Improving Women's Rights Around the World

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Using the map below, click on the names of countries to find out more about the status of women's rights around the world. (Note: United States is not linked to an issue.)

Afghanistan: Gender apartheid

Under the Taliban, Afghan women were barred from employment, forbidden to go outside the home without a male escort, required to wear head-to-toe burqas at all times, and barred from obtaining an education. Women were even denied basic health care. All these policies were brutally enforced by the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, which administered lashings and public beatings to accused women.

Following the Taliban's defeat, a new transitional government has made restoring women's rights a priority and has established a Ministry of Women's Affairs. Women claimed 10 percent of the seats in the recent "loyal jirga," or grand assembly,

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Bosnia and Herzegovina: War crimes

On April 30, 1992, Serb forces took over the town of Prijedor in northeast Bosnia. Within a month of the takeover, Serb forces set up detention camps in order to suppress a suspected uprising of Muslims and Croats. At the Omarska camp, murder, torture, rape, and barbaric conditions were the norm. The outrage generated by these atrocities highlighted the need to ensure that gender crimes committed during the war would be prosecuted.

On February 22, 2001, for the first time in history, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia brought charges solely for the crimes of sexual violence against women. It defined rape and enslavement as crimes against humanity. The judgments handed down regarded rape as a form and means of persecution; they represent a considerable step forward in redressing gender crimes.

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Canada: Workplace technology

The majority of the Canadian population living in poverty are women. The considerable wage gap existing between men and women who work full time can be explained partly by the growing trend of high-paying positions in the technology and electronic communications industry being filled by men. Without government sponsorship of equal training opportunities for both sexes, women are increasingly falling into the underpaid and, in extreme cases, impoverished sectors of Canadian society.

Organizations such as Women in Trades, Technology, and Blue Collar Work have been helping women improve their computer skills, learn to use the Internet, and take advantage of current technologies in order to obtain better-paying jobs, communicate more easily in the work world, and work from home while continuing to fulfill familial responsibilities.

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China: Family planning

Since the 1970s, the Chinese government has aggressively population control with the motto "Later, Longer, Fewer" (later marriages and pregnancies, longer gaps between children, fewer children). Under a so-called one-child policy, married couples faced severe economic consequences if they had two or more children.

Because sons have traditionally been more valued than daughters in China, some parents abandon their female infants and, in extreme cases, commit female infanticide. Sex-selective abortions have also been reported.

To prevent these abuses, the government passed the 2002 Population and Family Planning Law. The law prohibits discrimination against women who give birth to girls and the abandonment of female infants. It also prohibits using ultrasound technology to determine the sex of a child, as well as sex-selective abortions for nonmedical reasons. In order to end the traditional preferences for boys, the government has also endorsed programs to promote the value of women.

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Ecuador: Violence against women

Nearly 60 percent of Ecuadorian women are victims of domestic violence. A national law addressing the issue was passed in 1995 and later became part of Ecuador's constitution. Education programs, psychological assistance projects, a hotline, and a shelter for abused women have been established. A law that makes it compulsory for the government to organize campaigns against domestic violence and to provide social and health assistance for battered women was also passed.

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Germany: Equal military treatment

Before 1999, German women had been banned from any type of military service involving the use of arms. They were essentially limited to positions in the medical and military-music services. In 1999, the European Court of Justice found that the ban was discriminatory. Germany changed its constitution to open all careers and career groups—including military service—to women. However, service by women in the military remains voluntary, while German men must serve.

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Ghana: Slavery

In southeastern Ghana, the trokosi tradition has been practiced for generations: girls are given to village priests for offenses committed by the girls' family members. These girls become the priest's slaves and property and must serve the priest sexually and domestically, working on his farm until death.

In 1998, the government of Ghana passed a law prohibiting trokosi and criminalizing it as a form of slavery. As a result, nearly 2,800 girls were released from their servitude. A nongovernmental organization, International Needs Ghana, has helped the girls return to their families and has provided housing, food, counseling, and schooling. Survivors of trokosi have also formed a human rights organization to advocate for enforcing the law against it.

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Japan: Domestic violence

Domestic violence had been a serious problem in Japan, but it went largely unrecognized and unaddressed by the government until the early 1990s. Then several cases of extreme violence against women became highly publicized. As a result, much greater attention has been paid to women's issues in general and domestic violence in particular. Currently, more than 40 shelters and 87 counseling centers for battered women are operating throughout the country. Legal services and crisis hotlines are also available. The fight against domestic violence was strengthened in 2000 when Japan's Council for Gender Equality defined violence against women as a violation of the Japanese constitution guaranteeing equal rights between the sexes.

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Jordan: "Honor" killings

Traditional culture holds that the reputation of a family rests on the reputation of its women. This custom has led to "honor" killings, in which male relatives kill women to restore the family's good name in the community after the woman's virtue has been compromised. Women may be killed for being victims of rape, incest, or sexual abuse; for rumored sexual activity; and for extramarital affairs.

In 2001, the Jordanian government repealed the penal code section that exempted men who killed their wives or female relatives found committing adultery from being punished. The king and queen of Jordan have also vowed to end the practice of honor killings, and courts have issued longer sentences for honor crimes in a few cases. Development of a government-sponsored shelter for women is underway. The goal is to provide women with support services, including psychological counseling, training and rehabilitation.

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Mexico: Pregnancy discrimination (Also see Q & A and Human Rights Watch.)

Pregnancy discrimination has been a common practice among maquiladora employers who want to avoid the cost of maternity benefits. Female job applicants are routinely asked questions about whether they are planning to become pregnant, and they are required to take pregnancy tests. Workers who become pregnant on the job are often verbally harassed, fired, or given pay cuts.

However, in 1998, in accordance with the provisions of the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), the United States, Canada, and Mexico agreed to address the problems of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. While the Mexican government has been slow in promoting women's labor rights, women's rights activists have noted that the adoption of NAALC—and the pregnancy-related discrimination cases that have been brought under it—has focused greater attention on the problem.

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Nepal: Abortion

Traditional laws denied women any type of sexual and reproductive rights. Abortion was punishable as a criminal offense. As a result, nearly 20 percent of the women in prison had been convicted for undergoing abortions. In a typical year, more than 6,000 women died from pregnancy-related causes. Half these deaths were attributable to unsafe abortions.

In 2002, Nepal passed a law amending discriminatory laws against women under the National Code. In addition, the law making abortion a criminal offense was repealed. Proponents are now working to ensure that the law is implemented quickly and that women who are facing punishment are released.

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Tanzania: Property rights

Most communities in Tanzania are patrilineal: land passes from father to son. Women traditionally do not have the right to possess, acquire, or inherit property in their own name.

In a landmark case by the Tanzanian High Court ( Ephrahim v. Pastory), the court upheld the right of a woman to sell land she received from her father's will. A nephew had challenged the sale, claiming that it violated customary law, which prohibited a woman's sale of clan land. The Tanzanian national government has continued to pursue land reform and in 1999 passed land reform acts asserting women are equal to men in matters of land acquisition and possession.

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Tunisia: Family law

In Tunisia, national law permitted polygamy and unequal inheritance laws, among other discriminatory provisions. However, after Tunisia gained its independence from French colonial rule, it adopted the Code of Personal Status. This new code changed the typical views of marriage and spousal obligations. It made polygamy illegal and abolished repudiation, which allowed a husband to end a marriage at will without legal proceedings. Also, women can now file for divorce on the same terms as men, while mothers' rights to custody and women's inheritance rights have been improved.

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