This week in women’s rights: Asia steps forward

This week in women’s rights: Asia steps forward

Our global weekly round-up tracking progress on gender equality and women’s rights issues. 

Kerala becomes the first Indian state to grant menstrual leave to students

Kerala is the first Indian state to grant menstrual leave for students in all government-run higher educational institutions. 

The Kerala higher education department issued an order saying that menstruating students can now take part in their semester exams with 73% attendance, instead of the usual 75% mandated by universities. 

A small number of countries including Japan, Zambia, South Korea, Indonesia and more recently, Spain, offer paid menstrual leave, enabling women to take time off from work if they experience painful periods. 

The Kerala government is also granting all female students over 18 up to 60 days of pregnancy leave.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said via Twitter: “Menstrual and maternity leaves will be granted to female students of all institutions under our Department of Higher Education, reaffirming the Left Democratic Front Government’s commitment to realising a gender-just society.” 

The Left Democratic Front (LDF), which currently leads Kerala’s government, is an alliance of left-wing political parties. 

Saudi Arabia’s first female train drivers start work 

In a recent move to show that Saudi Arabia is modernising, the high-speed train line between Mecca and Medina hired 32 women drivers, following a recruitment process that saw 28,000 women apply for the posts when they were first announced. 

After training for 12 months, they finally started work earlier this year. One of the drivers, 25-year-old Tharaa Ali, has been quoted in a number of news sites saying, “The first day working here was like a dream for me –- entering the train, entering the cabin.”

Women were granted the right to drive for the first time in 2018, part of the reforms the Kingdom has been passing as part of its Vision 2030 project to change the image of the country. However in recent years activists Loujain Al-Hathloul and Salma al-Shehab have been arrested for speaking publicly about women’s rights, and in al-Shebab’s case, sentenced to 34 years in prison for resharing tweets from activists. 

Campaign to share housework equally launches in Jordan

A campaign aiming to ensure household work is shared equally between men and women has launched in Jordan. It follows research published by the Jordanian Department of Statistics that revealed women only make up 14% of the country’s workforce. Additionally 78% of married women in Jordan have withdrawn from work. 

The campaign has been developed by EuroMed Feminist Initiative (EFI), a feminist policy group based in Beirut, with the intention of promoting the equal split of domestic duties to encourage more women to join or remain in the workforce. While this is beneficial for women’s rights overall, it would also benefit Jordan’s economy. 

At a press conference to announce the campaign, Dr. Maysoon Atoum, Representative of Women Studies Center at Jordan University, spoke about the importance of gender equality for a society to achieve progress. For a country to truly develop, she said, both men and women must actively participate in the production of knowledge and the economy, as well as in the public sphere. 

Free helpline will advise women in Pakistan on their marriage rights 

Source: Musawi

A free helpline for women to understand their rights after marriage has launched in Pakistan. The National Commission on Human Rights Pakistan (NCHRP) partnered with Mussawi, a human rights NGO, to create the telephone helpline’s pilot project which is set to last for nine months in the Punjab region. If successful it will be rolled out throughout the country. 

The service will provide counselling, free legal aid and general information to women on their marriage rights. The idea was conceived after a study by Musawi found that more than 60% of Pakistan’s adult population was unaware of various sections of their marriage certificate, which if ignored would deprive women of certain rights, for instance grounds for them to be able to divorce. 

Spain debates new sex workers bill 

Spanish lawmakers are debating a bill that would criminalise sex work. The proposal would introduce tougher penalties for men buying sex, punish anyone using  premises for prostitution, and would give longer prison sentences for pimping. 

Spain’s socialist party, who are currently in government in a coalition with Unidas Podemos, are behind the proposal, which is causing controversy within the women’s rights movement. While some agree with the move, saying it would protect the rights of women who have been trafficked, others argue that it victimises women and does not in fact, deter people from engaging in prostitution. 

Additionally, others fear the bill would merely drive sex work underground, with only criminals likely to rent spaces out to sex workers. “[Sex work] will continue but only in worse conditions,” one sex worker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Midwives provide urgent care during Lebanon’s health crisis

Maternal mortality rates are soaring in Lebanon. The combination of economic meltdown, Covid-19 and the aftermath of the explosions in Beirut in 2020 have crippled the country’s economy and left the healthcare system at breaking point. 

Research by UNICEF has found that 80% of the population are living in poverty, and the situation is worsening due to price increases for fuel and food. 

A sharp decrease in hospital beds, particularly in maternal and paediatric care, is having tragic consequences. According to UNICEF, the number of children who died within the first four weeks of life rose dramatically among refugees in four provinces assessed, from 65 neonatal deaths in the first quarter of 2020 to 137 in the third quarter. Maternal deaths almost tripled between 2019 and 2021, rising from 13.7 to 37 deaths per 100,000 live births. 

Midwives lebanon
Source: UNICEF

To tackle the crisis, midwives are going door-to-door to provide emergency healthcare to pregnant women, coordinated  by the Lebanese Order of Midwives and funded by UNICEF. Since November 2022, 57 women have been hired as midwives and there are plans to hire a further 300 “mobile and community-based” midwives to cover all of Lebanon until 2025. They face several challenges however. The first one is funding – UNICEF isn’t sure there is enough money to finance the project. The second is finding the women who need their care, and gaining their trust. 

Scotland’s Viking fire festival allows women to take part for first time

Up Helly Aa is a Viking-inspired fire festival that has taken place in Lerwick, the capital of the Scottish islands of Shetland for the last 140 years, but up until this year women were banned from participating. 

On the last Tuesday in January each year, thousands take part in parades dressed in viking gear and carrying torches through the streets. Women have traditionally been restricted to less significant roles, such as hostesses who take charge of organising the town parties, but as of this year they can take part in the Viking squads. 

Marking the end of the Yule season, Up Helly Aa has its origins in the antics of drunk young men who, bored after returning from the Napoleonic wars, would drag barrels of burning tar through the town on sledges. 

The rule change for women follows last year’s election of three women to lead Shetland Islands council for the very first time. 

Minnesota is the first US state to enshrine abortion rights in law

The state of Minnesota has passed a bill into law that enshrines the “fundamental right” to access abortion. 

Abortion remained legal in Minnesota after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, but this new bill legally guarantees the right for people to make “autonomous decisions” over their own reproductive health. It will also make it harder to restrict reproductive rights in the future.

The bill was debated for more than 14 hours, but eventually passed the state Senate by 34-33 votes along party lines. 

The bill’s lead author, Rep. Jen McEwen, said: “What we saw was a need after Roe v. Wade was struck down this past summer, to codify the rights we currently have in Minnesota into the statutory law to provide that extra layer of protection.” 

Leila Hawkins


Featured image: TESS India /CC BY-SA 2.0

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