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December 01, 2023 Feature

Advocates Decry the Rise of Authoritarians, the Demise of Women’s Rights

Cynthia L. Cooper

Alexandra Salazar, a lawyer in Nicaragua, was tipped off that police forces were looking for her in October 2021, during a time of escalated imprisonment of activists. She immediately went into exile in Costa Rica, where she still lives.

Salazar already had firsthand knowledge about how badly women are treated inside Nicaragua’s detention system. As the coordinating lawyer for Unidad de Defensa Jurídica, she represents political prisoners and has witnessed how women detainees are treated aggressively. She describes segregation, isolation, denial of family visits, forced nakedness, and sexual violation. “Part of the torture is to show the women photos of their children and tell them if they don’t give information, their children will be killed,” Salazar explains. “They make that kind of threat only to the women.”

In fact, Nicaragua ranks seventh lowest worldwide in rule of law measurements, according to the World Justice Project. In the past five years, abortion has been fully criminalized for the patient and medical provider and press freedom and other rights severely curbed. One of Salazar’s clients is in prison because she sold T-shirts with a Nicaragua flag on them, considered a crime against “national integrity.” Thousands of nonprofit nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been closed. “The regime has started to cancel and prohibit the organizations that defend women’s rights,” Salazar says.

“The world has to know what is happening. It’s very heartbreaking for me, very emotional” says Salazar, wiping tears from her eyes during a Zoom interview. “This is not a fight between the right and the left. This is a fight for human rights and for freedom.”

Unraveling Women’s Gains

Advocates working on global issues view a frustrating curtailment of women’s rights around the world as an indication of the fraying rule of law—and sometimes as a precursor to it.

The Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project found “a growing number of governments are embracing authoritarian tendencies,” with 61 percent of the 140 countries studied showing a decline in the rule of law. Measures from two principles are used—whether there are limits on the power of the state and whether the public interest is served. Among the indicators is whether the country respects core human rights, including equal treatment, the absence of discrimination, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of belief and religion, and freedom from interference with privacy.

The effect on women’s rights from this authoritarian trend is worrying to advocates working in the global sphere. “There’s a much greater concerted effort to really undo—not just to push back—but to undo the progress that has been made on women’s rights. And obviously that’s extremely troubling,” says Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) in Washington, D.C.

Verveer previously served as the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues from 2009 to 2013. “There is a growing pushback, and it’s coming from a variety of sources—from political nationalist authoritarian types that are diminishing democracy globally to fundamentalist organizations that have a problem with women’s rights,” she says.

The Women Peace and Security Index, co-published by GIWPS, rates nations based on women’s inclusion, justice, and security. The latest release (2021–2022) concludes that “the global advance of women’s status has slowed and disparities have widened.”

One disquieting trend, Verveer says, is a rejection of protections for survivors of domestic violence. She points to a 2021 action by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey ranks 116 lowest of 140 countries on the Rule of Law Index), which withdrew the country from an international agreement on the prevention of violence against women even though Turkey was the first country to ratify it 10 years earlier. “You see appeals to traditional values and to family values, as though supporting women’s rights is somehow inimical to supporting strong family values,” Verveer points out. “This is the kind of targeting of gender equality and women’s issues that is taking place.”

Stigmatized by New Anti-gender Campaigns

Some of the negative attitudes toward women’s rights are wrapped in “anti-gender” campaigns powered by an ultraconservative movement of “gender ideology” spreading across Central America and Eastern Europe, says Marcia Aguiluz Soto, a managing attorney at the nonprofit Women’s Link Worldwide, which works transnationally to advance women’s human rights in Latin America, Europe, and East Africa.

“Gender ideology” is referenced in a pejorative way by conservative groups, including the Catholic Church, to express “hatred and opposition to feminist policies that promote gender equality and diversity,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America in Sexuality Policy Watch. Anti-gender campaigns oppose sex education, same-sex marriage, abortion, and gender identity while promoting traditional values of family. 

“In Central America right now, they are trying to pass laws banning the use of the word ‘gender’ in public policies,” Aguiluz Soto says. “One of the main characteristics of an authoritarian government is that there are no freedoms. There is the aim of maintaining the status quo or maintaining the power of the ones that have always been in power.

“In the case of women, they go after our bodies and after the freedom of expression,” she continues. “I would say that authoritarian governments are, by definition, patriarchal. They see feminism as a threat. They see equality as a threat.”

The curtailment of women’s rights is, in fact, a warning sign of authoritarianism or failing democracies, according to Macarena Sáez, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “When you look into the restrictions of women, you also will find restrictions to voting rights or restrictions to freedom of expression. They go in parallel, if on separate tracks.”

The majority of mainstream political analysts fail to make the connections, Sáez says. For example, in March 2023, Polish women’s rights defender Justyna Wydrzynska was convicted of helping a pregnant woman who sought abortion pills despite an abortion ban. “We could look at this in a traditional human rights perspective, which is that this is really a restriction to freedom of expression and freedom of association,” Sáez says. “When we think about restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association, we think of rising authoritarian regimes. But for reasons that have to do with patriarchy, we have separated the harms.”

