-neglected Arab community.

The eruption of violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews in May could prove to be a rallying force for action after years of government neglect of this long-simmering crisis, added Haj-Yahya.

Any advancements for women in Israel put forth by the new government will have little bearing on the daily lives of women in the Palestinian territories, as they are governed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and by the Islamist militant group Hamas in Gaza. Palestinian elections have not been held since 2006, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority restrict women’s rights. Abortion is illegal in the Palestinian Territories and women      must have permission from a “guardian” to travel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to a Hamas-run court, as well as permission from Israel or Egypt, which control Gaza’s borders.

Despite renewed hope around Israel’s new government, not all women’s rights activists are optimistic about the prospects of change in Israel.

“There being more Arab lawmakers in this government doesn’t mean that they will work towards women’s rights,” said Insaf Abu Shareb, a Bedouin women’s rights activist and attorney who has worked for over a decade to fight against polygamy and honor killings in Israel’s Bedouin community.

“It could be the opposite,” she said, noting that Ra’am is an Islamist party whose voters have highly traditional and patriarchal views of women.

Activists say they are less hopeful when it comes to issues of religion and state. In Israel, there is no separation between the two. Marriage, divorce, and other family matters are handled by religious authorities, either Sharia courts for Muslims or Rabbinical courts for Jews. This is why, for example, Israel does not provide the option of civil marriage for LGBTQ couples, despite being seen as relatively progressive.

Despite the array of ideologies in Israel’s new coalition government, both religious and secular, the country’s Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox political parties, find themselves out of the government. This past week, when a photograph of the new government circulated online, the Haredi news site Behaderey Haredim published the photograph of the politicians standing shoulder to shoulder, with nine of their faces blurred—the faces of the women.

Ana often gets nosebleeds after working at her job assembling cellphones at a factory in Vietnam. The single mother, who requested a pseudonym in fear of professional repercussions, has also fainted numerous times. “When I feel a little dizzy and nausea I still go to work,” she said. “I may lose a lot of bonus if I stay off work for a day.”

Mobile phones contain a variety of chemical substances, including plasticizers and flame retardants. And while it’s difficult to isolate the health impacts of exposure to these and other chemicals because they are so ubiquitous in our environment, studies have linked their use to developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. A new report published in January found that these health effects are particularly worrisome for women, who are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the workplace because of their prevalence in chemical-heavy industries, poorer working conditions relative to men, and even biological factors.

Generally, women have a higher proportion of adipose tissue compared to men and, as a result, they are more likely to store environmental pollutants. A woman’s reproductive cycle may also play a role. The new report, jointly produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network and the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management, notes that women “have different susceptibility to hazardous chemicals in connection with their reproductive cycles” and that they may be more vulnerable to health damage from toxic chemicals “at different life stages such as pregnancy, lactation, and menopause.”

Electronics and textiles are among the industries that most contribute to the problem, said Sara Brosche, one of the report’s authors. “These are also two sectors that have a predominantly female workforce,” she said.

Exposure to chemicals is common in other female-dominated industries, too. When Elva Aguilar went to the hospital with chest pain, shortness of breath, and headaches, doctors diagnosed her as having a nervous breakdown. “My breathing was not normal,” she said. “I had to breathe short breaths because, when I would breathe, there was intense pain in the rib cage.”

The 55-year-old, who moved to the United States from El Salvador, had been working as a cleaner for more than a year when she developed a skin allergy, dry eyes, back pain, and digestive issues. Desperate to explain the onset of her symptoms, she sought help at a local health fair, where a chiropractor asked her what cleaners she used. When she listed off the names of some common household products, he suggested another potential cause for her symptoms. “He told me that it could be poison,” Aguilar said. She switched to nontoxic products and said that, while her symptoms have improved, she still suffers from headaches and digestive problems.

“We can’t necessarily pin it to one thing,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit based in Montana that advocates for women’s rights in the workplace and has studied the impact of toxic chemicals on hair and nail salon workers, who are regularly exposed to chemicals in hair sprays and nail glue for acrylic nails. “A lot of the issue has to do with cumulative impacts, which can often get ignored,” she said. “There is very little research into, for example, ‘This group of women who have been exposed to this chemical from X product and they have this health outcome.’ That kind of research—which would be great to have—almost never gets done.”

There is no global framework to protect workers from chemical exposure, but some jurisdictions are better at implementing protections than others. The European Union, for example, has more stringent regulations than the United States and bans certain chemicals that are commonly used in products sold in America.

In January 2019, a bill was introduced in Connecticut to make cosmetics in the state “meet the chemical safety standards established by the European Union,” but it failed to pass. Both the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization have urged policymakers to prohibit the use of asbestos, and more than 60 countries have banned the mineral. But in the United States, it is commonly used in the construction industry (with the exception of New Jersey, which banned asbestos in 2018). Formaldehyde, a chemical listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known carcinogen, is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU but is frequently used in nail polish and hair-straightening treatments in the U.S.

Hairstylist Emily Baedeker has worked in the industry for more than two decades. Around nine years ago, the Alameda, California, hair stylist began to get “crazy migraines” and suffer from fibroids, dermatitis, and thyroid issues. “The hair color … also caused my eyes and nose to burn,” she said. Later she saw an ad in a trade magazine that made her question whether her symptoms were related to her exposure to chemicals. “The picture was really intense,” she said. “It was a stylist wearing a gas mask and the headline was something like, ‘You shouldn’t have to risk your health to color your hair.’” Research from as far back as 2009 found hairdressers have a higher risk of cancer than the general population.

Both globally and in the United States, women of color are even more at risk from the potential health effects of chemical exposure, not only because they disproportionately work in chemical-heavy industries but also because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution. Studies show that communities of color are more often situated next to highways and big polluting industries, such as oil refineries, meat processing plants, agricultural fields, and toxic waste dumps.

Brosche said that more research is needed to understand the health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals and that more pressure should be put on manufacturers to phase out their use. When products are found to have a health impact, she wants manufacturers to be held accountable, including being made to cover the costs of patients’ medical care.

