Ten Feminist Victories Heard Around the World from the Last 10 Years

Women around the world fought hard to expand their rights over the last decade—and made significant gains in many areas, including political representation, reproductive health and combatting violence against women.

We still have a long way to go in the fight for equality everywhere, but it’s important to take stock of our accomplishments and celebrate our progress. Here are some of the feminist highlights from the last 10 years as we prepare for 2020—and many more decades of feminist struggle.

Shattering Glass Ceilings Across the Globe

Ahead of International Women’s Day, UN Women offices worldwide organized Step It Up’ walks for gender equality. (UN Women/ Deepak Malik)

Since 2010, women’s political representation has grown significantly, and women have broken many barriers. Women are now 24.3 percent of all national parliamentarians. Eleven women are serving as Head of State, and 12 are Head of Government. Rwanda now has the highest number of women parliamentarians, where women hold 61.3 percent of seats in the lower house.

Over the decade, many countries elected their first female presidents—including Namibia, Nepal, Marshall Islands, Taiwan, Estonia, Singapore and Ethiopia. In 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumathe became the first woman to head of the African Union. In 2017, Jacinda Ardern became the then-youngest woman head of government to ever take office—and in 2018 she became only the second-ever world leader to take maternity leave. Just this month, Finland formed an entirely woman-led government with the world’s youngest Prime Minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin.

The UN’s Decade of the Woman

Groups gather for the 63rd UN Commission on the Status of Women Townhall Meeting of Civil Society with Secretary-General António Guterres, moderated by then-UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. (UN Women / Amanda Voisard)

In 2010, the UN Secretary-General appointed a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict to serve as a spokeswoman and political advocate for women experiencing conflict-related sexual violence. A year later, UN Women was formed to act as “global champions for women and girls” and set a “global standard for achieving gender equality.”

In 2012, the UN passed a resolution outlawing female genital mutilation and declared the first UN Day of the Girl on October 11 to highlight the challenges and needs of girls and women across the world. In 2015, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals, adding to the Millennial Development Goals, which include a goal specifically focused on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls with specific targets on ending violence against women and ensuring equal participation in the workforce

Saudi Women in the Driver’s Seat

Female racing driver Aseel Al Hamad celebrating the end of the ban on women drivers in a Jaguar F-TYPE. The first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation had never driven on a track in her home country before, and joined Jaguar in a call for June 24th to be known as World Driving Day—a day when finally, the whole world can enjoy the thrill of being behind the wheel of a car. (Jaguar MENA)

Women in Saudi Arabia mobilized in bold and creative ways to demand their rights—successfully fighting for the elimination of the ban on women driving and the erosion of male guardianship laws. Women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to travel without a male relative’s permission, to receive equal treatment in the workplace and to obtain family documents from the government; at restaurants, Saudi women will no longer need to use separate entrances from men or sit behind partitions.

Urgent Fights for Reproductive Rights and Health

Abortion rights supporters at a Women’s March in Ireland in 2017. (Duncan WJ Palmer / Creative Commons)

Since 2000, 28 countries have liberalized their abortion laws. In 2018, the Irish voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion in a referendum. In 2019, South Korea‘s Constitutional Court declared the country’s abortion ban unconstitutional. In 2014, after a 15-year-old girl in Kenya known as JMM died because of an unsafe abortion after being raped, a movement led by JMM’s mother won a ruling in 2019 giving rape victims the right to legal abortion. Campaigns to liberalize abortion laws have also been growing across Latin America, with protests in Argentina, Mexico and Ecuador forming in the streets.

The global maternal mortality rate, meanwhile, continued a decades-long steep decline. From 2000 to 2017, the global maternal mortality ratio declined by 38 percent, from 342 deaths to 211 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to UN interagency estimates. The number of women dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth decreased from an estimated 451,000 in 2000 to 295,000 in 2017. 

Critical Gains for Girls

A woman walks by a sign reading “ Let us fight FGM” at Erubti Woreda, Afar Regional State, in Ethiopia. (UNICEF Ethiopia / Mersha)

Child marriage declined around the world over the last decade. Most notable, in South Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood decreased by about one quarter between 2013 and 2018. Female genital cutting also decreased by one quarter between 2000 and 2018.

