Violence against women (VAW) is one of the most widespread and toxic human rights violations in the world. It takes a wide variety of forms from domestic violence to rape to female genital mutilation. Domestic violence alone costs the world 9.5 trillion dollars each year in economic loss. As eradicating VAW means dismantling the stubbornly entrenched patriarchal system maintaining the toxic masculinity, sexism, misogyny, and male pattern violence that perpetuates gender-based violence, progress in eradicating VAW is invariably difficult, painfully slow, and frequently endangers changemakers (usually women) themselves.
In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continues and so does what UN Women dubbed the “shadow pandemic of violence against women” as the number of domestic violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and femicide cases spiked tremendously under the devastating effect of the virus on the global economy, communities, and cultures.
However, even in the midst of all this bleakness, anti-violence against women activists and advocates, individuals, communities, and nonprofits/charities are continuing to fight for the right of women and girls to live their lives free of gender-based violence. No matter how brutal 2021 has been for women and girls, progress continues to be made to eradicate the violence in the long run.
In the spirit of the defiance, strength, and determination of these fierce activists and advocates worldwide, we bring you 16 pieces of positive news of significant progress and breakthroughs in the global battle against VAW in 2021. The road to ending VAW permanently may be a long and winding one, but these milestones show that we’re on the right track. We just have to remember that it takes all of us to get it done.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Introduction by Regina Yau. Written and researched by Susanna Lim and Regina Yau. Additional research by Su-Ann Cheng.
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Positive Tidings #1: R. Kelly found Guilty of Sex Trafficking – United States of America
After over a quarter of a decade of accusations and a federal court trial in New York that lasted seven weeks, R&B singer and sexual predator R. Kelly was found guilty of charges that include sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, racketeering and sex trafficking involving five victims. Kelly faces a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison. The Chicago trial date for Kelly has been set for August 2021 in a federal case that includes child pornography, obstruction of justice and sexual abuse charges. Kelly’s criminal conviction was long awaited and reflects the continuing impact of the #MeToo era on the attitudes of the general public towards women and girls who are victims of sexual violence as well as a growing zero-tolerance stance towards powerful sexual abusers.
Positive Tidings #2: Japan passes law to prevent sexual harassment of female politicians – Japan
On 10 June 2021, Japan’s national legislature revised the law to promote gender parity in elections and to prevent sexual and maternity harassment, which has created a major barrier to women aspiring to run for office. The law took effect on June 16. In passing the law, the Diet urged political parties as well as the central and local governments to take measures to prevent sexual and maternity harassment. Many female election candidates and legislators have been victims of these types of harassment from voters and other legislators, but Japan has no law to protect them from such improper behavior. The legal revision also added a new provision to prevent any problems arising from sexual remarks or unwanted physical contact as well as insensitive comments and actions concerning pregnancy and childbirth.
Positive Tidings #3: Somalia’s Puntland moves to ban female genital mutilation – Somalia
Somalia’s Puntland region has moved towards banning female genital mutilation in a country where almost all women and girls are forced to undergo the internationally condemned procedure. Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni and his cabinet this week approved a bill to be submitted to parliament that would criminalise the ancient ritual, a measure anti-FGM campaigners are saying will be a major milestone towards ending the practice entirely. “It will be forbidden to circumcise girls. Girls in Puntland must be left the way they are born. Anyone who performs circumcision in the region will face the full force of the law,” Puntland Justice Minister Awil Sheikh Hamud told reporters. Justice Ministry officials said the Bill includes stiff penalties for those who perform FGM, including hospitals, midwives and traditional circumcisers. No date has yet been set for it to be presented before parliament for a vote.
Positive Tidings #4: Intern takes on One of China’s Biggest Stars in #MeToo Case – China
In 2018, Zhou Xiaoxuan became the face of China’s fledgling #MeToo movement when she took Zhu Jun, one of CCTV’s biggest stars, to court, accusing him of sexually assaulting her in a dressing room during her internship in 2014. Sexual harassment lawsuits were rarely seen in China at the time, and Zhou’s case was widely regarded a barometer for the country’s progress in addressing entrenched gender inequality. In September 2021, that landmark legal battle ended in Zhou’s defeat when a Beijing court ruled against her, citing “insufficient evidence.” Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist based in New York, said that Zhou’s case significantly raised social awareness about sexual harassment, contributed to the growth of China’s feminist community and exposed the country’s flawed legal system.
