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#MeToo throws new spotlight on International Women's Day

Demonstrators shout slogans during a Women's Day rally in Istanbul.
YASIN AKGUL (AFP)
Activists say work still needs to be done on issues such as abortion rights, pay equity, gender-based violence

As the world marks International Women's Day this week, it remains to be seen whether campaigns such as #MeToo and #Timesup can really advance the fight for women's rights and gender equality worldwide or whether their effects will be more transitory.

The #MeToo and #Timesup campaigns that went global last October when allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein coincided with a number of other major advances in women's rights worldwide.

In September, for example, Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to still ban women from driving, announced that the prohibition would be lifted starting from June this year. 

Then in January, Saudi women were also allowed to attend a football match for the first time, even if the Kingdom still requires them to have a legal guardian in other areas, such as studying or travelling.

And in Iran, a spate of unprecedented protests have taken place since December against rules for mandatory headscarves for women.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (AFP/File)

While such developments certainly mark progress, many feminists argue that a lot of work still needs to be done on issues such as abortion rights, pay equity and gender-based violence. 

The changes in Iran and Saudi Arabia "are quite small steps in worlds where questions about women are very controlled," said Christine Mauget, in charge of international matters at France's Family Planning agency. 

- 'Bubbles of regression' -

"We're on the right path. But there will be setbacks, there will be bubbles of regression," she warned. 

On the subject of abortion, for example, pregnancy terminations are legal in the majority of EU countries, but the Council of Europe has warned of a backlash against access in some states.

Predominantly Catholic Malta is the only European Union country to totally ban abortion, imposing jail terms of between 18 months and three years if the law is broken.

But the Polish government has been pushing to tighten its already restrictive laws.

And in Italy, abortion is legal, but some 70 percent of doctors refuse to provide them.

SERGEI SUPINSKY (AFP/File)

"Even in countries where the law is less restrictive, women sometimes face significant obstacles," said Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights, in the report.

There are signs that some countries are beginning to relax their laws.

In Ireland, a referendum is scheduled for the end of May on whether to reform the country's near-total ban on terminations.

Currently, abortion is only allowed if a pregnancy puts a woman's life at "real and substantial risk", but not in cases of incest, rape or fatal foetal abnormality.

Outside of Europe, there are also many restrictions on the right to an abortion.

In Turkey, a married woman must obtain her husband's consent for a termination.

And across Central America, anti-abortion laws are particularly strict. 

A woman in El Salvador was released from prison last month after serving 11 years of a 30-year sentence for aggravated murder after having a stillbirth. She was originally accused of intentionally having a miscarriage.

Wojtek RADWANSKI (AFP)

- Migrant crisis -

Mauget said that the migrant and refugee crisis also highlights how much still needs to be done in the area of women's rights. 

"Women are forced to migrate for economic reasons, war or due to climate change, and find themselves in camps where they are not respected, on routes where they are violated," she said. 

Genevieve Fraisse, a French philosopher and writer on feminist thought, believes the Weinstein affair and its repercussions will act as a "catalyst" for equality.

"It is in situations of economic dependence that women are victims of violence," she said.

Angelos Tzortzinis (AFP/File)

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