Meanwhile, Baedeker said her experience opened her eyes to the potential dangers of working in the hair salon industry: “I had never once considered what these chemicals might be doing to my body.”


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

SEOUL, South Korea—Lee Yong-soo seemed to shiver with frustration as an activist wheeled her out of the Seoul Central District Court in a wheelchair. The 92-year-old Korean woman, who survived Japanese military sexual enslavement as a teenager during World War II, gripped her red cane and faced the crowd of reporters.

She was noticeably distraught—and understandably so.The court had just issued what activists and human rights groups say is a devastating blow to decades-long efforts to seek justice for so-called “comfort women”—but which the judge described as a victory for international diplomacy.

In a packed courtroom on the morning of April 21, Judge Min Seong-cheol said in his surprise dismissal of the civil suit filed by 20 survivors and their family members that a “diplomatic clash would [have been] inevitable” if an exception to Japan’s state immunity was upheld. The judge thus embraced an argument made repeatedly in public by the Japanese government—and one that may have had the support, for the sake of regional stability, of the Biden administration in Washington.

In issuing his verdict, Min contradicted the court’s landmark decision in a case from January that had ordered the Japanese government to pay 12 Korean survivors roughly $91,800 each. It was the first domestic court case of its kind that demanded compensation and legal responsibility from Tokyo for wartime crimes against women and girls raped and forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces. Survivors and historians say Japanese forces raped, enslaved, sterilized, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of Asian women and girls like Lee, most of them Korean, during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea until the end of World War II. Seventy-six years later, Lee is one of only 15 registered Korean survivors still alive.

Despite the verdict, Lee said she will seek out other avenues for justice. “We will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ),” she said, referring to the United Nations’ main judicial court at The Hague.

a woman exits a building where a crowd of gathered journalists waits
“We will go to the International Court of Justice,” says Lee Yong-soo to reporters outside of the Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. The 92-year-old Korean activist survived Japanese military sexual enslavement as a teenager during World War II. (Seulki Lee/The Fuller Project)

The case had thrust the two countries’ ailing bilateral ties back into the spotlight, complicating renewed U.S. efforts to unite allies in Seoul and Tokyo to counter China as a global competitor to Washington and manage North Korea and its nuclear arms arsenal, which U.S. President Joe Biden has said is his administration’s top foreign-policy issue. The case’s dismissal puts a spotlight on the political and diplomatic hurdles that survivors of wartime sexual violence and rape anywhere in the world—from Sarajevo to Seoul—face as they seek what they say is justice.

In January, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on South Korea to drop the case. The country refused to take part in the trial, citing sovereign immunity—international legal doctrine that says a state is immune from another country’s legal jurisdiction. The Seoul Central District Court had rejected Japan’s claim of sovereign immunity, saying the country “violated international norms by committing intentional, systematic, and wide-ranging inhumane criminal acts.” But on April 21, the court—and a new judge—used sovereign immunity as the basis for the decision to dismiss the complicated and controversial case.

Japan has apologized at numerous points in history for its treatment of so-called “comfort women” but stops short of accepting legal responsibility. The country maintains the issue was resolved as per a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. Tokyo provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance and loans to Seoul as a settlement. Japan says the two countries had reached a “final and irreversible resolution” in Seoul in 2015. As part of the joint agreement, Japan “painfully acknowledge[d] its responsibility” and promised $8.3 million in government funds to back projects supporting former “comfort women.”

But survivors and human rights groups say the bilateral agreement didn’t go far enough in terms of Japan accepting legal responsibility and did not include survivors at the negotiating table. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said the 2015 agreement was flawed and “cannot solve the comfort women issue.” In 2019, Moon dissolved a Japanese-funded foundation set up under the agreement, prompting outcry from Tokyo.

The 2015 agreement was a “stubborn political agreement that excluded victims,” said a spokesperson for the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, also known as the Korean Council, in an email on behalf of the organization. The Seoul-based organization said it aims to prevent future wartime sexual violence through remembrance, education, legal reparations, and other means. (The organization came under fire in 2020 when survivor and activist Lee Yong-soo accused the Korean Council of exploiting the cause and misusing funds, prompting an investigation into Yoon Mee-hyang, the organization’s former head who stepped down in April 2020 after winning a seat in parliament. The Korean Council has apologized for what it said are “banking errors.”)

Although the United States has not commented on the court case and most recent tensions surrounding the “comfort women” legacy, Biden is expected to work on repairing South Korea-Japan relations through diplomacy, similar to when “President Obama pressured Korea to improve relations between Korea and Japan,” said Lee Shin-wha, a professor of political science and international relations at Korea University in Seoul. The outcome, with Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, was the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, which the United States applauded as a step in the right direction at the time.

After Biden’s inauguration, the president sent his top envoys to Tokyo and Seoul in March for the administration’s first overseas diplomatic meeting. “It’s no accident that we chose the Republic of Korea for the first cabinet-level overseas travel of the Biden-Harris administration, along with Japan,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Seoul on March 17.

On April 16, Biden met with Suga at the White House. It was the first in-person meeting of Biden’s presidency with a foreign leader. In their press conference and readouts, both Biden and Suga touted the “unwavering” alliance between Washington and Tokyo as well as threats they—and regional partners Australia and India, otherwise known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—face from China and North Korea. Neither leader mentioned Washington’s other close ally, South Korea.

The U.S. State Department declined a Foreign Policy interview request with Sung Kim, the top department official overseeing East Asia and Pacific affairs, on the matter of the “comfort women” and U.S.-Japan-Korea relations.

The United States has an obligation to responsibly respond to the court case and wider calls for justice, considering its own damning legacy with “U.S. military comfort women,” said a Korean Council spokesperson in an email. Since the end of World War II, U.S. servicemen have helped fuel and taken part in sex work, trafficking, and exploitation of Korean and other Asian women around U.S. military bases in the region. In February 2018, a Seoul court ordered Seoul pay more than half a million dollars to 117 surviving plaintiffs who served as sex workers in “camp towns” around U.S. bases in the 1950s, saying South Korea violated its citizens’ human rights and actively encouraged prostitution to benefit the U.S. military alliance.