Positive Tidings #5: Child Marriage to be made illegal in The Philippines — The Philippines
In September 2021, the House of Representatives approved on final reading a measure seeking to end child marriage in the country by making it illegal and imposing penalties for violations. This measure also declares that unlawful acts would include the solemnisation of child marriage and cohabitation of an adult with a child outside wedlock. The proposed law would impose penalties against solemnising officers, parents, guardians, or adults who fixed, facilitated, or arranged child marriage. The Bill has been commended by local activists who said that “a strong legal framework toward ending child marriage is essential if the practice is to be eradicated”.
Positive Tidings #6: Pakistan court outlaws ‘virginity tests’ – Pakistan
Women rights campaigners have long argued that the so-called virginity test that is practiced in a number of Islamic countries is part of a traditional patriarchal culture that shifts blame onto women in the event of sexual assaults. In January 2021, a Pakistani court outlawed the practice of subjecting female rape survivors to a virginity test in an unprecedented ruling. Lahore’s high court ruled that the virginity test has no legal basis and “offends the personal dignity of the female victim”. The ruling, which applies in Punjab province, will end the practice of physical checks for an intact hymen and the invasive “two-finger test”. The ruling followed two petitions filed in Punjab province by rights activists. This ruling is groundbreaking because it may well become a precedent for petitions in other provincial high courts.
Positive Tidings #7: Activision Blizzard scandal a ‘watershed moment’ for women in the gaming industry – United States of America
A lawsuit by California’s department of fair employment accuses Activision Blizzard, a multi-billion dollar gaming company, of violating the state’s civil rights and equal pay laws. The lawsuit has prompted a reckoning within the gaming industry and exposed a frat-boy culture where female employees navigated near daily episodes of humiliation, sexual harassment, and physical abuse in the workplace. The company’s president and its head of human resources stepped down after hundreds of employees staged a walkout and thousands signed a petition demanding a response to the scandal. “What seems to be different now is the fact that people are recognizing these issues as being systemic and repeated rather than episodic,” said Amanda Cote, a professor at University of Oregon who studies sexism and gender identity in the video game industry. “People seem to be calling for change across the industry, rather than just at one company at a time.”
Positive Tidings #8: France decides that sex with a child under 15 is automatically rape – France
The French parliament has adopted legislation that defines sex with a child under the age of 15 as rape and punishable by up to 20 years in jail, bringing its penal code closer in line with many other Western nations. Sex between an adult and a child younger than 15 was already illegal but could only be prosecuted as rape if there was proof the minor was coerced through violence, constraint or surprise. Without proof of coercion, it was prosecuted as the lesser offence of a ‘sexual act on a minor’. “This is a historic law for our children and our society,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told the National Assembly. “No adult aggressor will be able to claim the consent of a minor younger than 15-years-old.”
Positive Tidings #9: Ontario adds sexual violence prevention as mandatory training for alcohol servers – Canada
Ontario has made it a requirement for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to introduce a sexual violence prevention training programme for alcohol servers. The training will cover how to recognise and respond to sexual violence in a bar or restaurant setting. Smart Serve Ontario officially launched the new module at an event in Etobicoke. “Recognized as the first line of defence within a variety of establishments, bartenders and servers are critical in the protection and wellbeing of patrons against sexual violence,” Smart Serve said in a statement. While servers and advocates for sexual assault survivors are applauding the move, some are wondering what took so long. Since 2015, they say they have been pushing for the Smart Serve programme to include training on sexual violence, and that many incidents could have been prevented had it been brought in sooner.
Positive Tidings #10: Man found guilty of rape after woman conceived in attack pursues charges – United Kingdom
A jury in Birmingham crown court found a man guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl 46 years ago, after the daughter who was conceived during the attack pursued charges against him. The jury took a mere two hours to deliberate before finding Carvel Bennett, 74, guilty. He was tracked down by Daisy, who is now 45 and was conceived through the rape, using DNA tests and her birth parents’ confirmation that Bennett was her biological father. The case is thought to be the first of its kind. With the guilty verdict, Daisy expressed that she was “happy and overwhelmed, but (that) this should never have taken so long”.
