In the last 2020 edition of Sexual Politics in Times of Pandemic Special of 2020, we hypothesized that throughout 2021, with the arrival of vaccines, COVID-19 might no longer be our main topic. However, this has not been the case. Since then, south of the equator, infections have continued running their course and new outbreaks have erupted, new variants continue to emerge, and brutal inequalities in vaccine access mean that the horizon of the end of the pandemic remains very distant. Moreover, on the global political scene, autocratism persists or worsens, serious political crises have occurred in some countries, and in others new political and social upheavals have erupted. Above all, inequalities, in all their manifestations, have deepened. Once again, therefore, it is necessary to provide our readers with an overview of the pandemic and its effects before taking a closer look at the most relevant dynamics and facts of sexual politics.
The State of the Pandemic
By July 2021, over 192 million cases and over 4 million deaths from COVID-19 had been reported worldwide. Vaccination campaigns that began in late 2020 started to curb these numbers, but nothing indicates that COVID-19 will be eradicated anytime soon. The new variants of the virus, the uneven distribution of and access to vaccines, and the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic suggest that the hypothesis of the syndemic nature of COVID-19, which we talked about in the first-year review of the pandemic, is now being confirmed. In the Global South, infection rates persist and new outbreaks have sprout since January. While on the African continent the priority groups have barely begun to be vaccinated, in the USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and even Chile and Uruguay there is already talk of booster doses in the coming months.
As is well known, South America has recorded high rates of cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, and although vaccination is progressing, countries like Paraguay and Colombia still face large outbreaks of the disease. In June, in the region as a whole, the incidence of new daily cases was almost 10 times higher than in Europe. In Asia as a whole, although the pandemic has abated in India, deaths may have reached 4 million, and countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia are now recording their worst figures. The same is true in Africa, a region where COVID-19 seemed relatively contained in previous waves but has now exploded, for example in Tunisia, South Africa, and Uganda. These trends suggest that while pandemic lethality was initially incomparably higher in affluent countries, this pattern is changing because of differential vulnerabilities and disparities in vaccine access.
In countries where vaccination campaigns are going well, the spread of the virus and hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have been reduced, and there are signs that economic activity is picking up. But, as this map published by the New York Times shows, there are brutal inter-regional discrepancies in vaccine access and rate of vaccination. The situation in African countries is especially dramatic, and reflects both the problems of purchasing through the COVAX mechanism and other barriers to vaccine technology access, such as patent restrictions.
Moreover, the deleterious trend already recorded at the beginning of the pandemic, of corruption taking hold in the procurement of supplies to confront COVID-19, now extends to vaccine purchases. Brazil, the country with the second-highest death toll in the world, is now also the epicenter of these scandals in which military personnel holding high-level positions in the Bolsonaro government are implicated. Furthermore, there are indications that the delay in the purchase of vaccines is directly related to this web of corruption.
Additionally, within countries there are also disparities in vaccine access related to racial and social inequalities. And, as the COVID-19 Sex-Disaggregated Data Tracker shows, also with respect to sex/gender. In the US, Argentina, and Brazil, for example, women get vaccinated more, possibly because the predominant masculinity makes men averse to health protection measures. In India and Afghanistan, patriarchal norms that exclude women from public life operate in the opposite direction, i.e., women have more barriers to seeking health services, including vaccinations. In India, the gender disparity in access to health care may explain some of the large under-reporting of deaths from COVID-19. And, in what concerns levels of vaccination one must also account for mistrust and campaigns against vaccines, the effect of which is more palpable in affluent countries than in the global South. And, while vaccine refusal or mistrust is decreasing, it is still very high in Russia (47%), Australia (31%), Japan (23%), the US (30%), and France (21%).
Finally, as the pandemic progresses, the differential vulnerability by class, race, and place of residence becomes more apparent. Throughout the world, mortality rates are higher for black populations, traditional peoples, immigrants and Latinos (especially in the U.S.), slum dwellers, homeless persons and other minority and discriminated groups. With regard to race, the available studies on Brazil and the United States are conclusive in this sense. From a global perspective, the slow pace and precariousness of vaccination in the African context should also be interpreted as a global manifestation of racial discrepancies in morbidity and lethality.
And in many contexts, gender and reproduction also mean an increased risk of mortality. In Brazil, for example, in May 2021, the mortality rate among pregnant and postpartum women (7.2%) was almost the triple of what was recorded for the population as a whole (2.8%). Furthermore, according to PAHO, despite the aggravated risk, vaccine uptake by pregnant women was lower than expected (see also the Fiocruz bulletin).