Every week, for 29 years, protesters in Seoul have gathered to demand justice for former “comfort women.” On Wednesday, hours after the court ruling, protesters gathered outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as they do every Wednesday, and took their places next to a bronze statue of a Korean girl with bare feet, her eyes fixed squarely on the embassy. A woman placed a bright yellow sign on the statue’s lap. It read 1,488—the number of protests demanding justice since 1992.

Police lined the street as counter-protesters, some of whom say the “comfort women” narrative is a fraud, shouted over speakers. Despite decades of well-founded and widely accepted historical research into the experience of women and girls sexually enslaved by Japanese forces, Japanese scholars and critics—as well as, most recently, a Harvard professor slammed for historical revisionism—have argued women and girls forced into military brothels entered into prostitution willingly.

The debate over what justice looks like is not just an issue of resolving the legacy of “comfort women” but also Japan’s colonial legacy as a whole. Japan forcibly conscripted hundreds of thousands (if not millions, according to some South Korean sources) of Koreans into fighting and laboring across Asia before and during World War II.

“It’s not correct to describe these historical issues as a diversion or sideshow,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert on East Asian security with the Center for a New American Security and a former White House national security staffer for Biden during the Obama administration. “They’re so important to the fundamental question of what kind of regional order you are building.”

Washington is struggling with how to address the issue or even whether to address it at all, experts said, as it tries to carefully balance alliances and counter China, address priorities in Tokyo and Seoul, and weigh geopolitics against domestic politics in both capitals.

The politics of patriotism continue to play important roles in both Japan and South Korea, and it’s unlikely tensions between the two countries over World War II-era atrocities will fade away over time, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank.

Even as the last members of the generation that survived World War II pass away, the horrors they faced have become “part of the firmament of South Korean politics,” Smith said.

Those tensions are now complicating other aspects of the relationship, including trilateral ties with Washington and renewed U.S. efforts to strengthen alliances across the Indo-Pacific region to counter China and rein in North Korea’s nuclear capability.

“You’ve watched the historical legacy issues that have always been there in different forms or fashion, now spilling out into the economic relationship, which has always been very strong, and now spilling into the security and alliance relationship with the United States,” Smith said.

Historically, efforts to prosecute wartime sexual violence, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, around the world have been largely unsuccessful. The past 25 years, in particular, have seen the issue of conflict-related sexual violence elevated in local and international courts. Yet progress has been slow.

Such cases are difficult to prosecute and are often sidelined due to political pressure and inability to gather sufficient evidence due to the length of time—sometimes decades—that passes between when crimes are committed and when they are tried in courtrooms. Prosecuting wartime sexual violence often requires more money, more legwork, and more fortitude than other crimes.

Since the end of World War II, survivors of Japanese wartime sexual enslavement have filed lawsuits against Japan in Japanese courts across Asia—including South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China—as well as the Netherlands, according to Amnesty International. None have succeeded.

Survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, and activists say they will stop at nothing to seek justice. “Time does not wait for the victims,” said activist Choi Jun-hyuk, who accompanied Lee to the trial.

He slammed the Japanese government, the Korean government, and the Korean judiciary for failing to support survivors like Lee.

“We need to get to the ICJ as soon as possible and seek justice,” he said.


Correction, April 22, 2021: The original version of this piece erroneously identified a spokesperson for the Korean Council.

Rajveer Kaur grew up working in the fields of Gandhar village in Muktsar, Punjab, alongside her parents and siblings. After her school day, she would harvest wheat and feed cattle; during summer break, they sowed cotton and rice for the monsoon season. “If you want to eat, you don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s a question of survival from one day to the next when you are born into a family of laborers.”

Kaur is a Dalit woman, a dual identity that reflects the most marginalized of India’s oppressive caste hierarchy. She is also among the millions of women protesting laws enacted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deregulate the agricultural sector. In Punjab and elsewhere, farmers largely operate under the mandi system, in which crops are procured by government intermediaries at minimum support prices, or price floors. Proponents of the new laws say moving to a free market system will allow farmers to sell directly to private buyers for potentially higher prices than what they currently get from the state.

But millions of Indian farmers remain unconvinced, demanding the repeal of what they see as a corporate takeover of agriculture, which employs some 40 percent of the country’s workforce. Dependence on the sector is even higher in rural areas, where, as of 2018, 58 percent of workers—and 71 percent of women—got their livelihoods from farming. These women, many of whom are Dalit, are largely invisible in the sector. Most own no land or are smallholders, earn less than male laborers, and have virtually no power to negotiate prices or wages. In an unregulated market with no safeguards, India’s disempowered female farmers arguably have the most to lose.

In recent years, as climate change-induced crises like droughts and failing crops have forced rural men to migrate to cities for work, agriculture has become increasingly female-dominated. Women are left to manage farmland, domestic work, and care for children and elders—but less than 14 percent have land in their name. Women’s farm labor is also often uncounted in census data, making them ineligible for government programs, which, accordingly, tend to overwhelmingly benefit male farmers.

In interviews with female farmers translated from Hindi and Punjabi, many said they feared being pushed even further to the margins.

Revanti Dhayal, who joined a sit-in in Delhi that started in November and is still ongoing—she planned to stay there until the laws were repealed—spoke passionately about needing to provide for her two toddlers, who clung to her sari. “Everyone else who works at a company gets a say in the prices they charge,” she said. “We, too, want fair rates for the food we grow!” She wants the government to make minimum support prices legally binding. (They aren’t mandated under the new law.)

Dhayal’s husband owns 15 acres of land in the state of Haryana, but her name isn’t on the title. “I’m a farmer, too,” she said. Myriad religious inheritance laws mediate women’s ownership of farmland. While legally they can own land, patriarchal cultures often prevent them from doing so.

60-year-old Balveer Kaur (no relation to Rajveer Kaur) leases an acre of land for more than $800 per year and saves less than $70 annually, leaving her with virtually no financial cushion. Now, she worries the laws will disrupt the relationship she has with the middlemen who facilitate sales at the mandis, or agricultural markets, and also act as informal sources of credit. “Negotiating the mandis is difficult,” she said. “If our relationship with the middlemen is broken, then it will become near impossible to even earn enough to survive.”


