chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

The Year in Review

International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022

Women's Interest Network - International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022

Julie King, Sandhya Taneja, Abiola O Afolayan, Marie Elena Angulo, Michela Cocchi, Angela Gallerizzo, Dana Katz, Rong Tao Kohtz, Christine Korper, Kendra J. Muller, Sierra Paola, Aina Serret Trancoso, Patricia Ann Teunisse, Elizabeth M Zechenter, and Catherine Elizabeth Van Kampen


  • This article reviews the significant legal and political developments that impacted women internationally in 2022.
  • Highlighted areas of interest include the right to health, gender-based and sexual violence, sexual harassment and assault, human trafficking, and international criminal courts and tribunals.
  • In 2022, world events have “shown the positive difference women's leadership and decision-making can make” with regard to public administration, law, legislation and regulation, and the political realm.
Women's Interest Network  - International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022
Ron and Patty Thomas vai Getty Images

Jump to:

This article reviews the significant legal and political developments that impacted women internationally in 2022. Highlighted areas of interest include the right to health, gender-based and sexual violence, sexual harassment and assault, human trafficking, and international criminal courts and tribunals.

I. Legal Empowerment

In 2022, world events have “shown the positive difference women’s leadership and decision-making can make” with regard to public administration, law, legislation and regulation, and the political realm. When women hold high-level positions in governmental bodies, governments are more effective in “tailor[ing] and target[ing] solutions to those most in need.”

A. Women’s Representation in Political Leadership

In 2022, only five countries reached gender parity in their legislatures where women make up at least fifty percent of representatives. Rwanda continues to have the highest percentage of female legislators with 61.3 percent of seats filled by women in its lower house of parliament. More than 120 countries, including the United States, have legislatures where women comprise less than thirty percent of elected representatives. The current average percentage of women in legislatures is 22.9 percent, up from 14.9 percent in 2006, showing that progress has occurred in the last decade and a half. But women’s representation in government ministries lags behind that of legislatures, as just 16.1 percent of ministerial positions are filled by women.

Only twenty-three percent of legislatures are presided over by women, showing inequity at the highest levels of government. Newly elected Justice Ayesha Malik, Pakistan’s first female Supreme Court judge, advocates for women to hold high positions of judicial leadership. In 2022, women made up just over twenty percent of global heads of state, with the largest shares coming from Europe, East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. No woman has held the position of head of state in North America in the last twenty-five years.

Women’s representation in local governmental bodies worldwide is slightly better than national bodies but it still remains well below gender parity. Only twenty countries have local legislative bodies with at least forty percent women. Additionally, political violence remains a threat to women serving in political roles. Women in political leadership positions have faced violence, including sexual violence and death. In the United States, female elected officials are targeted with political violence an estimated 3.4 times more than their male counterparts.

B. Legal Equality in Constitutions & Laws

The World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law report indicates that women have three-quarters of the legal rights of men in areas such as mobility, the workplace, pay, marriage and its legal constraints, parenthood, entrepreneurship, pensions, and assets like property and inheritance.

In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) held its twenty-fifth meeting in September 2022. The meeting focused on ASEAN’s efforts to end all forms of violence against women and children under the theme, “Advancing the Implementation of International and Regional Frameworks on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.” In September 2022, ASEAN and the United States issued a joint statement in furtherance of the ASEAN-US dialogue on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

1. Right to Economic and Social Equality

Progress in closing the gender gap has stalled in most countries because of the multi-layered crises the world is facing, such as increases in the cost of living, COVID-19 and other health emergencies, and the climate crisis. “Gender gap” refers to the difference between men and women as reflected in cultural, intellectual, social, political, and economic attitudes, as well as gendered disparities in achievement. The 2022 global gender gap closed by 68.1 percent, which is a 0.2 percent increase from 2021. While eighty-seven countries have worked to close their gender gap, fifty-eight countries have reversed their gender gap since 2021. With the current rate of progression, the World Economic Forum and the United Nations concluded it will take 132 to 300 years to close the gender gap entirely.

2. Marriage Rights

In March 2022, the first same-sex marriages in Chile took place after the Marriage Equality Law came into effect. The measure, introduced in 2017 by center-left President Michelle Bachelet, and later signed into law by right-wing President, Sebastian Piñera, in 2021, vests same-sex parents with full parental rights, expands spousal benefits, and confers adoption rights on married couples.

