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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

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.