Related Coverage: As India’s Credit Sector Falters, So Do Women’s Livelihoods


Private investment, one of the Modi government’s main justifications for deregulation, is also far from assured. The local government in the state of Maharashtra deregulated parts of its agricultural sector in 2016, but the move hasn’t yielded the influx of investments in agriculture that Modi is predicting as the outcome of the new laws.

Indeed, many protesters fear a situation more akin to what happened in Bihar, which underwent deregulation in 2006. Government mandis there were eventually shuttered, making minimum support prices irrelevant. Over time, many Bihari farmers had to migrate outside the state, to Punjab and Haryana, to find work doing farm or other types of daily-wage labor.

Opponents argue that the government is pulling the rug out from under states, which typically set agricultural policy, and doing it without regard for regional differences in crop production and distribution and with few safeguards for small farmers—some of whom are barely subsisting as it is. Nirmal Kaur (no relation to either Rajveer or Balveer Kaur), a farmer who traveled from Haryana to Delhi to be part of the protests, said she came as a last stand against “complete ruin.”

Among female farm workers, 85 percent belong to tribal, Dalit, or other marginalized castes, and most are landless or own small farms, making caste dynamics an inextricable part of opposition to the new farm laws. In rural Mukstar, where Rajveer Kaur’s family lives, 96 percent of Dalit agricultural laborers do not own the land they work.

Historically, oppressed caste communities in India were prevented from being landowners, breeding intergenerational poverty and a reliance on exploitative labor arrangements. This inequity persists today, despite regulations on paper meant to protect these communities from discrimination. In Punjab, for instance, a third of publicly owned village agricultural land is legally reserved for Dalits, but attempts by them to claim this land have been met with brutal violence.

Dalit women typically work as daily-wage labor, putting them at the mercy of mostly male landowners who often pay the bare minimum—as low as $2 a day—especially if she is from a marginalized caste. Their wages can change at whim—there are no salaries and often no fixed contracts—and they have little say over terms.

In addition to the volatility brought about by fluctuations in the market, Modi’s reforms encourage trading activity to move online, ignoring low rates of literacy and access to smartphones and the internet among rural women. “Most homes here don’t even have internet,” said Phoola Devi, a Dalit farmer from Badokhar village in Banda, southeast of Delhi. “How would we operate a smartphone? Most of us women farmers never went to school. If we had, we wouldn’t still be farming!”

Many of the young women protesting are the first of their farming families to attend university or graduate school—often at protest sites that are explicitly masculine and casteist spaces themselves. “At first you could count the number of women at the protests on one hand,” Rajveer Kaur said. “Those who came stayed mostly out of sight, at the very back. It took months of meetings with farmer union leaders and setting norms for women to start speaking on stage regularly.” During court hearings about the protests, the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court said he didn’t understand “why old people and women” were being “kept” at the protests.

In January, Rajveer Kaur’s sister, the labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur, was arrested from a protest site near Delhi and charged with a number of offenses, including attempted murder. (No one actually died; police claimed that protesters became violent, a charge that Nodeep and others refute.) She had made national news with a viral video decrying the government’s move toward privatization.

Nodeep and fellow protesters want a repeal not just of the new farm laws but also of sweeping labor reforms passed in 2020 that diluted protections for workers, including farm laborers. Protesters are also demanding the implementation of reforms proposed by India’s National Commission on Farmers in 2006. In particular, they want to see minimum support prices one and a half times the cost of production.

Harinder Bindu, the president of the women’s wing of the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), sees the protests as an opening. “You can see a shift in responsibilities and gender roles. We have done so much work organizing and educating door to door these past years, and it’s paying off. Where women were at home, now they are here.”

GULU, Uganda—In her office in Gulu, an impoverished city in northern Uganda, Stella Angel Lanam is worried about eviction. She is the founder and director of the War Victims and Children Network, an organization that helps women who, like her, were abducted during Uganda’s lengthy war and forced to become wives to rebel fighters and mothers to children born out of rape. These days, she’s simply struggling to pay rent. “Ever since we came back home, we did not get the support,” she said.

Uganda’s former decadeslong conflict came under the spotlight last month when the International Criminal Court (ICC) reached a verdict against Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier-turned-commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The rebel group was headed by Joseph Kony, whose brutality was infamously depicted in the short documentary Kony 2012, which was produced by an American charity and went massively viral.

Ongwen was convicted on 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the first ICC conviction for forced marriage and the first conviction for forced pregnancy at any international court. The presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, ruled that Ongwen had personally attacked seven women and coerced others to marry and have sexual relations with men under his command, calling these actions a “coordinated and methodical effort” to commit sexual and gender-based crimes and emphasizing the role of sexual violence in the conflict.

Human rights groups hailed the decision as a milestone in the fight against impunity for sexual crimes. But in northern Uganda, it’s hard to find much enthusiasm for the verdict among survivors who are grappling with poverty, stigma, and the total absence of government support.

LRA atrocities included forced marriage, pregnancy for abducted girls

Between the late 1980s and mid-2000s, tens of thousands of children were abducted by the LRA. The boys were indoctrinated and turned into fighters. Girls were assigned as so-called wives and threatened with murder if they tried to get away. “The abuse of women and girls in the LRA was truly systemic and institutional,” Schmitt said.

But he also acknowledged another unsettling reality: Forced marriage and pregnancy can have “complex emotional and psychological effects” on survivors, who, despite their lack of consent, may feel “bonded” to their abusers.

And many of the women Ongwen targeted are less worried about a proclamation of guilt in some faraway court than they are about scrabbling for money to buy food, finding shelter, paying their children’s school fees, and generally trying to survive—worries they have had ever since leaving the LRA.

Over the past few years, during interviews I’ve done with dozens of women who were kidnapped and forced into such “marriages” in the bush, most said they received little or no help once they escaped, and they were given no government compensation. Without an education or skills, they aren’t able to earn a living. Many say this is a key reason why they face so much stigma; they could have been welcomed back by their families if they weren’t a financial burden. Most women viewed the men in the rebel group as victims, too. The majority did not want Ongwen to be charged or sentenced. One of Ongwen’s so-called wives, Dilis Abang, said she is worried about what will happen to their children if the man she still calls her husband is unable to support them.

