Intersectional feminist strategies to counter the pushback on women’s rights

By A. Son* & Anya Victoria-Delgado**

A powerful wave of anti-women and anti-LGBTI sentiment have threatened women’s and the LGBTI community’s human rights globally. Religious fundamentalists and conservative political ideologists are attacking hard-won women’s and LGBTI rights, often under the guise of tradition and culture.1 In the name of protecting traditional values, States justify -and often lead- attacks against women, girls and LGBTI people, while pushing for increasingly restrictive policies and laws towards these groups’ human rights.

Rising political conservatism has led to increased attacks on reproductive health rights. Approximately 225 million women are not given access to modern contraception.2 A lack of access to safe abortion results in the deaths of 47,000 women a year.3 In countries in which the restrictions on abortion are extreme, women are even jailed for having obstetric emergencies or miscarriages. Women often face criminalization for commiting adultery, for performing sex work and even for protesting and defending their rights. These attacks target women and the LGBTI community and police their bodies and actions to conform within patriarchal, fundamentalist confines. States must be hold accountable for failing to fulfill  their sexual and reproductive health and rights and their obligation to protect these sectors from gender based violence and discrimination and any other form of repression.  

On March 25th, 2021, the Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR) hosted a parallel event during the NGO CSW65 Forum  to discuss the political and social contexts that created these pushbacks, and to share various strategies on fighting back against rising intersectional discrimination against women and girls in their diversity. As discussed during the panel, such discrimination is often based on their age, sex or gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, occupation, disability, etc.  

We were honored to have a powerful panel formed by renown activists in different regions and countries. Our panelists included Buky Williams, of Education as a Vaccine in Nigeria; Soledad Deza, of Mujeres por Mujeres in Argentina; Sara García, from Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despnenalizacíon del Aborto from El Salvador; Meena Seshu from the Sex Workers and Allies South Asia in India; Maria Ní Fhlatharta from the Center for Disability Law and Policy and Disabled Women Ireland; and Agnieszka Król from Programs and innovations at CREA in Poland.

During the first round, each  panelist was called to share the main challenges that women and girls -and a broader community that includes non-gender conforming people- are facing in their countries, and strategies that fundamentalists actors have used to attack universal human rights. They also were invited to identify common challenges that transcend their region and that often include cultural stigma and gender stereotypes.

On this issue, Meena Seshu of Sex Workers & Allies South Asia recalled that  frequently state policies permeated by cultural stigma inform the attack on sex workers’ human rights including their criminalization .

“Pushback is not only from the state, the pushback is coming from elements from society that are deeply concerned about sex work per say. They do not want to believe that sex work is work”. 

Sara García, from Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalizacíon del Aborto from El Salvador, reminded us that El Salvador’s conservative culture has  influenced the State to produce the most restrictive abortion laws in Latin America. The right-wing conservatives -deeply connected to the catholic and the evangelical churches- sponsored the bill that resulted in a constitutional amendment  that recognizes life at the moment of conception. This legislation has  disproportionately criminalized  poor women and girls.

Women who arrive with an obstetric emergency, with an abortion that may be spontaneous, women who arrive with assisted premature births…the presumption of guilt is installed against them.”

In Argentina, abortion was legalized up to the 14th week of pregnancy in December 2020.4 However, Soledad Deza, of Mujeres por Mujeres in Argentina shared that pushback from conservative fundamentalists still creates barriers against women trying to access abortion. Although abortion is now legal, anti-abortion fundamentalists have found that they can work around this law by going to doctors personally and pressuring them to be “conscientious objectors”. Fundamentalists are also seeking to reverse the law that legalizes abortion.

“[The attempt to reverse the legalization of abortion is] happening in 14 provinces of our country. This is an expression not only of religious fundamentalisms … but also of how it tries to impose itself on the conscience of the entire population.”

Our speakers also shared their own experience of community organizing during this rise of fundamentalist views that place restrictions on women’s and LGBTI individual’s rights, as well as shared how to strategize going forward. Buky Williams of Education as a Vaccine in Nigeria elaborated on women’s tactics and roles in the #EndSARS movement in 20205 underlining that even before this movement existed, women were organizing around the abusive behaviors police officers carry out against women and so were able to consolidate their efforts with #EndSARS.

“When #EndSARS came about, those of us who had been mobilized around [women’s issues and police], we saw an opportunity to show that police were not just arresting young men, but that women were also being harassed…you also saw LGBTQI allies who also came out with the issues around police brutality”. 

Agnieszka Król from Programs and Innovations at CREA outlined a multitude of the feminist, intersectional tactics utilized by pro-choice activists in Poland. These tactics include mutual aid, grassroots structures, and financial support for marginalized groups. Król emphasized that as well as participating in these tactics, ensuring that the feminist movement is as inclusive and accessible as possible is part of feminists’ responsibilities. 

Maria Ni Fhlatharta  of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy and Disabled Women in Ireland echoed Król’s point on inclusivity, stating that groups who are the most marginalized are typically the most ignored in important conversations, such as disabled women. Fhlatharta noted that anti-abortion conservatives talk about people with disabilities to further their own agendas, yet disabled people are not given a platform to share their thoughts on the issue. However, when disabled women began organizing and mobilizing in Ireland, they took back their own narratives and ensured that their voices were no longer being ignored.

The panelists’ testimonies and advice emphasized the power in organizing locally, as well as sharing ideas, inspiration, and strategies with one another globally. Feminists globally should continue calling on States to stay accountable to human rights obligations included in international human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discirimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as regional instruments, such as the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence6, the Convention Belem do Para on Violence against Women and the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Protecting religion, family or traditional values should never be used as a justification for further discrimination and tighter restrictions on women and the LGBTI community. Going forward, as Fhlatharta advised, us, as feminists we can not only focus on small, incremental gains, but instead organize to achieve large, transformational change, which will benefit women and LGBTI people’s human rights in the long-term. 

See  Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice
On March 20th, 2021, Turkey’s President Erdogan issued a decree annulling Turkey’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and domestic violence. This is a huge setback for women’s human rights at a time in which femicide and other forms of gender based violence are on the rise in the country and elsewhere.



*Son is a Women & Gender Studies major at Rutgers University. They are currently interning with the Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR) at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL).

**Anya Victoria-Delgado has been FAR’s Global Coordinator from September 2018 to May 2021.