Brave Girls Rising

Malala Yousafzai at the World Bank.  (World Bank / Creative Commons)

In 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize at age 17. Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban in Pakistan after they banned girls from attending school. She survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012 and went on to become a global activist fighting for education for girls. In 2013, the European Parliament awarded Malala the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought; in 2017, she became the youngest person to ever address the House of Commons in Canada. Today, she runs the Malala Fund, which supports secondary education for girls in Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Syria region.

Another outstanding girl leader is Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. After record-breaking heat waves and summer fires in her country in 2018, the ninth grader sat outside the Swedish parliament every Friday during school hours demanding that her country reduce carbon emissions as agreed upon in the Paris climate agreement. Thunberg’s “School Strike for Climate” spurred young people around the globe to walk out of classrooms and protest failures to address climate change and ultimately led to this year’s Global Strikes for Climate on December 14. After Thunberg’s later address to the COP24 United Nations climate change summit went viral, and one year later, Time magazine named her Person of the Year.

Girls around the world are stepping up and stepping into their power. Malala and Greta have good company, in the U.S. and elsewhere, as they form a new front line in the global fight for equality and justice.

#MeToo Echoes Across Borders

UN Women Bangladesh staff celebrating the kick-off event for 16 days of activism in 2018, with the theme “Hear Me Too.” (UN Women / Fahad Kaizer)

Beginning in the fall of 2017, women across the world flooded social media with revelations of sexual harassment and assault, naming names and demanding accountability. #MeToo reportedly reached 85 countries with over 1.7 million tweets, and included many variations such as #BalanceTonPorc (#DenounceYourPig) in France, #WoYeShi in China, #QuellaVoltaChe in Italy and #EnaZeda in Tunisia.

The #MeToo revolution felled hundreds of high-powered men across many industries and led to new laws against sexual harassment in many countries. In June of 2019, the International Labour Organization adopted a new Convention on Violence and Harassment, creating international standards on sexual harassment. Chilean feminist anthem “A Rapist in Your Path” spread across the globe in December of 2019, with women chanting the song in over 200 cities across the world to protest sexual assault, victim blaming and state violence.

Voices Against Violence Get Louder

UN Women representatives and the UN Women Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at a march in Montevideo in Uruguay to end violence against women in 2017. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

Fights against femicide also took new shape over the last decade. The Argentinean campaign against gender-based violence—#NiUnaMenos, which translates to #NotOneLess—turned out 200,000 people on the Plaza del Congreso in Buenos Aires in 2015, and echoed across the region. (Italian women used the same rallying cry during the 2017 Women’s Strikes.) The Zapatos Rojos, or Red Shoes movement, protested femicide in Juarez, Mexico. In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize went to two activists who fought sexual violence in conflict zones—Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege and Yazidi assault survivor Nadia Murad.

LGBTQ+ Equality Expands

Two protestors at a Women’s Day March in Istanbul kiss while holding LGBTQ-themed signs: “I am a woman. I am a whore. I am a lesbian. I am on the street.” / “It’s not porn, nor erotic. Lesbianism is existence.” (Özge Sebzeci / Conflict & Development at Texas A&M)

The past decade has brought considerable progress for LGBTQ+ rights. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed its first resolution recognizing LGBT rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights then issued a report documenting violations of the rights of LGBT people—including hate crimes, criminalization of homosexual activity and discrimination.

Same-sex marriage is now legal is 30 countries across the globe. Across the decade, 22 countries legalized same-sex marriage, and many more allowed civil unions. In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. England and France legalized same sex marriage in 2013, and Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to recognize same-sex civil unions in 2014. The U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage in 2019. The Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in 2019. 

We Marched Everywhere

Protestors at the Women’s March in Amsterdam. (Nynke Vissia / Creative Commons)

In 2017, women organized the largest single day of protest in the world—with over three million people turning out for 680 marches across the U.S. alone to protest the racism, sexism and homophobia of Donald Trump the day after his inauguration and solidarity marches erupting on every continent.

In 2018, nearly 2.7 million people joined at least 419 Women’s Marches in the U.S. and its territories and at least 131 marches in 33 other countries around the world. On January 18, 2020, women across the U.S. will gather again in protest.

About and

Carrie N. Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015.
Isabel Fields is an undergraduate student at Smith College studying both Women and Gender Studies and Economics.