Case against Ongwen was contentious

Sarah Kihika Kasande, the head of the Uganda office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that seeks accountability for human rights abuses in post-conflict countries, said the ICC verdict was significant because it looked at the “full spectrum of sexual crimes and other atrocities that the people experienced and their lasting impact.”

“Forced motherhood was a defining feature of the conflict,” she said. “Young women were forced not only to be sexual slaves … but to give birth to children who would be groomed to become child soldiers.”

But she also recognized that the case against Ongwen has been contentious, tracing some of the controversy back to a government amnesty program that encouraged LRA fighters to defect and be welcomed back to their communities. The program, Kasande said, did not take into account the gendered needs of escapees. While male defectors were invited to join the Ugandan military and draw a salary, women were effectively left with nothing. “The aspect of sexual violence is not the immediate concern [for the women],” she said. ”It is the consequence of the sexual violence.” Survivors still live with trauma, suffer from medical problems, and have children to support.

The last few decades have seen growing efforts around the globe to remove impunity for sexual crimes in war. The Rome Statute, which established the ICC, was one of the first international treaties to list conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes as crimes against humanity and war crimes, while expanding what could be prosecuted. “[It’s] dizzying to think of how many people endured the indignity and pain of being forced to become pregnant, or [were] forced to remain pregnant, or forced to give birth, before states eventually decided in 1998 to make forced pregnancy a crime under international law,” tweeted Rosemary Grey, an academic focusing on international criminal law and gender, following the Ongwen verdict.

Dominic Ongwen, the Ugandan commander of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), sits in during an International Criminal Court (ICC) hearing on Jan. 21, 2016. (MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite the legal framework being in place, prosecuting cases is fraught with “inherent challenges and unanticipated delays,” according to a spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC. “Mr Ongwen managed to evade justice for a decade after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him in 2005.” After he was apprehended, it took 15 months for the prosecution to present its evidence, followed by presentations from survivors’ representatives and Ongwen’s defense, which lasted roughly another 15 months.

In the 19 years since the ICC’s founding, only five people have ever been convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Of those, three included initial convictions for sexual violence. The first, against Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, didn’t occur until 2016 and was later overturned. Judges said Gombo could not be held responsible for the actions of troops under his control. Three years later, in 2019, Congolese military leader Bosco Ntaganda was convicted of rape and sexual slavery, but his case is currently under appeal. Ongwen is also expected to appeal. “When it comes to convictions, it is important to note that the verdict at trial, albeit significant, is not the end of the process,” the ICC spokesperson said.

Globally, there was a boost in awareness of sexual and gender-based violence when the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize went jointly to Nadia Murad, an activist and Yazidi survivor of sexual slavery, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated tens of thousands of women in the conflict-wracked region of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Still, activists and survivors’ representatives say much more needs to be done.

Katrien Coppens, the director of the Mukwege Foundation, which advocates for an end to sexual violence as a weapon of war and supports survivors, said that while high-profile convictions send a message about the gravity of these crimes, they are “not more than a first step.” Even with a guilty verdict, compensation for survivors is not guaranteed. The court may order reparations for women in the Ongwen case, but the process could take years. Meanwhile, thousands of other survivors of rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, or forced pregnancy who never got the chance to participate in a justice process also need help. Coppens pointed to the Global Survivors Fund, recently founded by Mukwege and Murad, as an important attempt to fill those gaps. It aims to make at least $50 million available for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence by 2022.

‘We don’t want to be ashamed’: Survivors still face stigma back home

Many LRA survivors blame the government for what happened to them. “I was a young girl,” said Lanam, who was 10 years old when she was kidnapped by the LRA. “The government didn’t protect me.” During northern Uganda’s war, the Ugandan army was also accused of raping women in camps for displaced people, charges that were never investigated or brought to trial. Yoweri Museveni, the former rebel leader who seized power in 1986, is still president today.

“The pain we got in the bush to now—it will always remain,” said Ellen Awma. “We will remember for the rest of our lives.” The 35-year-old was kidnapped in 1993, when she was just 9 years old, and forced to “marry” an LRA commander the same year. In 2004, she escaped with four children. She has been rejected by both her family and his.

Santa Aber, 40, is another survivor who was made to live in the bush for 11 years and came back with a daughter. She was rejected by her relatives.

“I don’t want to be ashamed,” Aber said. She sat on the ground—a bullet wound in her back means she can’t stay in chairs for a long time—and reiterated the need for support for the women who survived. “This thing spoiled our future,” she said, wondering where all the “good Samaritans” are when it comes to providing survivors with tangible support. Ongwen’s conviction means little to Aber, who struggles to buy even basic necessities. “There’s been no international help,” she said. “Maybe the world can focus on that.”

When police knocked on her door in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2020, Valérie (a pseudonym to protect her identity) instinctively knew it had something to do with her ex-husband. The charming, funny, and seductive man she thought she had married in 2012 was, it turned out, a violent and paranoid master manipulator convinced of the world’s imminent end, for which he prepared by collecting canned food, weapons, and military radios—to communicate after the grids collapsed. Since she had left him in 2013, Frédérik Limol had repeatedly threatened to murder both her and their young daughter. According to Valérie’s lawyer, Wissam Bayeh, she reported him to the police at least three times, and, on other occasions, warned them that he was armed and dangerous. But, like a modern-day Cassandra, her complaints fell on deaf ears. “It was a permanent nightmare,” Bayeh said. “He’d sworn to poison her life, and he was succeeding.”

“Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends”

Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women

In the wee hours of that dark December morning, Limol made good on his threats of violence. Only Valérie wasn’t the target. A few hours before police arrived at Valérie’s door to escort her and her daughter to safety, Limol had shot four police officers as they responded to a domestic violence distress call at his home a few miles outside the tiny village of Saint-Just in central France. “Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends,” said Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women, a coalition of feminist groups, unions, and political parties.