In June 2022, the Constitutional Court of Slovenia struck down a statutory ban on same-sex marriage, holding that the ban was discriminatory and in violation of the Constitution. The decision immediately took effect and the Court gave Parliament six months to amend the law to conform with its decision. Four months later, the National Assembly of Slovenia granted the right to equal treatment under the law for marriage and adoption, regardless of sexual orientation, making the nation the first formerly Communist country to enact same-sex marriage reform. Also in October 2022, same-sex marriage became legal in all thirty-two Mexican states when Tamaulipas voted to amend its Civil Code, marking a monumental achievement for LGBTQ rights.

In July 2022, Switzerland’s “Marriage for All” amendment took effect following a public referendum in 2021 in which 64.1 percent voted in favor of marriage equality. In July 2022, Andorra’s General Council unanimously voted to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples and granted full marriage rights to former “civil unions.” The new statute was promulgated in August by Co-Prince Emmanuel Macron and will go into effect in February 2023.

In November 2022, Tokyo joined hundreds of other Japanese municipalities when it began offering domestic partnership certificates to recognize same-sex couples. Despite last year’s ruling from the Sapporo District Court of Japan deeming its ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the Osaka District Court disagreed in June. Japan is the only G7 country unwilling to recognize same-sex marriage. In the same month, Cuba passed a historic referendum, which among other things, granted marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples, thus increasing legal protections for diverse families.

In the United States, the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) was signed into law on December 13, 2022, by President Joe Biden. It repeals and replaces the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and recognizes same-sex and interracial marriage under federal law. The bipartisan bill passed with a 267-157 vote in the House and with a 61-36 vote in the Senate after adding an amendment. The House will vote on the amendments, and if approved, they will be sent to President Joe Biden to become law. The new law codified, in part, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing marriage rights to same-sex couples under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guarantee was called into question after Justice Clarence Thomas implored the Court to “reconsider” and overrule Obergefell in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision issued in June 2022.

3. Right to Health

In the United States, the Dobbs decision overturned almost fifty years of precedent under Roe v. Wade. The 6-3 conservative majority revoked the constitutional right to an abortion, allowing states to pass abortion bans and highly restrictive laws, raising concerns for women’s health care, human rights, and gender equality worldwide.

The public—especially women—largely disapproved of the opinion, and partook in protests nationwide. As of December 12, 2022, abortion was banned in twelve states, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In North Dakota and Wisconsin, abortion was effectively prohibited due to continuing litigation.

Citizens are expressing their views at the polls. In Kansas and Kentucky, voters rejected an anti-abortion referendum that would eliminate protections from the states’ constitutions. Meanwhile, the Dobbs decision has led to an absence of abortion care in some states, placing lives in jeopardy around the country. The United States is one of only four countries, along with El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Poland, to backslide on abortion rights in almost three decades.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a report in August 2022 focused on racial and ethnic discrimination in maternal health care in the United States. The Committee stated it is “deeply concerned” by the Dobbs ruling, recommending that the United States actively work to eliminate barriers to inequalities in reproductive care.

Following decisions by Argentina’s Senate and Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court of Colombia issued a landmark ruling in February decriminalizing abortion up to twenty-four weeks of gestation, making it the eighth country in Latin America and the Caribbean that decriminalized abortion in the initial stages of pregnancy. The court requested that Colombia’s Congress create and implement regulations to effectively apply the court’s ruling. In September 2022, one year after its referendum to overturn a 150-year-old abortion ban, San Marino legalized abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, requiring the public health system to cover the cost.

Also in September 2022, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the amended Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 (MTP) applies to all women equally, including single women, and that its definition of “woman” applies to abortion seekers of all genders. This decision reversed the lower court, which ruled that last year’s amendment increasing the gestational limit to twenty or twenty-four weeks, depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy, was limited to certain categories of women. The Supreme Court ruled that marital status was an “artificial distinction,” and that women should have equal access to abortion under the “intent” of the MTP and India’s Constitution. The Court emphasized that all women have the right to seek safe abortions with dignity, autonomy, privacy, equality, and justice. The opinion substantially rests on international law, citing numerous obligations.

