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Women still face legal discrimination in 155 countries

Melina Grundmann
March 8, 2018

Female genital mutilation, domestic violence, patriarchal structures — the fight for women's rights is far from over. The director of the organisation Terre des Femmes weighs in on the current situation.

Boko Mohammed, a former practitioner of female genital mutilation, holding a knife in his hand
Image: picture alliance/dpa/EPA/UNICEF/HOLT

Terre des Femmes (French, which translates as "Women's Earth") is a non-profit women's rights organisation that was founded in Hamburg in 1981. Christa Stolle has been the director of the organisation since 1990.

DW: How would you describe the current global state of women's rights?

Christa Stolle: It is not very good. We still have a long way ahead of us, especially when it comes to women and girls in non-Western countries. There is still much to do concerning violence against women.

It is estimated that nearly 50,000 underage girls are forced into marriage every day. Laws discriminating against women exist in 155 countries, according to a World Bank survey. In 32 states, a woman can't apply for a passport without the consent of her husband. Those are great injustices that must be eradicated. 

But even in Germany, every fourth woman is affected by domestic violence. I believe we need better laws to achieve equality between men and women.

Read more: Who were the pioneers of Germany's women's movement?

In which countries do you see the situation as particularly critical?

In Saudi Arabia, for sure, where every woman must have a male guardian — a father, brother or husband. It reflects the fact that women are considered second-class citizens. 

Then, of course, we have to take into account the humanitarian crises in regions such as Syria or Iraq where women are subjected to massive sexual violence. 

Also, the tradition of female genital mutilation, which entails massive health and sexual restrictions for women, is still present in many African countries, where the right to sexual self-determination is ignored.

Christa Stolle from Terre des Femmes
Christa Stolle from Terre des FemmesImage: Uwe Steinert, Berlin

What are women rights' activists fighting for around the world?

For equality but also for democratization in their countries, which is for many activists just as important as the fight for women's rights. Women want to participate in democratic governments, peace negotiations, business decisions and public affairs. And in many places in the world, they are being denied that and are told to stay home and look after the children. 

The fight against violence and patriarchal structures are common to all women's movements. In Germany, for instance, there are some extremely patriarchal structures in the so-called parallel societies, where girls are denied participation in class excursions, they are forcibly veiled and being prepared for a life at home with a husband and children from very early age.

As feminists, we can not tolerate that. All girls and women must have the right to self-determination and free life.

Read more: Turkish court acquits defendants in Berlin 'honor killing'

A participant in the International Women's Day rally in Los Angeles in 2017
A participant in the International Women's Day rally in LA in 2017Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/R. Chiu

What is common to women's suffering worldwide? 

Women are severely restricted by men's violence towards them, which you can clearly see when you look at the life stories of women who come to women's shelters. They go through years of humiliation before they finally say enough! I think that is common to women all around the world.

In Germany, thankfully, the infrastructure is better than in other parts of the world. Women can come to shelters and use services of counseling centers. Women in Africa or South American can't rely on a support system like that.

What possibilities are there for women to get involved in the cause?

There are many dedicated women in countries all around the world who work on projects that help recognize local problems and find solutions. But such individuals and initiatives need aid from wealthier countries so they can finance their programs and receive a salary. 

In my opinion, even more aid must flow in to empower girls and women, to educate them and show them how to defend themselves against unjust structures and how to build new ones. 

Terre des Femmes, for instance, supports a shelter in Sierra Leone, where girls can turn to when violence in a family dramatically increases or when they must escape imminent genital mutilation.

Read more: France to fine companies breaking gender pay gap laws

How are women who help other women protected?

It is important that we work in the countries that can back up our cause legally. In Burkina Faso, where we support campaigns against female genital mutilation, the practice is legally forbidden, although cases still appear. The government does not fund the local activists, but at least we know the activists are protected and can't be imprisoned. On the other hand, of course, they have to deal with conservative attitudes within the population, even from women. They have to withstand attacks on social media and in their own families. In rural areas, where patriarchal hierarchy still dominates, their work is even more difficult.

Iranian protester Vida Movahed who took off her scarf in public during protests in Tehran
Iranian protester Vida Movahed who took off her scarf in public during protests in TehranImage: picture alliance/abaca

Then there are countries such as Iran where brave women risk being arrested and sentenced for removing their headscarves. But they do so regardless to fight for their cause. 

Should women defend their rights despite possible repercussion?

Women need to seize their opportunities. When they see the regime is getting even a little bit more liberal, they must act. Courageous women in Saudi Arabia repeatedly organized car rides even though it was illegal for them at the time. Fortunately, the situation has changed, and they'll be able to drive cars legally from this June.