A woman—Limol’s most recent partner—had been perched on the roof of their large stone house while he stalked the grounds below wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding an AR-15. He shot the responding officers, set the house ablaze, and fled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Backup police found him later that morning less than a mile down the road. He had crashed his car into a tree, then turned a Glock pistol on himself. The woman survived the ordeal, but three police officers did not. 

The news quickly spread across France, where gun violence is relatively rare. The regional paper La Montagne—which, just two days prior, had run an entire article on a man’s conviction for firing two shots in the air—featured a single word on the front page of its Dec. 24 edition: “Carnage,” above a picture of a military helicopter hovering above the scene of the crime. National media ran headlines evoking the “war scene” at Saint-Just, soon to be echoed by international outlets, including the Guardian and the New York Times. The news channel TF1 ran a lengthy segment on the growing dangers facing law enforcement in France. 

In these Hollywood-esque scenes, the women Limol had terrorized were relegated to bit parts, their more mundane stories of intimate partner abuse eclipsed by the brazen act of public violence that followed. “What started this violence against the police was domestic violence, and we hardly talk about that,” Rojtman said.

While data specific to France is limited, the link between domestic violence and public violence is well documented elsewhere. In the United States, the perpetrator in more than half of mass shootings between 2009 and 2018 shot a current or former intimate partner or a family member, in addition to others. A U.S. study spanning from 1980 to 2006 found that domestic violence calls resulted in more than 4,000 officer assaults and six deaths on average each year. (French government data on police injuries and deaths does not specify the nature of the call.)

Threats of violence still linger

In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner in France, making it one of the more dangerous countries for women in Europe, behind Northern Ireland and Germany. While women come out to protest each year on Nov. 25 for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the term “femicide”—the murder of women on account of their gender—is now widely used, the threat of gender-based violence is still largely perceived as a remote one, the kind that does not happen in nice villages like Saint-Just. A France2 news segment in the wake of the Dec. 23 killings illustrated this well: While it included domestic violence as part of its coverage of the Limol affair, its focus was intimate partner violence far afield, on the French island of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar. Footage from a police station showed white police officers processing Black couples accused of domestic violence. 

“There’s a real blockage in France,” Rojtman said. Her collective was born in 1996 on the heels of a 40,000-strong feminist protest against the then-incoming administration’s decision to grant amnesty to anti-abortion activists. But she said that violence against women has not succeeded in mobilizing women the way abortion did. 

France is the birthplace of “courtly love” and revered around the world as a cradle of seduction. Rojtman believes that these cultural touchstones may be preventing a more aggressive response to gender-based violence. She points to the now famous letter signed by 100 high-profile French women condemning the #MeToo movement as trying to hinder women’s sexual freedom. And it was only this January that the French Senate approved a law setting an age of consent: 13 years old. 

There’s a gap in enforcing the law

France’s resistance to cracking down harder on gender-based violence contrasts with nearby Spain, which, in 2004, passed a pioneering law that established harsher penalties for offenders and made prevention of gender-based violence a priority. Rojtman’s collective drafted a similar bill in 2006 and presented it to the French government. Though some of the proposed measures were included in a law passed in 2010 aimed at protecting women from abusive partners, most were discarded. What laws do exist, she said, “don’t go far enough, or aren’t applied.”  

In some cases, they can be manipulated to further victimize survivors. Before his death, Limol had brought a case against Valérie claiming that she had violated his parental rights by failing to notify him of a change of address. “For some time now, it’s become trendy to talk about things like ‘the year against violence,’ actions taken to fight gender-based violence, the word ‘femicide,’ etc.,” Bayeh said. “But in reality, nothing changes.” 

The perception that intimate partner violence is a private family matter runs deep. “People close their eyes to it,” said Natalie Conte, who runs a bakery in Ambert, the town of 7,000 where the slain police were headquartered. Residents of the town were blindsided by the shooting. “Knowing they’re no longer here, it’s traumatizing,” Conte added. “And Saint-Just, where it happened, it’s so small, it’s a tiny village, we know most people there. It’s just shocking.”

A few miles down the road, Saint-Just is the kind of rural idyll into which American movies love to drop disaffected writers in search of inspiration, a cluster of stone houses with painted wooden shutters surrounding a squat stone church and, before it, a monument to the village’s lost combatants: two names for World War II, 40 for World War I.

On a snowy morning in January, three men in their 60s, the only people out, gamely chatted about the village’s dwindling numbers (down to half during the winter; many of the houses are summer homes for people from the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand) and the kind of stone the houses are built out of (lime, not volcanic rock, like further south in the region). But they politely declined to comment on the events of Dec. 23. Limol was a recent arrival and an out-of-towner; they didn’t know him, they said. They’re weary of the press, who have flooded their otherwise peaceful village the last few weeks. 

“It’s that way for the pilgrimage,” one said, jokingly pointing down the road toward what remains of Limol’s house: a blackened stone carcass with the terra cotta roof burned off.

Chris Janczewski was finishing up a lengthy investigation into online drug trafficking in Thailand when a source called him about a website in South Korea. Hosted on the darknet, the site encouraged users—including U.S. citizens—to pay Bitcoin to access over a million videos depicting the rape and sexual assault of children as young as six months old.

A special agent with the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations division, Janczewski was used to tracing cryptocurrency transactions to track money laundering and other forms of organized crime. But he had never worked on a child sexual abuse case. “I was like, well surely the FBI or Homeland Security or somebody is already doing something about this,” he recalls. “Like, why does the IRS need to do something? And then I was poking around and I realized: Nobody was doing it.”

For the next two years, until late 2019, Janczewski found himself at the forefront of the investigation and takedown of what the U.S. Department of Justice has dubbed “the largest darknet child pornography website” in the world.

Cryptocurrencies are increasingly being used to fund child sexual exploitation (CSE), creating new opportunities for law enforcement to track down perpetrators. But experts say success stories are rare: Unlike those responsible for big money crimes like drug trafficking and money laundering, agents tasked with investigating CSE lack the training, knowledge, and resources to pursue the growing number of operations financed by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. With law enforcement behind the curve, hundreds of thousands of sexual predators go uninvestigated, and are free to continue victimizing children.