Positive Tidings #11: California is the first state to ban ‘stealthing’, non-consensual condom removal – United States of America
California has become the first state in the U.S. to outlaw ‘stealthing’, a slang term for the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the law and it has passed the California State Legislature without opposition, making ‘stealthing’ a civil offense under state law. Assembly member Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the bill, expressed that she was motivated to write the Bill when she read Alexander Brodsky’s law journal on the topic in 2017. Stealthing won’t be a crime under California law, but it will be a civil offense, allowing people who experience it to sue the perpetrators directly in civil court if they choose to.
Positive Tidings #12: Slovenia becomes the 13th European country to define rape as sex without consent – Slovenia
In June 2021, Slovenia became only the 13th European country to define rape as sex without consent. In other European nations, the law stipulates the rapist must wield force or threats for the act to be deemed as rape, even though this is not what happens in a substantial majority of rape cases. Nils Muižnieks, Europe Director at Amnesty International, stated: “This is a historic victory for women in Slovenia and an important step along the road to changing culture, attitudes and behaviour.”
Positive Tidings #13: Indonesian army ends degrading ‘virginity tests’ on female cadets – Indonesia
‘Virginity tests’, used for decades by the Indonesian army on female cadets have been banned. Tests have been performed since 1965 despite international outcry. The procedure, also known as the “two fingers test” would involve doctors inserting two fingers into a woman’s vagina to determine her virginity. Those declared “not virgins” would be rejected for consignment. The practice has long been defended by the Indonesian army as necessary to determine a potential cadet’s ‘morality’. Andreas Harsono at Human Rights Watch wrote that the army “was doing the right thing” in ending the “abusive, unscientific, and discriminatory” tests.
Positive Tidings #14: Malawi court rules in favour of compensation in sexual harassment case – Malawi
In a case that will set a precedent and embolden the campaign by Malawi’s trade unions for the ratification of ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the workplace, Tamara Kabowa, who was sexually harassed by her general foreperson Joaquim Carvalho successfully sued her employer Mota Engil Engenharia Construcao Africa for damages. The court heard that Carvalho forcefully caressed Kabowa and attempted to undress her using a “a six-gear knife to rip the trousers apart.” Carvalho resigned and left Malawi before the case was heard in court. The court ruled that Kabowa should be compensated by her employer, Mota Engil, the defendant in the case, for “aggravated and exemplary damages for the injury to her dignity as a woman, emotional and psychological trauma among others as a result of the negligent failure of the defendant to curb her sexual abuse at the hands of one of its officers who was her senior.” Further, the court ruled that Mota Engil “breached its duty as employer under section 13 of the Occupational Safety and Health and Welfare Act to ensure a safe workplace.”
Positive Tidings #15: Victorian bill allowing families to publicly identify dead sexual assault survivors passes Upper House – Australia
In September 2021, the Victorian government passed laws allowing families of dead sexual assault victims to publicly identify their loved ones. The new legislation amends a draft introduced in 2020 that was condemned by advocates for effectively gagging loved ones from naming victims because they risked prosecution if they did so. However, some family members or loved ones will still be able to apply for a temporary suppression of victims’ names, known as a victim privacy order (VPO).
Positive Tidings #16: Spain says non-consensual sex is rape, toughens sexual violence laws – Spain
The Spanish government has approved a law defining all non-consensual sex as rape, as part of a legislative overhaul that toughens penalties for sexual harassment. The new mandates will bring more support to victims and is based around a “yes means yes” model, which qualifies any non-consenting sex as rape. “What the new law does is put the victim at the centre of the public response,” government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montero told a news conference. “Silence or passivity does not mean consent.” Calls for reform in Spain have been ongoing for years, particularly after a case known as the “wolf pack” case, in which five men gang-raped an 18-year old woman at Pamplona’s bull-running festival, sparking public outrage.
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