The persistence of the pandemic has also created additional barriers to accessing health care more broadly, i.e., treating other illnesses and addressing other health needs. Sexual and reproductive health care and abortion services have been especially affected. The WHO estimates that some 23 million children are no longer vaccinated against basic illnesses. In Brazil, SUS sex reassignment surgeries fell by 70 percent in 2020.
COVID-19 is also an economic crisis. It triggered a brutal recession, destroyed productive sectors, and deepened and reinforced patterns of inequality and exclusion. In the our special edition on COVID-19 we already underlined that that the scale and speed of the looming crisis were linked to the conditions of capitalism in the 21st century: intensified circulation of capital, goods, and people; global production chains; and high patterns of inequality. As the pandemic spread, it was seen that its drastic effects were mainly determined by the defunding or privatization of public health systems, labor precarization, and the erosion of labor rights and other safety nets, impacts resulting from many decades of neoliberal policies.
And, very quickly, the crisis was, fortuitously, named a “shecession”, because more than half of the 453 million people who may be thrown into poverty by 2030 are women (see a compilation) working in the informal sector, especially domestic work and sex work. These gendered effects, crossed by class and race disparities, are not going to disappear in the near future, and, as an article in The Lancet signed by the director of WHO, directors of UNIFEM, UNFPA, UNAIDS and Amnesty International, UN Special Rapporteurs, and feminists such as Gita Sen and Débora Diniz pointedly analyzes, the health and economic crisis of COVID-19 demands a robust commitment to gender equality, not least because of its deleterious effects on health, especially sexual and reproductive health.
More recently, however, another dramatic social impact of the pandemic has gained visibility: the massive growth in the numbers of orphans resulting from the increased mortality of younger people. The crisis is global, and the available figures for India and Brazil are startling (see compilation). The orphanhood resulting from COVID-19, on the one hand, is not unrelated to gender issues, due to the role of women in the so-called care economy. On the other hand, its social consequences in terms of poverty levels and access to education cannot be addressed in the absence of robust social protection policies, which in fact do not exist in most countries.
Against this skewed backdrop, however, the economic and social crisis resulting from COVID-19 has, quite inevitably, stimulated debates regarding the urgency of addressing inequalities. Emergency cash transfer programs were unexpectedly adopted by many countries, both North and South of the equator, and discussions that were locked away in the desks of neoliberal management were revived. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself, the ultimate manager of fiscal austerity, recommended the continuation of the income transfer measures in 2021. And, other hegemonic institutions adopted strong discourses on inequality, such as, for example, the Davos Economic Forum, which severely criticized neoliberalism. In July 2020, 80 individuals among the richest in the world also made a public statement calling for higher taxes on large fortunes as one of the possible remedies to the crisis.
This new emphasis has indeed been accompanied by substantial state investments to contain the crisis in affluent countries, which disobey neoliberal canons. In May, the European Commission proposed a 750 billion euro post-pandemic recovery package, while Germany and France launched a 500 billion euro joint reconstruction fund, proposals that invest in redistribution and the green economy. And in early 2021, the newly elected Biden administration launched its economic recovery mega-package, considered in many quarters as a neo-Keynesian policy designed to bury 40 years of neoliberalism, as suggested in an article in El País. We suggest articles by The Guardian and Project Syndicate on this theme.
Six months later, in the U.S. the combination of accelerated vaccination and economic stimulus is having rapid positive economic effects. In Europe, the impacts are not yet tangible, as the package deal is still being ratified. These signs are certainly positive but it is far from clear whether this review of orthodox economic policies in affluent countries will have the expected effects on inequality, nor whether it will be replicated in other national contexts. As we will discuss below, the political instability prevailing in the COVID-19 scenario does not facilitate governmental commitments to overcome inequality. Above all, there are strong signs that not even the tragedy resulting from the pandemic can easily reverse the logic of capitalist accumulation in the 21st century that is at the root of these disparities.
While social conditions were devastated by COVID-19, the very rich got much richer and, in some sectors, large corporations significantly increased their profits. As a report by Oxfam Brazil analyzes, a nodal factor in the worsening of inequalities during the pandemic is financialization, which itself, as had already happened in the 2008 crisis, was stimulated by emergency packages. The digitalization of the economy is another determining factor: owners and CEOs of digital platforms have gained the most from the crisis. Finally, pharmaceutical and private healthcare companies were the other major beneficiaries of the pandemic. In Brazil, where the devastation caused by COVID-19 has been characterized as genocide, owners of two private healthcare groups and a pharmaceutical company which profited from the production of chloroquine and ivermectin are on the Forbes 2021 billionaires list. The same applies to India, another country devastated by the pandemic, as the owner of Serum, which produces the Covidshield vaccine (AztraZeneca), is also one of the 2021 billionaires.
The Investors Watch survey by Swiss bank UBS polled 3,800 investors, most of whom made significant profits during the pandemic. According to the survey, 66 percent f them, including Latin Americans, feel guilty for having made so many profits in 2020, and 45 percent ay they are willing to give more to charity. One wonders if charity is the most appropriate long-term response to the social and economic devastation caused by COVID-19, which, as we know, cannot be dissociated from systemic inequality-producing effects. Moreover, as researcher Gedeão Locks notes, nothing suggests that these sentiments will persist when the health and economic situations show signs of normalizing.
Politics: Normalization of Abnormality?
The year 2021 began with an iconic political event: the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill (see continuing special coverage in the New York Times). In the U.S., institutional democratic conditions have since been restored, but in the rest of the world, autocratic drifts, often driven by the COVID-19 crisis responses we have been recording since our first COVID Special, have been running their course. Not only have new hotbeds of authoritarianism erupted, but above all, this political abnormality, as with the pandemic itself, is being “normalized”.
The report “Autocracy turns Viral“, just published by the V-Dem Institute, offers robust quantitative figures on this persistent trend of de-democratization, such as evidence that democratic levels in 2020 have returned to what they were in 1990, and 2/3 of the countries have imposed restrictions on press freedom. In addition, in the period January-July 2021, serious political crises occurred: two coups, an assassinated president, and an orchestrated uprising. In Latin America, new political-social eruptions occurred as well as important electoral processes.
In Hungary, a discriminatory law against non-governmental organizations was defeated in Congress, but the replacement bill has not dispelled fears of arbitrariness. And more recently, in the face of allegations that the government was resorting to Pegasus spy software (learn more here) as a tool of political control, Prime Minister Orbán announced that he will call a referendum on a law that openly discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community. In Poland, ruled by the ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party, reports of civil rights violations continued, and we call attention to the attempt to weaken press outlets (in SPglobal, with more details, and in Euronews). In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime continues its repressive escalation against press organizations and organized civil society, which culminated in the hijacking of a commercial flight to arrest a journalist on board. A disturbing trend is also emerging in Germany, where far-right groups have been gaining ground in politics and society (here and here) in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and its responses. Finally Greece, as reported by OpenDemocracy, is also experiencing a new, more right-wing turn in the context of responses to the pandemic, with parallels being drawn between the measures taken by the conservative government and what is happening in Hungary.
Asia and the Pacific
In China, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, important events have happened since January that add to the evidence that the strengthening of state surveillance apparatuses aimed at containing COVID-19, about which we have written in previous issues, will not abate. The first of these was the enthusiastic celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party (click here for more), one of the main slogans of which was “without the CCP China would not exist”. The celebration reflected Xi Jinping’s power and control over the party machine and projected the image of a China that rises peacefully but will not bend to other nations. Despite this pacifist tone, President Xi made it also very clear that political control over Hong Kong will not be relaxed, notably with regard to the electoral system and freedom of speech. There have also been new reports of human rights violations against the Muslim Uighur minority and, as we will see below, there are new threats in the field of sexual politics.
In India, amid the devastating second wave of COVID-19 that hit the country in April and May, attacks on free speech and political repression by the Narendra Modi regime continue (here an analysis). Especially ignoble was the death by COVID-19 of 84-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, accused by the regime of terrorism. Anand Grover, former UN Special Rapporteur on Health, in an article for The Citizen, analyzes the details of the case, its background, the abuses implicit in the arrest and death, and its long-range implications for Indian politics. According to Grover, the treatment of Father Stan is a warning that the same will happen to any and all who position themselves as dissidents of the regime. No less relevant is the deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka, where, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, a new wave of intimidation of activists and threats to the Tamil and Muslim minorities, combined with new attacks on the judiciary, is underway.
In the Philippines, President Duterte, as he had already done when he decreed the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, has threatened to jail anyone who refuses to take the vaccine against COVID-19. This threat has, in fact, another target: mobilization of local civil society against the regime’s systematic repression. We also draw attention to the repression against the movements that started last year in Thailand calling for an end to the monarchy (more here and here). In Cambodia, the pandemic has been exploited to amplify the repressive practices of the regime in power (read more in The Guardian and Human Rights Watch).
Lastly, a political crisis has also erupted in Fiji in the first week of July, that although triggered by a new law provision on land ownership, also derives from the COVID – 19 related health and economic combined crisis.
Also on the African continent, Amnesty has denounced the use of COVID-19 as a pretext for repression and human rights violations in the Horn of Africa and the Sub-Saharan region, examples of which include Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and especially Ethiopia, where an armed conflict has been ongoing since 2020 (learn more here and here). In Algeria, legislative elections were marked by repression and arrests of activists from the movement challenging the Hirak regime. In Egypt, the Sisi regime remained in the news because of the repression of human rights activists (more analysis in English in The Guardian and France24).
Brazil is undoubtedly a standout in terms of threats to democratic institutions and social covenants. The autocratic offensive in Brazil clearly intensified in the first half of 2021. Coup threats became more frequent and explicit as suspicions and accusations of corruption in the purchase of vaccines were exposed in the COVID Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (here and here). The military wing of the government involved in the scandals (read compilation here) has adopted the same coup mantras issued by President Bolsonaro, an example being the statement by the Minister of Defense making the 2022 elections conditional upon the adoption of voting with paper ballots. This obsession of the president, which emulates Trump’s example against the fairness of the US electoral system, has gained stridency with the release of polls that indicate his defeat in next year’s election. Faced with a loss of popularity, Bolsonaro has also introduced motorcades into his authoritarian repertoire, copying the aesthetics of Italian fascism, breaking the record for offenses and insults against journalists (women in particular) and, at the end of this month, he secretly met with a member of the German ultra-right (more here).
In Central America, Bukele has also expanded governmental arbitrariness in El Salvador, launching offensives against NGOs, the press, abortion law, and gender identity. However, in the sub-region, the deplorable situation in Nicaragua is the most dramatic example of autocracy. The Ortega-Murillo regime, which has been on a relentless escalation of repression and violence since 2018, has now unleashed a new wave of persecution of opposition forces and the press to compromise the elections scheduled for the end of the year. Several feminists, journalists and Sandinista pioneers are in jail or have left the country. Read the compilation for more detailed information on the scale and effects of the repression. For Spanish and Portuguese readers we also recommend the Roundtable Conversation organized by the Brazilian journal Revista Rosa, which revisits the history of the regime and, above all, discusses the aphasia of regional leftists in the face of the political tragedy that has befallen the country.
In Myanmar, a new military coup occurred in February 2021, followed by brutal repression of opponents, with reports of arrests of health workers acting against COVID-19 (see Global Voices, NYT and Aljazeera).
In Haiti, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by a mercenary commando in his home. This is one more tragic episode in a national context where catastrophes have been taking place for a long time. Read our compilation with analysis on the case.
Finally, in South Africa, where the transition from apartheid to democracy had been characterized by significant stability, a serious crisis, labeled as “sedition” by some analysts, took hold when protests orchestrated by protesters against the imprisonment for corruption of former president Jacob Zuma sparked a spiral of violence, looting, and killing, with more than 300 fatalities. Military forces were deployed to quell the uprising. A note from Amnesty International states that the authorities should not be surprised at the scale of the violence because longstanding failures in the justice system have left acts of criminal violence unpunished. An important number of analysts, however, assess the events, above all, as a delayed but inevitable effect of repudiation of the democratic regime’s inability to reduce inequalities and respond to the basic needs of the population. In our compilation we especially recommend the New Yorker article.
In late July, Tunisia joined the list of countries whose democracy is under threat. After a long period of democratic reconstruction since the Arab Spring, the current president dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament after demonstrations against the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The political crisis has deepened and can be analyzed in the compilation we have prepared.
The most striking scenario of social eruptions is Latin America, where an intense social outburst has been underway in Colombia since April, when it erupted as protests against the Duque government’s tax reform project. The protests have been harshly repressed, but persist, although no solutions are on the horizon. See compilation to understand the causes and conditions of the uprising beyond the trigger.
No less importantly, demonstrations erupted in Cuba, sparked by the worsening pandemic and socioeconomic conditions but also as a protest against the lack of political freedom. The events aroused great polarization, especially in the camp of the Latin American left. As soon as the government got the situation under control, the Biden administration, in a decidedly counterproductive move, added sanctions on the Cuban leadership to the embargo rules. See our compilation on the events.
And, in Guatemala, where vigorous protests had erupted in 2020 to challenge government budgets in the context of COVID and the lack of state response to devastating hurricane, once again the population took to the streets, now to protest the removal of the prosecutor in charge of corruption investigations.
Ecuador and Peru held presidential elections with ideologically opposite results. In Quito, former banker Guilherme Lasso, a conservative with reported ties to Opus Dei, defeated Correaist candidate Andres Arauz. Lasso’s victory came after an electoral situation in which two currents of the left contended to reach the second round, represented by Arauz and the indigenist leader Yaku Pérez – who obtained a significant result in the polls. This circumstance is unprecedented in regional electoral politics and says much about the distortions and challenges of left-wing party politics in the region. For Spanish and Portuguese readers, the journal Revista Rosa, published a dossier and held a roundtable discussion about that electoral scenario. The expectations and perspectives of the new government were analyzed by various media outlets and brought together in a compilation.
In Peru, trade unionist Pedro Castillo was declared the winner more than a month after the election, after the contentious tabulation that followed the tight margin at the polls. Although his victory was celebrated by sectors of the Latin American left, his positions on issues of gender, sexuality, and abortion are extremely conservative. But since Castillo will govern in a coalition with other left-wing parties open to these agendas, these views may not carry over into state policy. Read a compilation to better understand the Peruvian scenario.
Finally, Chile has taken an important and inspiring step with the installation of the Constituent Convention that will draft the country’s new Bill of Rights. We highlight the gender parity rule for the occupation of seats and the perspective of correcting the deleterious traits of Chilean society, such as authoritarianism and inequality. Another piece of good news was the election of indigenous leader Elisa Loncón to the presidency of the Constituent Assembly. See the report by the Observatorio Género y Equidad, a platform for feminist monitoring of public policies, and a press compilation.
As Clare Provost predicted, the anti-gender crusades have not cooled down because of the pandemic. In fact, the forces driving them have opened new rallying fronts, criticizing social distancing rules and propagating fake news against the vaccine.
This link is, on one hand, political-ideological, as in the case of fake news that circulated last year associating the vaccine to the conspiracy of “pedophile elites” and those that circulate to this day claiming that they are made with residues of aborted fetuses. (read more in the compilation we organized). In Brazil, in addition to this accusation, the Chinese Coronavac has been demonized as a communist vaccine (nicknamed Comunavac), which would allegedly contain a chip to sterilize Brazilian men. In in Brazil (as in the rest of Latin America), this wave of anti-communist panic, analyzed by Isabela Kalil, is always, directly or indirectly, associated with the ongoing anti “gender ideology” crusades. Moreover, as an exemplary investigation by Agência Pública shows, there are organic institutional links between these camps, since medical groups that operate on the front lines of opposition to abortion and are linked to conservative parliamentarians and the Ministry of Health are engaged in campaigns against social isolation and in favor of the ineffective treatment of COVID-19 with chloroquine and ivermectin.
Anti-vaccine campaigns also proliferate in other countries, especially in Europe and the US, where, as already mentioned, their impact is not at all negligible. In France, 100.000 people marched against vaccines. In the US the negative effects are so wide that the Biden administration is pressuring hard the digital platform on the matter. Related to that the New Yorker has published an excellent special report on the funding flows for disinformation in which its editor Jane Meyer updates her awarded book Dark Money.
The turning of the religious and right-wing conservative machine guns toward vaccines does not mean, however, that they have abandoned their usual targets, used as levers to catalyze collective fears for anti-democratic purposes, as has been analyzed by various authors.
The situation is particularly dire in those countries where anti-gender ideology is installed in state policies, such as Poland and Hungary. In Poland, the government is pushing ahead with the teaching of Catholicism in all schools. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government also opened a new offensive, passing a passed a new law, which a sort of copycat of the Russian 2012 law, which bans any material with LGBT+ content in schools and restricts references to homosexuality in advertising, movies, and other products for youth audiences.
Brazil is the other country where anti-gender ideology has been transported to state policies and an intense exchange has been underway with Hungarian and Polish authorities. Not surprisingly, in early 2021, a project similar to the Hungarian one was presented in the São Paulo City Council, which, however, did not approve it. Moreover, since 2019, the offensives against gender in education have unfolded into legislative propositions on home education and Civic-Military Schools that are now being debated at the federal and state levels (read more in compilation in Portuguese). Another line of convergence between these three countries are the family-centered policies that, as Andrea Peto and Weronica Grzebalska analyze, constitute a driving force of the ongoing de-democratization in Poland and Hungary. In Brazil, also in early 2021, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights launched, in partnership with CAPES, the publication Family and Public Policies in Brazil, whose parameters were criticized (here and here in Portuguese) by the academic field that investigates gender and family in Brazil.
But neither is Western Europe immune from the increasingly concerted action of anti-gender forces. An excellent report by the European Parliamentarian Forum on SHR, The Tip of the Iceberg, provides a complete mapping of these groups, their connections, and especially their resources, revealing that their funding is not predominantly American or Russian, as had been assumed, but European.
In addition, in this part of Europe, a new development in the last six months are the attacks on gender-inclusive language, which are in full swing in Spain, Germany, and France, just to list a few countries. In the latter, the president has banned inclusive language in schools (see more in Foreign Policy). It is worth mentioning that also, in Brazil, since December 2020, 14 bills have been introduced to ban inclusive language in schools, press, and advertising, some of which simply copy a law provision tabled in France that has not yet been approved.
In France, in particular, other ramification that have sprouted in relation gender knowledge production. The new targets are decolonial theory and the concept of intersectionality that overlap with gender studies in a variety of ways (here). These attacks have strong French contours, as they resort to deeply rooted premises of republicanism and universality, Even so they should not be completely dissociated from the parallel intensification of attacks on against critical race theory, underway in the US, clashes which, as the excellent New Yorker report analyses, are today at the center of American intellectual debates. Similar conflicts are also at play in Australia (more here).
The past six months have also seen violations of LGBTTQ+ rights and people everywhere. In Spain, the homophobic murder of a young man of Brazilian origins led to numerous protests across the country. In Lithuania, the parliament refused to debate the equal marriage law. In Georgia, violence directed at the community caused activists to cancel the LGBT Pride Parade. In China, LGBTQ+ content was deleted from WeChat without explanation, an action celebrated by nationalist groups. In Guatemala, three fatal attacks in just one week drew the attention of Human Rights Watch, and in Bolivia a registry office refused to register the marriage of a female couple.
On the African continent, violence against the LGBT+ population has also intensified. There have been attacks on activists in many countries, such as Ghana, where the criminalization of LGBT+ activism was announced. In Cameroon there have been arrests of trans women, and in Senegal the offensive began with an attack on UNESCO’s diversity education manual. A great podcast from AfricaNews discusses homophobia in West Africa and an investigation by OpenDemocracy scrutinized discriminatory treatment and attempts at treatment and conversion in hospitals in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. In the latter country, the legislation criminalizing homosexuality was made even stricter, and this reform was supported by women’s groups that supported the criminalization of sex work. Even in South Africa, which has strong legislation protecting LGBTT+ rights, conservative groups are trying to block hate crimes legislation. In addition, as we have noted in previous issues, offensives against gender and sexuality education continue to multiply, in some cases, as in Senegal, associated with attacks against LGBTT+ people.
And, no less importantly, specifically anti-trans offensives also continue to intensify. In the US, 2021 is the year with the highest number of bills aimed at curtailing gender identity rights (in detail at Openly). In Europe, the Czech president has referred to trans people as “disgusting” and in the UK a significant portion of the press has aligned itself with views opposing trans rights. In Brazil, long a leader in transphobic homicides, 80 people were murdered in the first half of the year alone. And, as we have highlighted in previous issues, anti-gender and anti-trans feminist currents are present in many of the environments in which this hostile atmosphere to gender identity rights is observed.
In various places, attacks against feminists have also taken place. In Turkey, where women took to the streets to protest against the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention agreement, police repression was brutal. In Pakistan, the organizers of the March 8th march were accused of blasphemy by the police, a crime that in that country carries the death penalty, a charge later dropped, but which signals a high degree of intimidation against feminists. And, in Mexico, walls were built in the Zócalo of the Federal District to “protect public buildings” from the March 8 demonstrations, and President López Obrador made new accusations against feminism.
Considering the state of politics worldwide and the persistent vitality of anti-gender offensives, it is fortunate to note that there are good news to be reported between January and July 2021.
For example, against the backdrop of the adverse atmosphere for gender identity rights above mentioned there are three very significant pieces of news. The first was the approval of the new Spanish law on gender identity, overcoming a long and polarized debate process, in which feminist positions opposing transgenderism carried a lot of weight, even within the PSOE. The second was the decree enacted by the Executive in Argentina that complements the Gender Identity Law of 2012, authorizing the registration of non-binary people in the National Identity Document. And in Mexico a new norm was also adopted that facilitates the change of sex/gender on birth certificates and other documents.
In addition, there are also many positive outcome in the realm of litigation and high-level court decisions. In Europe, for example, the European Commission has opened a case for violation of fundamental human rights against the measures taken by Poland and Hungary against LBGT+ people. And, a number of positive judgments have occurred in Latin America, most of which substantively derive from the Advisory Opinion 24 of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in 2017 established new parameters for cases related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The first of these decisions was the condemnation of Honduras for the murder of trans woman Vicky Hernandez, in the context of the 2009 coup d’état, by the Inter-American Court. The decision is very significant because it concerns transphobic state violence and because it is based on the principles of the Convention of Belém do Pará to eradicate violence against women. A second decision with the same content was issued by the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica, which recognizes that the vulnerability of violence against women also applies to gender-assigned persons. Finally, in Panama, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled unconstitutional the sex/gender-based mobility restriction rule adopted by the country’s Ministry of Health in 2020, which Sonia Corrêa has criticized in the article published in the very first Special on Sexual Politic in the Pandemic.
Returning to Europe, in Italy, the long-debated law against hate crimes, which includes sanctions against homophobia and transphobia, finally reached the Senate for a final vote. Polarization was inevitable in a country where, as Massimo Prearo analyzed, the Vatican has enormous influence over sexual politics and the anti-gender right, which was in power until recently, continues to have strength in the political game (see a compilation). And, in France, a new Bioethics Law was approved, whose chapters on assisted reproduction, especially the right of lesbians to procedures, had been virulently attacked by conservative forces.
There is also good news about policy to eradicate “curing homosexuals” in both India and the US. In the former case, the Madras High Court condemned the practice and recommended a policy of respect for LGBT+ rights. And in the US, Open Democracy’s story looks at how, as of 2019, several cities are adopting legal regulations and executive policy measures to prohibit offering “cure services”.
And even in sub-Saharan Africa, where, as we have seen, a new wave of persecutions and aggressions against LGBT+ people is at work, there are two positive reports to make. In Rwanda, the first LGBTT+ pride march is being organized. And in Namibia, the minister of justice has announced that the colonial law criminalizing sex between men will be banned.
Last but not least, the Tokyo Olympics, despite the enormous limitations imposed by COVID-19, became a stage on which a profusion of demonstrations of sexual and religious diversity took place. It was also where, for the first time in history, trans and non-binary athletes have competed, not without controversy, however. The confirmation of New Zealand trans athlete Laurel Hubbard’s participation in the Games generated heated debate, leading one of her competitors to call the decision a “sick joke”. Despite this discriminatory reaction, the Tokyo Olympic Games were a stage where women athletes were the main stars, even when they still face barriers in sports. And where, as noted, by a Brazilian commentator protests were not predominantly geo-political as in the past but mostly expressed the political personal voices of athletes contesting racial, religious and gender and sex discrimination.
During June and July, the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council took place, where resolutions were approved and relevant debates around gender and sexuality took place, such as the resolutions on gender-based violence, HIV-AIDS, and menstrual health and forced sterilization. The Sexual Rights Initiative’s bulletin provides a full report on the session, in which there was also a virtual protest by civil society against the restrictions on participation, established as rules of containment for COVID-19, but which, in fact, seem to fulfill other political objectives.
GATE, Global Action for Trans Equality, also reports in its newsletter that the 47th Session of the HRC was very positive for gender identity rights. GATE underlines the importance of the creation of the LGBTT+ feminist coalition around the declaration of A Feminist Affirmation of Principles, which reiterates the inclusive perspective of feminist thinking and activism in relation to gender. It also congratulates Victor Madrigal, the Independent Expert for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, on the presentation of his first report on “gender“, entitled Right to Inclusion. SPW also congratulates the Independent Expert for the quality and consistency of the report as a necessary institutional response to the anti-gender offensives that have proliferated unabated in the last decade.
Another important United Nations event held between January and June 2021 was the Generation and Equity Forum (GEF), originally planned to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women, but postponed because of COVID-19. Held in virtual form in two events coordinated in Mexico and France, the FGE not only reaffirmed the definitions emanating from the Conferences of the 1990s but also established commitments from states with funding policies and structures to ensure gender equality from an intersectional perspective. See here a summary of the final results (in English, French, and Spanish).
Setbacks and threats
Considering the broader context of autocratic drifts, both long-standing and those mobilized by the responses to the COVID-19 crisis, there have also been setbacks with respect to the right to abortion. One of them was the implementation of legislation in Poland that removed the right to abortion in the case of fetal malformation and made access to the procedure extremely difficult. Also in Lithuania and Romania, as The Conversation reports, the abortion procedure is no longer considered an essential service in hospitals during the pandemic.
In the Americas, there is also cause for concern. Starting with the U.S., where, since Joe Biden came to power, the specter of overturning Roe vs. Wade has become much denser, especially with the arrival of Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court. Today, given the Court’s new composition, the risks that drastic restrictions will limit abortion rights are amplified. And, at the level of state legislatures, to counterbalance the pro-abortion position of the Federal Executive, restrictive bills have continued to multiply: between January and February, more than 380 proposals with this content were presented. A new law passed in Texas and another in Mississippi received international attention (read more here and here). Besides this, some U.S. bishops clamored to ban abortion-friendly politicians, including President Biden, from taking communion, which even forced the Pope to take a stand.
Moreover, in Argentina, whose legal reform was a burst of energy for the entire region, the implementation of the abortion law incited the fury of sectors opposed to the right, which began to systematically attack the legislation, as analyzed by ELA, including with executive decrees and court rulings. The new panorama of the Argentine context can be better understood in our compilation that includes articles from Página 12, Infobae, and La Malafe. In fact, this bellicosity is present throughout the region, as a response to Argentina’s reform and the Biden administration.
The Brazilian scenario is also worrisome after the election of Representative Arthur Lira (PP-AL), a close ally of the forces against abortion, to the presidency of the House of Representatives. In July, Pública reported that the situation is, in fact, critical. In the same week, the executive sent to Congress a bill to establish the Day of the Unborn Child in Brazil. At this juncture, it is worth highlighting the ongoing restrictions on women’s ability to access safe abortions, even in cases where it is legal, as shown in the article in Portal Catarinas about a woman who was taken to the police station after receiving Misoprostol by mail and the article in Piauí about the judicial attack against the first legal telemedicine abortion service.
In addition, national elections in Ecuador and Peru also point to obstacles on this front. Guillermo Lasso, the new Ecuadorian president, has strong ties to the ultra-Catholic camp. Very significantly, after election, he declared that, in the name of democracy, he will fully respect the Supreme Court’s ruling on the right to abortion in the case of rape. This does not mean, however, that later on, under pressure from anti-abortion forces, measures that make access to the procedure more difficult will not be adopted. In the case of Peru, the new president, Pedro Castillo, has since the campaign declared himself opposed to the right to abortion and its legalization. Since his government has the support of other left-wing parties that are in favor of decriminalization, some voices have suggested that the radicalism of his position can perhaps be attenuated. This is not, however, what the article written by Ángel Pineda projects.
Victories and Resistance
On the other hand, abortion rights have also won important victories in the first half of 2021. Regarding legal reforms we highlight the already mentioned decision in April by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, which decriminalized the procedure in cases of pregnancy due to rape, an important advance, but it does not end the numerous challenges on the issue, as the Human Rights Watch report also points out.
In Mexico, abortion was decriminalized in the states of Hidalgo and Vera Cruz, and the Supreme Court eliminated the deadlines for abortion in case of rape. Legal advances were also seen in Thailand, where the Parliament approved in January a law authorizing the procedure until the 12th week of gestation, and in Gibraltar, where a referendum ratified in June a change in the law allowing abortion in cases of risk to the physical and mental health of the woman and fetal unviability.
In Colombia, the feminist movement took a fundamental step launching the campaign Causa Justa (Just Cause) to claim before the Constitutional Court the full removal of the crime of abortion from the criminal law. If the result is positive, Colombia will be the second country in the world not to consider abortion a crime (the other is Canada).
It is also very positive that in Honduras the January constitutional reform that established a future ban on legalizing abortion generated a strong feminist protest, and six months later a demand for the decriminalization of abortion in three cases was presented to the Constitutional Court. And in the case of Venezuela, we celebrate the release of activist and teacher Vanessa Rosales after eight months in jail for having helped a twelve-year-old girl, victim of rape, to have an abortion. Likewise, we report with hope and relief the news (here and here) of the release of the Salvadoran Sara Rogel after 10 years in prison for having suffered a spontaneous abortion, defined by the courts as “qualified homicide”.
Finally, the European Parliament passed a resolution defining access to abortion as a human right (here and here), as an institutional response to member countries that still criminalize abortion, have expanded access restrictions, or have restricted abortion services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
We mourn the deaths of nearly 600,000 people in Brazil as a result of COVID-19, human losses whose scale cannot be attributed to the lethality of Sars-Cov-2, but rather to social and political determinants, most especially the neo-Darwinian logic of allowing people to die on which the Federal Government’s response to the pandemic was based. But we also mourn for individual losses of people whose thought and political action were and remain indelible in the field in which we operate.
Susana Checa, activist and pioneer for abortion rights. Sociologist, professor at the University of Buenos Aires, historical member of the National Campaign for the Right to Safe and Free Legal Abortion. A pioneer in teaching about gender and sexual and reproductive rights, in partnership with Martha Rosenberg she wrote “Hospitalized Abortion – a reproductive rights issue, a public health problem”. Read in more detail in Página 12.
Fran Demétrio, first transsexual woman professor at the Federal University of the Recôncavo Baiano. Post-doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Brasilia (UnB), Fran was the coordinator of the Human Laboratory of Transdisciplinary Studies, Research and Extension in Integrality and Intersectionality of Health Care and Nutrition, Gender and Sexuality at UFRB.
With great pleasure we bring to the attention of our readers Blinds the series of paintings by the Singhalese artist Chandraguptha Tenuwara, which evokes the sanitary and political conditions of the pandemic as it portrays lived experience of being inside, quarantined, perusing the world outside through the veils of both physical and mental blinds.
We also have two good reasons to revisit Paula Rego, the Portuguese painter of the “abortion pastries”. One reason for that is that in March 2021, in partnership with CLACAI, SPW held two virtual seminars on the legal reform of abortion in Argentina (see below). The other is that Tate Modern museum in London is holding a retrospective of the painter’s work that includes works never before exhibited.
Two webinars in which Sexuality Policy Research Findings have been presented
Reproductive Righteousness and the Alt-Right State: A Feminist Symposium – REPROSOC Program, Cambridge University
“Right wing gender politics in the Global South” – Wits University, África do Sul
A new section of our website that provides access to all SPW analysis of sexual politics during the pandemic