Contrary to popular belief, some of the most mainstream cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin, can be easily tracked; every transaction is logged in a shared, public ledger known as a blockchain. Criminals can employ various techniques to try and obfuscate their spending, but the records—while harder to find—remain. “I pay you $2,000 in a dark alley, who are the witnesses to that transaction? Just you and I, right?” said Pamela Clegg, director of financial investigations and education at the blockchain analytics company CipherTrace. “With cryptocurrency… the whole world could be the witness.”

But a lack of understanding of what cryptocurrency is and what its use in child exploitation looks like often leads anti-trafficking investigators in the United States and globally to reject cases, or miss crucial pieces of evidence. Clegg cites an example from 2017 in which a team of experienced law enforcement officials from Central America uncovered a website hosting child sex abuse materials (CSAM), complete with Bitcoin addresses that could have identified dozens of users. The team didn’t know how to capture the data before taking down the website and mistakenly lost all of the information.

“I don’t want to paint this as ‘law enforcement doesn’t have experience in crypto,’” Clegg explains. “Law enforcement does amazing work with crypto. It’s primarily the teams that are focused on human trafficking and CSAM that I’m referring to.” In 2019, she gave a speech to 750 members of law enforcement from almost 100 countries, each a specialist in investigating human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. “I asked, ‘How many people have actually worked a case that involved cryptocurrency?’” To Clegg’s dismay, just five people raised their hands.

Around the world, governments are failing to prioritize cryptocurrency analysis in child sexual exploitation investigations, agrees Neil Walsh, chief of the Cybercrime, Anti-Money Laundering / Counter Financing of Terrorism Department at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “It seems to me that this is still seen as a niche area: That it’s a bit geeky and not something that is common.”

Meanwhile, the rate at which sex predators are spending virtual money is far outpacing anti-trafficking agents’ capacity to track them. According to Chainalysis, a U.S.-based blockchain analysis company, the amount of money paid in Bitcoin and Ethereum to known child abuse websites nearly quadrupled between 2017 and 2019, topping 1.75 million dollars.

Some cryptocurrency pioneers are exacerbating the problem by ramping up privacy preservation and data protection to make transactions fully anonymous. Of the roughly 4000 cryptocurrencies currently listed on the price-tracking website CoinMarketCap, private analysts and senior IRS investigators say only a handful—like Bitcoin and Ethereum—are straightforward to trace. Even then, it requires the right training and tools.

“We’re in an arms race here,” said Rebecca Portnoff, director of data science at THORN, a U.S. organization working to build technology to counter child sex abuse. “And it’s a pretty complicated arms race.”

But Clegg says that training isn’t prioritized for these cases because the purchase and sale of online child sexual abuse materials amounts to just a fraction of what changes hands in white collar or drug crimes—most payments are between $10 and $50.

To take down Welcome To Video, the South Korean child exploitation site, Janczewski and a skeleton team of agents from the IRS and Homeland Security Investigations teamed up with the Korean National Police. Together, they spent two years tracing thousands of Bitcoin addresses, leading to the arrest of 340 men in 38 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. At least 25 children were rescued from situations of abuse.

Janczewski believes other federal agencies had overlooked Welcome to Video because they didn’t have the expertise or the necessary manpower. “The child exploitation investigators were very good, but they rarely had to look at cryptocurrencies and that’s a large learning curve,” he said. “And they’re just too busy.” On occasions when he shared a lead with other agencies, he often checked back in weeks later to discover they hadn’t made any progress. “In one example, the agent was like, ‘Yeah, I’d really like to work this case, but it takes a lot of effort for me to work out what’s going on.’”

The case was no less time consuming for officials in Korea. As chief of the Korean National Police’s cyber investigation division since 2018, Jong-sang Choi oversaw dozens of agents tasked with investigating Welcome to Video. The site catered to up to a million users and tracing their crypto transactions was challenging—“a fight between a spear and a shield,” Jong-sang recalled.

Despite Jong-sang and Janczewski’s best efforts, the majority of Welcome to Video’s users likely got away with their crimes. In several cases, investigators would trace Bitcoin addresses to foreign countries, only for the relevant authorities to ignore their reports. “Not only are they not interested,” Jong-sang said, “but they’re not capable.”

“It’s about turning this technical challenge into a mainstream part of investigative technology,” said Walsh of the UNODC. “And that requires political leadership domestically and internationally.”

Consumers of CSAM are everywhere, but demand is driven largely by people in wealthy countries. One study from the Philippines found that three-quarters of people who purchased materials depicting child sexual abuse were from the U.S., Sweden, and Australia. Meanwhile, 81 percent of child sexual abuse materials are produced in low-income regions, including in South East Asia, Africa, and Latin America, according to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. In many of these countries, the tools required to analyze virtual transactions are prohibitively expensive. “If you’re in the UK or the U.S., the ability to invest in a blockchain analyzer is very possible,” said Walsh. “However, if you are from an economically developing country, then that’s really difficult to do.”

Instead of relying on resource-stretched agencies and governments in low-income countries to independently investigate CSE crimes using cryptocurrency, some experts have called on financial institutions—such as the “exchanges” that can convert cryptocurrency into other assets, including traditional, government-issued money—to introduce protocols to identify and report suspicious activity to authorities.

In May 2020, Aaron Kahler, founder of the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative, launched the Anti-Trafficking Cryptocurrency Consortium after seeing a “huge lapse” in the investigation of child sexual abuse by both U.S. law enforcement and financial institutions. “It’s still not a priority,” he said, explaining that the nonprofit consortium is working to encourage exchanges to cooperate with law enforcement, while providing U.S. investigators with much-needed tools and expertise.

Since shutting down Welcome to Video, Janczewski has collaborated with European investigators to trace over 300 Bitcoin addresses linked to a Dutch-hosted site called Dark Scandals, which sold more than 2000 videos of women and children being raped. In March of last year, authorities arrested the site’s administrator.

Janczewski admits he didn’t initially understand how prolific the use of cryptocurrency was in child sexual abuse or the role the IRS could play in combatting it. But he does now.

“Once I got into it, I realized this is the thing.”

