Journalist, activist, and author Sally Armstrong’s latest book tells the stories of women around the globe who create change in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Armstrong spares no detail in describing the violent crimes perpetrated against women. These crimes, she says, must be related explicitly, in all their horror, in order to be recognized and addressed.
For example, several types of rape – “gang rape, mass rape, re-rape” – are rampant in war zones, but it wasn’t until 1998 that rape was recognized as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Another example: in Pakistan, throwing acid in women’s faces was so prevalent that, in 2012, a special bill had to be created to deal with it. The details Armstrong relates are horrific, and the knowledge that such things continue to happen is discouraging.
The triumphs are, thankfully, as stirring as the tragedies. The millennia-long Chinese foot-binding tradition was virtually eradicated in just seven years in the late-19th century, when women came together to change attitudes. Similarly, women in Senegal have made great strides in ending the practices of female genital mutilation and forced early marriage. Armstrong also tells the story of 10-year-old Khadia Ly, who was saved from early marriage by her classmates’ demands for justice. Reading about grassroots movements that have created vast and profound changes in some of the world’s most unequal and oppressive societies is extremely inspirational, and provides an antidote to burnout and cynicism.
Ascent of Women also documents the Canadian experience, from ensuring women’s rights were included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to issues surrounding abuses by polygamists to the Harper government’s inconsistent stance on women’s rights. (Harper stated he would oppose the Karzai government’s oppressive Shiite Personal Status Law in Afghanistan but ignored a 2011 report on violence against native women in his own country.) These necessary examples show that the Western world isn’t free from discrimination and oppression, and that we all have work left to do.