With the Taliban takeover, women and girls in Afghanistan face increased barriers to health care because of gender-based policies restricting women’s human rights. A decree restricting women from traveling more than forty-five miles without a male guardian, or mahram, prevents access to education, jobs, and medical care, endangering the health and safety of women and children. Taliban policy of allowing women to be treated only by women healthcare providers absent emergencies, further strained the healthcare system and limited women’s access to necessary medical care. The Taliban is training women doctors for the sole purpose of treating women.

Scotland became the first country to provide free hygiene products for menstruating people. The Scottish Parliament unanimously approved the measure, which went into effect in November 2020. The government launched an app-driven system to distribute menstrual products and requires educational facilities to provide free products in restrooms.

The Liberian government and its National Council of Chiefs and Elders issued a three-year moratorium on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in February 2022. Opposition to reforms remain, but membership in societies that practice FGM waned amid widespread awareness campaigns and traditional leaders are losing influence among women.

II. Gender-Based and Sexual Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Assault

Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations, encompassing physical, sexual, mental, or economic harm as a result of one’s biological sex or gender identity. The UN initiative called UNiTE to End Violence Against Women raises awareness about violence against women and femicide. Approximately one in three women are subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence, at least once in their lifetime, and less than forty percent of women who are victims of violence seek help.

A. Sexual Harassment

1. Domestic Sexual Harassment Laws

In March 2022, the United States enacted the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2022, which expands the special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts. Tribal courts can now prosecute non-Native perpetrators for sexual assault and sex trafficking offenses that occur on tribal land.

2. Regional and International Sexual Harassment Laws

Convention No. 190 is the world’s first international treaty that recognizes the right to have a workplace free of violence and harassment. To date, there are twenty signatories: Albania, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Central African Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, Namibia, Peru, San Marino, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) embarked on a new campaign to build support for Convention No. 190, aiming to raise awareness about violence and harassment at work and encourage governments to ratify and implement Convention No. 190. The ILO also developed a campaign toolkit with visual and audio materials. The desired outcome is for governments and legislatures around the world to ratify and implement Convention No. 190.

B. Elimination of Violence Against Women

1. Domestic Violence as a Criminal Offense

In January 2022, South Africa amended its Domestic Violence Act of 1998. The definition of “domestic violence” expanded to include spiritual abuse, elder abuse, and controlling behavior. The amendment also expands the Act’s reach to include cyberstalking and abuse as forms of domestic violence.

For the first time, the Supreme Court of India recognized marital rape as a criminal sexual assault while interpreting the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act. In their September decision, the Court held that the “ordinary meaning of the word ‘rape’ is sexual intercourse with a person, without their consent or against their will, regardless of whether such forced intercourse occurs in the context of matrimony.”

2. Online Abuse and Violence

Australia, Denmark, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States launched the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse in March 2022, recognizing that “online violence against women is a threat to democracy.” The Global Partnership’s goals are to “develop and advance shared principles, increase targeted programming and resources, and expand reliable, comparable data and access” to data on gender-based online harassment and abuse. The countries committed to devoting time and resources to combat gender-based online harassment and to refrain from and oppose the spread of gender misinformation and online harassment.

In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization Act of 2022 established a federal civil cause of action, allowing for the recovery of legal fees and damages for those victimized via non-consensual distribution of their personal, intimate images otherwise known as “revenge porn.”

3. Regional Instruments and Guidelines

In Latin America, the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará Convention) became the principal treaty for tackling harassment and other forms of violence against women. The Belém do Pará Convention has been ratified by all the Member States to the Organization of American States (OAS), with the exception of Canada, Cuba, and the United States. Under the Belém do Pará Convention, the follow-up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI) monitors the implementation of the treaty by its parties. During 2022, MESCEVI issued several communiques expressing its concern about (1) the illegitimate use of parental alienation syndrome against women, (2) the new education bill in Peru, (3) disappearances taking place in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and (4) the femicides of two adolescents from the Wichi Community in Argentina.

In Europe, the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) became the principal instrument for addressing violence against women. As of November 2022, the European Union and all member states of the Council of Europe (except for Azerbaijan and Turkey, which withdrew in 2021) had signed the Istanbul Convention and thirty-seven had ratified it. In January 2022, the Republic of Moldova ratified the Istanbul Convention, followed by the United Kingdom and Ukraine in July 2022. But the United Kingdom reserved the right not to be bound by Article 59 of the convention, which compels states to protect migrant women whose residency depends on an abusive spouse. Under the Istanbul Convention, the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) monitors the implementation of the treaty by its parties.

III. Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is considered the world’s fastest-growing and most profitable criminal enterprise. The ILO and nonprofit group Walk Free released a report estimating that as of 2021, the number of people working under forced labor conditions had grown to 27.6 million.

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations reported that human traffickers adjusted their business models to the “new normal” created by the virus, especially through “modern communications technologies.” The UN noted that the pandemic has “exacerbated and brought to the forefront the systemic and deeply entrenched economic and societal inequalities that are among the root causes of human trafficking.” The UN estimates that each day “nearly twenty-eight million adults and children around the world are trapped in jobs that are so oppressive that they amount to modern slavery or human trafficking.”

A. International Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking

In February 2022, Russia’s intensified war in Ukraine created a new host of challenges, including the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. As millions of refugees fled Ukraine, aid agencies raised the alarm about the risks of sexual exploitation, abuse, and human trafficking. The La Strada International/Freedom Fund report, Preventing Human Trafficking of Refugees from Ukraine documented evidence of human trafficking activity in Ukraine. Risks will likely continue to increase as the war enters 2023 and more people are internally displaced, with access to services and livelihoods becoming more precarious and millions of refugees facing the need for longer periods of refuge and support.

The International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC) was established in 2021 to combat human trafficking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The ISTAC currently consists of twenty-one survivor leaders from across OSCE’s fity-seven member states. In July 2022, the OSCE issued the Survey Report 2021 of Efforts to Implement OSCE Commitments and Recommend Actions to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings to track progress made toward the implementation of anti-trafficking commitments, finding that there are already some promising examples of governments that increasingly target goods produced by trafficked labor in their own and private sector supply chains.

B. Regional and Transregional Efforts to Combat Trafficking

1. North America

a. Trafficking in Persons Report

In July 2022, the U.S. Department of State released the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, which reviews governmental responses to combatting human trafficking and forced labor worldwide. It revealed significant increases in funding and identified that support by politicians and those in power is needed for meaningful global progress on ending forced labor and sex trafficking.

b. Trafficking in Persons Report Findings

The State Department places countries into one of four tiers. The first tier is the highest ranking and indicates that a government has made the appropriate efforts to meet the standards of The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). These standards include steps to effectively prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and protect survivors. In 2022, thirty countries received Tier I rankings. Tier 2 countries are those that do not meet the TVPA standards but are making “significant efforts” to comply with the standards. Ninety-nine countries received Tier 2 rankings. A sub-tier is the Tier 2 Watch List, whereby the country is making significant efforts to comply with the standards but there are either 1) problems the country is not addressing related to human trafficking, or a significant increase in human trafficking victims, or 2) the country fails to provide evidence of increasing its efforts to combat human trafficking. Thirty-five countries received Tier 2 Watch List ratings. The lowest tier is Tier 3, which are countries that do not meet the TVPA standard and are not making significant efforts to comply. Twenty-two countries received a Tier 3 ranking.

The report notes that several factors affecting human trafficking require special attention, including international conflicts; the lasting COVID-19 impact and disruption of people’s livelihoods and ability to travel; economic and food uncertainty; and extreme weather conditions, climate variability, and the rise of temperatures.

The report indicates the continuing trend of impunity and lack of prosecutions for human trafficking crimes, as only 10,572 human traffickers are prosecuted globally. Cases that do proceed to court are disproportionately focused on sex trafficking, leaving forced labor victims unprotected and labor traffickers unaccountable. Only 1,379 (thirteen percent) of these 10,572 prosecutions were forced labor cases. The U.S. numbers reflect only 228 federal human trafficking prosecutions and seven forced labor prosecutions.

2. Europe

In May 2022, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched Exploitation and Abuse: The Scale and Scope of Human Trafficking in South Eastern Europe, which examines issues including Asian migrants being forced to work in construction, agriculture, and hospitality sectors by human traffickers; sexual exploitation of children; and crimes committed by trafficked children. The most prevalent type of human trafficking is the sexual exploitation of women who are trafficked to countries in western and southern Europe. In the summer seasons, many women and girls who migrate for work to warmer climates are forced to provide sexual services.