As an active-duty officer in the Marine Corps, Lindsay Rodman was accustomed to being the lone woman in the room—and, unlike her male peers, having her mere presence challenged.

There was the lieutenant colonel who seemed genuinely bewildered that a woman would be interested in joining, and another colonel who flat out told her women didn’t belong. A different colonel in Afghanistan didn’t have to say a thing; he refused to shake her hand.

“There’s no great response,” said Rodman, now the executive director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), a nonprofit that advocates for greater gender diversity in national security. “My response typically was always like, ‘Well, sir, I’m grateful to be in the Marine Corps. I do think women belong in the Marine Corps.’”

If confirmed, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired army general Lloyd J. Austin III, would be the first Black person to head the Department of Defense. But his historic selection dashed hopes for another first: that after 73 years of uninterrupted leadership by men, a woman might run the Pentagon.

For a time, that possibility finally seemed within reach. Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and also served in the Clinton administration, was widely considered a top contender for the position. Many viewed her as a slam dunk because of her decades of experience, her knowledge of how the Pentagon operates, and her deep connections within the defense community. The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, endorsed Flournoy, telling reporters last month that she was “hands down the best qualified person for the job.”

Austin’s nomination also comes with some controversy. Many Democrats have called for a return to civilian leadership of the defense department after President Donald Trump chose retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to be his first defense secretary. Because of a law requiring seven years of separation between military service and civilian leadership, Mattis, who retired in 2013, required a waiver from Congress. As a recent active-duty general, Austin will also require a waiver.

Women have long faced barriers to reaching some of the country’s top defense and national security jobs. Not only has the military openly discriminated against women throughout history—combat jobs were only opened to women in 2015—the Pentagon remains an environment in which “most people were either military or former military,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown Law professor and co-founder of LCWINS who previously worked for Flournoy at the Defense Department. Women were “overwhelmingly likely to be neither,” Brooks said of her time at the Pentagon, which resulted in them being left out of networks often developed by a shared military connection.

The numbers show just how tightly shut the doors have been to women at the Pentagon. Women accounted for just six of a total 23 positions at the rank of assistant secretary or above within the Defense Department as of late 2018, according to a New America report. Indeed, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Veterans Affairs are the only cabinet agencies that have never been led by a woman (neither has Secretary of the Treasury, but Joe Biden has nominated Janet Yellen for the role).

While it’s hard to predict how Flournoy—or any woman—would run the department, her appointment would have signaled to other women interested in working in national security that the United States is ready to draw from all of its talent. Linda Reynolds, who has led the Australian Department of Defence since May 2019, has made the case for better gender equity within that country’s forces and pushed back against a toxic locker room culture that has been described by government officials as “what happens outside the wire, stays outside the wire.” Last month, after a war crimes investigation revealed the gruesome killings of Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers, she dismissed claims from a former special forces captain that the killings were the “fog of war,” instead calling them “cold-blooded murder.”

A study of female defense ministers worldwide found that women are less likely to be appointed in countries that are engaged in conflict or that invest heavily in military operations at the expense of peacekeeping. It also found that, as women’s representation in government overall increases, so does the likelihood that they will be appointed to top national security posts. In the United States, women’s participation in government lags behind that of many developed countries. Dozens of countries, including the U.K., India, Chile, France, Spain, and Germany, have had women at the helm of their defense ministries. America, Rodman said, is “behind the curve.”


More coverage: The Feminine Appeal of Macho Populism


That lack of representation can influence decision-making in ways that can affect national security. In September, the U.S. Air Force released a report on digital acquisition titled “Take the Red Pill,” intended to be a reference to the film The Matrix. But the phrase “red pilling” has also been used as a dog whistle by men’s rights groups that have been associated with violence. Kathleen McInnis, an author and defense expert who has served in the Pentagon called out—along with other women and at least one man—the double meaning within the defense community, including online, prompting the Air Force to rename the report “There Is No Spoon” (another Matrix reference). “If you have … a bigger pool of diverse perspectives to draw upon, these kinds of things are more likely to be brought to the fore, earlier, in a way that they aren’t right now,” McInnis said.

Rodman noted the hypocrisy in America’s call for greater participation of women abroad while continuing to fall short at home. In 2000, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the need for greater representation of women in the peacebuilding process, and the United States passed its own version in 2017. Her organization received pledges from every Democratic presidential candidate and Republican Bill Weld in the 2020 election to strive for greater gender parity in senior national security and foreign-policy appointments. But Trump did not sign on. “It’s quite easy for other countries to point at us and be like, ‘Are you guys kidding us?’” Rodman said, adding that there are no excuses for officials who say they would consider a woman for a senior civilian appointment but can’t find any who are qualified.

There are currently 57 Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Defense Department, according to Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson Marta Hernandez. LCWINS developed a database of female candidates for those and other agency positions, including senior civilian roles at the State Department, totaling about 200 jobs. The organization aimed to offer two candidates for each position, or 400 names. It ended up compiling about 900.

Rodman said there’s plenty of room for more women in the national security space. Biden recently named Dr. Kathleen Hicks, who served at the Pentagon as part of the Obama administration, as his pick for deputy secretary of defense. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the number two position (Christine Fox held the job in an acting capacity during the Obama administration). More national security personnel announcements are expected soon.  

Beyond representation, McInnis stressed the need for the culture of the field to change. A woman as defense secretary is no “silver bullet,” she cautioned. When she was working as the NATO-ISAF operations director at the Pentagon, a man told her that she was “too passionate” about her job and that it was undermining her credibility. “That shut me up for years,” she said.

Rodman said she also self-censored when she felt her audience wouldn’t be receptive to her ideas, keeping her from pushing back against sexist comments or from offering alternative perspectives.

Now, she’s more concerned about what would have happened if she weren’t there. “It always dawns on me that if I’m not in the room, then there’s no woman in the room, right?” she said. “That seems to me to be even more important than being the lone female voice.”

Rodman imagines what she might have said to the men who questioned her presence in the Marine Corps if a woman had been in charge of the Pentagon. “The power of being able to look at someone under those circumstances and say, ‘Hey, sir, the secretary of defense is a woman.’ Just the power of being able to turn around and say something like that.”

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly