On International Women's Day Democracy is Essential to End Injustice and Violence Against Women

More than 20 years after our then, first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, declared that women's rights are human rights in Beijing, International Women's Day is a call to action more than a moment to celebrate. Even with isolated gains in some countries, thanks to heroic efforts of a wide array of human rights groups and activists, the rights and dignity of women remain under assault around the globe, particularly in countries in Africa. And only when women are politically empowered through the democratic process can real progress take place.

In the United States where women have progressed tremendously, still, we continue to fight for equal pay for equal work and the right for women to make our own decisions about our bodies.  Yet, I believe 2016 is the year of breaking down barriers, not only here at home but around the world.

In the past year, women took incremental steps toward playing a role at the local government level in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom notorious for its denial of rights for women, even the right to drive a car. In Iran, women doubled their representation in seats in parliament despite the often harsh traditions of the Islamic Republic. This year's Oscar for best documentary short was awarded to The Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which turned the world's attention to honor killings in Pakistan and other countries.

And yet, statistics compiled by non-governmental organizations and the personal accounts of women and girls around the world is a portrait of despair, denial and violence that should shame all of us. At least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to Amnesty International. Often this takes appalling forms such as acid burning, honor killings, and female genital mutilation. It is practiced in 28 African countries on the pretext of cultural tradition or hygiene but it has had devastating physical and psychological effects for tens of millions of women. While the governments of the countries where this practice occurs have legislation making it illegal, enforcement is wholly inadequate.

It is not just the trampling of human rights that disproportionately affects women but also the denial of basic political and economic opportunities. More often 17 million girls ages 6 to 11 do not attend school in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a UN report Left Behind.  In the workplace, three quarters of working age men are in the labor force as compared to half of working age women.  And those who are in the workforce are often employed in family businesses without any direct pay. Those who work outside these familial circumstances face tremendous gaps in pay and opportunity.  In countries throughout Africa, traditional laws bar women from owning or controlling land. Too often customary legal traditions that subordinate women's right are actually enshrined in national constitutions, making it especially difficult to bring about more equality.

In the political realm, it is clear that the participation of women in the civic life of their country has a positive effect.  However, political progress has been halting and incremental in many countries, notably with regard to increasing numbers of women in parliaments. Developments in Iran notwithstanding, in 2015, just 22 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995. Out of almost 200 countries in the world, as of January 2015, women served as head of state in just 14 countries, while only 17 percent of government ministers were women. There is a strong possibility that the United States will be numbered among those countries where women serve as heads of state.

In order to turn the tide against the exploitation and injustice and to create opportunities for woman and girls, democracy must take root and flourish. In democratic countries with free and fair elections, leaders are accountable. In all seriousness, would a true democracy tolerate honor killings, sexual slavery and denial of education to women and girls?

And there remains so much to do.  The kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram shocked the world last year. We can only hope that country's successful election and transition to a new presidency will represent a turning of the tide against Boko Haram. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting in the eastern part of the country over several decades has been linked to some of the worst sexual violence in the world. Yet, DRC's future prosperity depends on whether President Joseph Kabila honors the country's constitution and steps down at the end of the year, which seems less and less likely.

Meanwhile, there is a glimmer of hope as Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic took the first steps on a democratic and peaceful path. Violence, injustice, and economic and political marginalization are personal tragedies for individual women and girls. These conditions also rob the world of the talent, skills and humanity of half the world's people. On this International Women's Day individuals and governments alike should affirm their commitment to democracy and the establishment of more just and stable societies. And as Secretary Clinton declared more than 20 years ago, indeed, women's rights are human rights.