IV. Women, Peace, & Security

In 2022, global security—and the role of women in shaping global security—decreased. Military spending is at an all-time high and gender equality has suffered in the wake of COVID-19, climate change, and increasing conflict.

Since 2000, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a total of ten resolutions on women, peace, and security (WPS). These measures serve as the international policy framework for WPS by articulating the obligations of international and national stakeholders and are binding in enforcing global peace and stability. The resolutions are important in facilitating the council’s ability to address the impacts and prevalence of war, violent conflict, terrorism, and violent extremism, which all continue to ravage the lives of women and girls.

As of August 2022, 103 countries and territories have adopted dedicated National Action Plans (NAPs) on women, peace and security. Additionally, in July 2022, the U.S. government launched its second Women Peace and Security Congressional Report 2022, articulating authority for four key U.S. agencies: the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.

The UN Security Council convened in October 2022 at its yearly event—the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security — which is a forum to review the women, peace, and security agenda. The focus of 2022’s debate was strengthening women’s resilience and leadership as a path to peace in regions plagued by armed groups and to allow participants to share specific examples of how they are supporting women’s resilience in conflict-affected countries and their capacity to contribute to peace and security.” The UN Secretary General, civil society representatives, and the Executive Director of UN Women gave briefings.

The trafficking of women and girls due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the arrests of women by the morality police in Iran, the shaming of women under the three-child policy in China, and the weaponization of rape in the ongoing war in Burkina Faso are examples of bodily, community, and policy injuries that women and girls face. These injuries underscore the importance of gendered women, peace, and security global and domestic agendas — with women and girls at the forefront of implementation.

V. International Criminal Courts & Tribunals and Women’s Rights Cases

A. International Criminal

The Office of the Prosecutor (OFP) of the International Criminal Court is undertaking new initiatives to highlight ongoing vulnerabilities of women in war. Working with Eurojust, the OFP published a set of guidelines in March 2022 that civil society can use to properly document and preserve evidence of international war crimes. Prosecutor Karim Khan emphasizes the importance of these guidelines in “situations involving crimes against children or victims of sexual abuse.” Khan opened an investigation into the “situation in Ukraine” in February upon receipt of thirty-nine referrals from member states.

Further, in November 2022, the OFP published its draft policy on the prosecution of the crime of gender persecution. Gender persecution is a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome statute. The OFP successfully charged the crime of gender persecution for the first time against Al Hassan in 2019. The case is ongoing.

B. Inter-American Court of Human Rights

In April 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed a case for custody of a thirteen-year-old rape victim’s son who was removed by the state for adoption. The case “Maria” and her son “Mariano” v. Argentina is pending.

C. European Court of Human Rights

In February 2022, the European Court of Human Rights determined that the State’s failure to properly investigate and protect C from domestic violence and death by D, her partner and a police officer, was a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in both its procedural and substantive prongs, and Article 14, which prohibits discrimination. The Court noted the case as a warning of relaxed law enforcement practices in the domestic violence arena.

In August of 2022, the ECHR examined the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace under Article 8 (the right to private life) for the first time. The case turned on the failure of the state to properly execute its positive obligations to fully and fairly investigate the allegations.

In September of 2022, the ECHR rendered judgment in a case involving repeated victimization of a rape victim by her abuser. The case addresses a situation in which the victim is being threatened indirectly while her abuser, her father, is out on prison leave.

D. High Court of Kenya

The High Court of Kenya issued a milestone ruling in March 2022 affirming that “abortion care is a fundamental right under the Constitution of Kenya” and that it is illegal to prosecute and arbitrarily arrest patients for seeking care or health care providers for offering and providing abortion services. In its ruling, the court also directed the Kenyan parliament to create a public policy framework and implement abortion laws that align with the Constitution. The court further emphasized that protection of access to abortion care “impacts vital Constitutional values, including dignity, autonomy, equality, and bodily integrity,” and criminalizing abortion without any constitutional statutory framework adversely impacts women’s reproductive rights.

In July 2022, the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA) submitted an amicus brief to the African Court of Human and People’s Rights (ACtHPR) in the Tike Mwambipile & Equality Now v. The United Republic of Tanzania case. The litigation challenges the Tanzanian government’s denial of education to married and pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. The brief was filed in order to “assist the court in determining the state’s obligation in guaranteeing equality for school-going girls and women in accessing the right to education.” The court dismissed the case due to a procedural issue, admissibility.