Revolution and Gender Equality in North Africa

Leila Hessini and Francine Coeytaux

As demands for political change rock North Africa and the Middle East, nothing short of a parallel revolution must also take place: women's rights must be promoted as human rights.

As demonstrators demand political change across North Africa and the Middle East, nothing short of a parallel revolution must also take place: women’s rights must be recognized and promoted as human rights. Women were and continue to be leaders of the revolutions but far too often post-revolutionary powers exclude women’s realities and needs. The consequence of patriarchal thinking is that those experiences unique to women – such as pregnancy, childbirth and abortion – get short shrift when it comes to policies and resources.

The three largest countries of the Maghreb – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – have taken drastically different approaches to reproductive rights and gender equality, and as a result women’s basic human rights differ significantly. A new report from the World Health Organization finds that in countries where abortion laws are most restrictive and women have low rates of contraceptive use, induced abortion rates are higher overall, and unsafe abortion poses a particular health risk for women.

Translation: more women trade their health or even their lives in an effort to control their fertility, particularly in places like Morocco and Algeria where abortion is illegal. In Morocco alone, an estimated 130,000 – 150,000 unsafe and illegal abortions occur every year. In Algeria, 10 percent of all obstetric hospital admissions are abortion-related, and 5.5 percent of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion. Thousands of others experience potentially life-threatening disabilities and countless women live in fear due to the few legal and safe options they have if faced with an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy. In addition to the health and safety risks that accompany unsafe abortions, the legal penalty for having an illegal abortion is high.

Tunisia has played a pioneering role in the areas of gender equality and equity, family planning and abortion. In 1973, Tunisia became the first African country to significantly liberalize its abortion law. Abortions are far easier to obtain in this Muslim and Arab country than they are in many states in the United States. Women’s reproductive decision-making is not separate from their overall rights and decision-making status.

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As a result of these policies, Tunisian women benefit from greater educational and economic opportunities than their Maghreb counterparts and according to the United Nations, their health and overall status are far better. Tunisia has lowest maternal mortality rate, and women benefit from the highest status and greatest opportunities in terms of education and employment. The Tunisian case also shows the inter-linkages of women’s rights: Tunisian women have higher rates of education, employment and political participation than women in Algeria and Morocco, which is due at least in part, to their greater reproductive choices.

Legal abortion saves women’s lives. Though Tunisia’s neighbor Algeria shares a similar population (predominately Arab and Muslim), common history (former French colonies) and similar development indicators (GNP, literacy, life expectancy), women in Algeria are more than twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as Tunisian women. Since the two countries also have similar birth practices (95 percent delivered by skilled birth attendants) and rates of contraception usage, the best explanation for the differential is that Tunisian women have abortions under safe conditions whereas Algerian women risk their lives to end a pregnancy.

The need for comprehensive and accessible sexual and reproductive health information and services has never been greater. Adolescents and young people represent more than 30 percent of the combined population of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Young people have sex earlier in life but tend to get married later, leaving a larger gap for pregnancies that aren’t socially condoned to occur. In Tunisia for example, average age at marriage is 33 for men and 29 for women while sexual initiation occurs in the mid to late teens. Premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies are common among adolescents, young persons and the unmarried, yet still socially taboo in all countries of the Maghreb. Clearly, young people increasingly need reproductive health information and services but Tunisia is the only Maghreb country to have youth-friendly and youth-managed clinics and program.

Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian women’s full potential will not be met until gender discrimination is abolished and women’s rights truly are considered human rights. Comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights must be included in all activities designed to increase women’s status, patriarchal norms must be challenged, and gender equality and women’s empowerment must be embraced. Women’s full participation in revolutions and democratic processes in the Maghreb depend on it.

Only then will the revolution truly succeed.

News Abortion

Parental Notification Law Struck Down in Alaska

Michelle D. Anderson

"The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions," said Janet Crepps, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm."

The Alaska Supreme Court has struck down a state law requiring physicians to give the parents, guardians, or custodians of teenage minors a two-day notice before performing an abortion.

The court ruled that the parental notification law, which applies to teenagers younger than 18, violated the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and could not be enforced.

The ruling stems from an Anchorage Superior Court decision that involved the case of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands and physicians Dr. Jan Whitefield and Dr. Susan Lemagie against the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors.

In the lower court ruling, a judge denied Planned Parenthood’s requested preliminary injunction against the law as a whole and went on to uphold the majority of the notification law.

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Planned Parenthood and the physicians had appealed that superior court ruling and asked for a reversal on both equal protection and privacy grounds.

Meanwhile, the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors appealed the court’s decision to strike some of its provisions and the court’s ruling.

The notification law came about after an initiative approved by voters in August 2010. The law applied to “unemancipated, unmarried minors” younger than 18 seeking to terminate a pregnancy and only makes exceptions in documented cases of abuse and medical emergencies, such as one in which the pregnant person’s life is in danger.

Justice Daniel E. Winfree wrote in the majority opinion that the anti-choice law created “considerable tension between a minor’s fundamental privacy right to reproductive choice and how the State may advance its compelling interests.”

He said the law was discriminatory and that it could unjustifiably burden “the fundamental privacy rights only of minors seeking pregnancy termination, rather than [equally] to all pregnant minors.”

Chief Justice Craig Stowers dissented, arguing that the majority’s opinion “unjustifiably” departed from the Alaska Supreme Court’s prior approval of parental notification.

Stowers said the opinion “misapplies our equal protection case law by comparing two groups that are not similarly situated, and fails to consider how other states have handled similar questions related to parental notification laws.”

Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) officials praised the court’s ruling, saying that Alaska’s vulnerable teenagers will now be relieved of additional burdensome hurdles in accessing abortion care. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, CRR, and Planned Parenthood represented plaintiffs in the case.

Janet Crepps, senior counsel at CRR, said in a statement that the “decision provides important protection to the safety and well-being of young women who need to end a pregnancy.”

“The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions. This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm,” Crepps said.

CRR officials also noted that most young women seeking abortion care involve a parent, but some do not because they live an abusive or unsafe home.

The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine have said minors’ access to confidential reproductive health services should be protected, according to CRR.

Commentary Human Rights

Love, Respect, Accountability: What We Need in This Time of Tragedy and Crisis

Jodi Jacobson

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems... This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy.

In a time of great strife, in which those who seek to divide us have a very large platform, I remember that these things are all true:

You can oppose an illegitimate or unnecessary war, and still individually and collectively honor and love the troops that serve.

You can honor and love the troops that serve, but protest the ways in which war is waged and abhor the behavior of individual soldiers who abuse human rights and dehumanize the civilians in a population. You can honor and love and support the troops that serve but still work to change the systems, and hold politicians and individuals responsible for crimes they perpetrate.

You can honor and love any and all public servants—as I do deeply—but still abhor systemic problems in civil services that lead to racist behaviors and outcomes (or those based on class, immigrant status, gender, ability, or any other basis for discrimination).

You can honor, love, and respect police, but abhor the militarization of our police forces; racial and ethnic profiling; abuses of fines, fees, and arrests that both target and most adversely affect the poorest individuals; and the growing dependency of the budgets for police forces based on fines drawn from those who can least afford it. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still understand why there is a great level of distrust of policing in some communities. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still recognize real abuses of power by individuals or groups among them, and seek to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

You can honor and love police for putting their lives on the line for public safety, but recognize the very deeply legitimate concerns of movements—like Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, LGBTQ rights groups, and others for whom policing often is not about public safety, but is itself a source of fear—because law enforcement is and has been too often used against these groups in ways that are disrespectful, demeaning, and sometimes deadly.

You can honor, respect, and love the police, but support the work of Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, and LGBTQ rights groups, and defend them against blame for the behavior of someone acting in their name who is not actually acting in their name at all.

You can honor and respect the work of prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials, but recognize when the systems in which they are working are not working for the people or to promote justice, or when individuals within those systems operate more on bias than on integrity.

You can protest and advocate for change in any and all of these systems without dishonoring the individuals within them. Indeed, by protesting and seeking to make them better, you make the world better for those within and outside of law enforcement and, hopefully, promote a more universal justice.

You can and we all must honor and treasure the freedoms of speech and of assembly, and abhor violence, while also recognizing that sometimes it is perpetrated by people, like veterans, whose own needs for health care, love, and honor have not been met by the country that sent them to war, or by people who feel so alienated that they—wrongly but nonetheless—resort to violence.

You can be confused by or even irritated by something you don’t understand, but it is on you, not others, to try to understand it. As Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Read, discuss, challenge yourself. Try to open yourself up to what may seem like radical ideas. Make yourself vulnerable to learning. If you don’t understand the movement for Black lives, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, then listen to the very people fighting for their rights in order to better understand them. You may have started from a very different place than they do; you may stand in a very different place today. The issues may seem alien at first. But just because you don’t have cancer does not mean cancer does not exist. Try hard to understand why there is distance, what you don’t understand, and what you can—what we all must—do to narrow that distance in understanding each other.

We can love, honor, and respect each other and still recognize and raise awareness of our collective weaknesses. Indeed, that is the essence of progress and of democracy. Don’t fight it. Try to help it along.

People are human and therefore flawed. The systems we create also are therefore often flawed. We need mutual love and respect, along with vigorous debate and sometimes protest, to right the wrongs that are the inevitable result of our flawed selves and our flawed systems.

Love, honor, respect, and accountability: We need them all. Accountability, along with freedom, is the essence of a functioning democracy and part of the struggle for justice. The right to speak, the right to protest, the right to agitate for changes in systems that are flawed because we are all flawed in some way. The right to make things better.

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems… This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy. Some will tell you that in speaking out you are being disrespectful, but the opposite is true. You are respecting the many who have fought and given their lives—and who continue to be placed in harm’s way—on behalf of all of us so that we may all exercise our basic freedoms.

Let’s embrace the struggle. We can love, honor, respect police and other public servants, politicians, soldiers, and ourselves, and still work to hold them and ourselves accountable. These things are all true. I can hold these true simultaneously.

Can we all hold these things true simultaneously? I hope so, because I fear our failure to do so will only result in more violence and hatred.