Sáez says Iran presents a different, but related, analytical failure. The country has seen protests and brutal crackdowns since September 2022 after Mahsa Amini was detained by morality police for an alleged hijab violation and died in custody. “You have a repressive government where the first play of the playbook is the restrictions on women,” Sáez points out. “And that’s been because the hijab is visible to everyone.

“But what you had in Iran is a population that is really tired of repression in general,” she adds. “The hijab becomes a symbol of all that is wrong with the lack of economic support, the rise of poverty, the rise of unemployment. You can really see the connection between the repression of women and the general discontent.”

Afghan Women Suffer

The line between the rule of law and women’s rights has been drawn most directly in Afghanistan, where, overnight, women were cast out of employment, education, autonomy, civil liberties, and human rights with the takeover of the Taliban in September 2021. The Taliban also dismantled the judiciary, removing instantly the 254 Afghan women judges.

“When the Taliban started marching through, they started hunting women judges, in particular the ones who were universally known because they served on anticorruption courts, criminal courts, or antiterrorism courts and narcotics courts, and were responsible for imprisoning Taliban,” says Judge Lisa Walsh, a circuit court judge in Miami, Florida, who serves on the boards of both the International Women Judges Association (IAWJ) and the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ).

A core group from IAWJ undertook to evacuate and resettle the Afghan women judges (see Perspectives, “Women Judges Mobilize to Help Endangered Afghan Counterparts,” Winter 2022). “What Afghanistan taught me is how fragile our freedoms are,” says retired judge Patricia Whalen, a Vermonter who has coordinated the efforts of IAWJ to help the Afghan women judges.

Today, Whalen notes, 157 of the Afghan women judges have been permanently resettled in countries around the world, including 30 in the United States. Of the 97 remaining judges, 48 are still in Afghanistan, in hiding or in safe houses, and 49 are in countries that offer temporary harbor while awaiting resettlement. After two years of intensive efforts, IAWJ continues its work. “We’re tired,” Whalen says, “but we can’t stop. Every day, you don’t give up.”1

Facing Challenges

Afghanistan may offer the starkest example of the demise of the rule of law. Still, authoritarian developments—whether in Western Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or beyond—are mounting stumbling blocks to women’s further advances.

“We are all living in a moment in time where we as human beings feel very insecure,” observes Kavita N. Ramdas, a philanthropy consultant and activist-in-residence at the Global Fund for Women, which she previously headed.

The insecurity may arise from larger social forces, such as climate change, global capitalism, and income inequality, and people are on edge. “We know from the history of fascism, when you are insecure, you look for an authoritarian leader who will reassure you and tell you God is on your side and the right people are going to triumph,” Ramdas says. “What people don’t want to see is how this rise of authoritarian leaders is related to a deep misogyny and a real resistance to powerful feminist leadership.”

Ramdas and others are also apprehensive about the direction of the United States with the overturning of the constitutional right to abortion and a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. “The question of power over our bodies is central to the ability to exercise power in the body politic,” Ramdas observes.

Even as she lauds successful advances with Repeal the 8th in Ireland and the Green Wave in Argentina, where feminist activists won abortion rights, Ramdas sees a difficult road ahead.

Others agree. “There is a very strong, very well-coordinated anti-rights movement, and what is clear is that that movement rides off the wave of populism and authoritarianism,” says Viviana Waisman, a faculty member of the Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law and the founder and former CEO of Women’s Link Worldwide. “It’s important to understand that there is a pendulum, and whenever there’s progress, there is also backlash,” she adds.

Continuing Efforts to Protect Women’s Rights

Waisman is creating a new program, Gen Equity Institute, to bring together women’s rights attorneys, scholars, students, and activists in customized workshops that can provide support for specific human rights cases. “There is a very urgent need to provide capacity building and learning spaces for there to be strong generations of women’s rights attorneys who know how to use the law with an intersectional gender perspective,” she explains.

While she had not planned to start a new program, neither could she step away. “There is not enough attention to the connection between the attack on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, fundamental human rights, and the chipping away of democracy and rise of authoritarian regimes,” Waisman says.

“Human rights is like faith—faith in the possibility of things being better,” she adds.


1. For those arriving in the United States, Judge Walsh guides teams of lawyers, judges, and community members to provide assimilation support to the Afghan women judges. “One of the most meaningful ways to help is to give the women some semblance of the dignity that they lost so quickly,” she says.

Local teams help the Afghan judges settle into housing, find meaningful employment or educational opportunities, and offer friendship and counsel. The American Bar Association planned a session, “Stories of Afghan Women Judges—The Perils, the Escape, and the Future,” at the October 2023 meeting of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ), and, through the Afghanistan Response Project is providing aid to displaced Afghan lawyers and judges.

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Cynthia L. Cooper

Attorney and Journalist

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York and a former practicing attorney who writes frequently about human rights.