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Female leaders come together to denounce the global rise in right-wing authoritarianism

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Populist nationalist political leaders have been increasingly rising to power in recent years all over the world — from Bolsonaro in Brazil to the success of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK to President Trump. Now a group of female leaders has banded together to warn the world about how this growing embrace of right-wing authoritarianism undermines women’s rights across the globe.

“Political forces today threaten to erode the progress that we have made at both the national level and through landmark global agendas,” more than 30 female world leaders stated in an open letter published on February 28. “Whether these forces succeed will depend on whether the women leaders and advocates of today and tomorrow and all who stand with them recognize the urgency and peril but also the opportunity of this current moment.”

The February 28 letter was spearheaded by a new organization, the Group of Women Leaders for Change and Inclusion, which aims to use its global platform to warn against the continued erosion of human rights. Signatories to the letter include former World Health Organization Director Margaret Chan, Pakistani economist Shamshad Akhtar, and Helen Clark, Irina Bokova, and Susana Malcorra, three female candidates who ran for the UN Secretary-General position in 2016.

The signatories have been driven to action by the election of “strongman” populist leaders in a number of countries across the globe, who have almost uniformly adopted policies to undermine the rights of women and other minority groups. Donald Trump’s election to President of the United States in 2016 opened the door to attacks on a range of gender-related policies in the U.S., including the right to choose, established protections for survivors of rape and domestic violence and anti-discrimination protections for trans and gender-nonconforming people.

The embrace of conservative family values and restrictive policies on women’s rights has long been a constituent part of authoritarian regimes, as noted by Ms. Hilary Gbedemah, Chair of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, in a statement released on International Women’s Day. “The antidote to strongman politics is women’s political empowerment,” she said.

Trump’s nationalist policies have had a global effect as well: For example, the administration recently imposed both domestic and global gag rules that greatly limit the flow of federal funds to organizations that provide abortion services, putting millions of women at risk of losing access to critical health care unless their providers stop providing abortions or abortion referrals to their clients in the U.S. and abroad.

Many Brazilian women are mourning the recent presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro, who has publicly trivialized rape, made sexist remarks and demeaned gay, Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people. Since coming into office in January 2019, Bolsonaro promised to relax the country’s gun laws, which has left women fearful that the country’s already high rates of femicide will continue to climb.

In the Philippines, women’s rights activists have long opposed the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected to office in 2016 and has often made derogatory comments about women. Earlier this month, feminists gathered in Manila to celebrate International Women’s Day and condemn the “macho-fascist” government under which they live. At the rally, Joms Salvador, who is the Secretary General of the nation’s women’s political party called Gabriela, told the crowd that women have had enough of an administration that is “figuratively and literally kill[ing] women and their families.” She cited a new tax reform law and Duterte’s deadly war on drugs as policies that have put women at risk by taking money out of the hands of the poorest families and putting citizens at higher risk of police violence.

The Group of Women Leaders for Change and Inclusion plans to spend the coming weeks and months engaging in public dialogue about the growth of nationalist-populist politics and the threat it poses to women’s rights. “The space that we collectively occupy as women leaders in our fields across the public, private and civil society spheres was not opened up easily and can never be taken for granted,” they wrote. “It is the result of the sacrifices and struggles, of generation of women.”



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