World for Women in 2021: The Good

Part one of our reflection on 2021 examined the bad. The steps backwards for gender equality, highlighting moments of pain caused by deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny. In part two, we examine some of the good. Positive steps forward and what they mean for the wider fight for gender equality.


2021 started out strong, with a ban on child marriage being passed into law in the Dominican Republic.[1] The nation has a very high rate of child marriage, compounded by issues of poverty. In the absence of systemic change to deliver economic support and empower women and girls it is unclear what impact this legislation will have. But at least it sends the message that child marriage is unacceptable.  

The Lebanon Higher Islamic Council also made changes to their marriage laws in 2021 to better protect girls.[2] The Council has banned marriage for girls under 15 years old and requires girls between the ages of 15 and 18 to consent to marriage. While this isn’t a full prohibition on child marriage, and it raises issues of whether a 15-year-old can give free and informed consent, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Further action on child marriage came from the United States where two states, Rhode Island and New York, enacted new bans on the practice. In Rhode Island it was legal for a girl over 16 years old to get married with permission from a guardian, and girls under 16 could get married after a family court hearing.[3] These girls were also not legally allowed to file for divorce once married, making the situation even more dangerous for them. In New York, girls could be married at 17 years old with permission from a guardian or judge.[4] Now, both of these states have legislated a minimum age of 18 to marry.

Every year, child marriage robs 15 million girls of their childhood.[5] Child marriage typically means an end to a girl’s education, her prospects for a career, and therefore prevents financial independence. Girls in this position, vulnerable due to both their gender and age, may become entirely reliant on their husband to survive, risking financial, emotional, physical and very often sexual abuse. Child brides also have extremely high rates of maternal mortality, as their bodies have not finished developing to cope with the trauma of childbirth. Those who survive childbirth at such a young age do not come out of it unscathed. Birth trauma can be damaging for adult women. For children, it brings higher risk of physical complications such as obstetric fistulae, leaving life-long devastating effects.

Eliminating child marriage is essential to ensuring the best possible future for all girls, and to achieving gender equality.


2021 saw advances in equality for women in business and work. In March, New Zealand passed legislation mandating paid leave for all miscarriages and stillbirths.[6] It was the second country in the world to do so, after India. The loss of a child at any stage of pregnancy can be both emotionally and physically devastating for pregnant people and allowing proper paid leave prevents financial punishment compounding their loss.

Meanwhile, to achieve more gender equality in the board room, Germany passed legislation requiring all publicly traded and government companies to have at least one woman on their management board.[7] Prior to this law, 30 eligible companies did not have any women on their management boards at all.

And the American stock market company Nasdaq now requires all companies trading through them to have at least one woman and one racially diverse or LGBTQ identifying person on their board.[8] Around 3,000 companies are traded through Nasdaq, the majority being tech-related or high-growth, and approximately 75% of these companies did not meet the new policy threshold when it was announced.

Although these changes seem minimal, an increase in diverse representation at the highest level of business may lead to greater emphasis on gender and racial equality within those companies. When women and minorities have a seat at the table, it creates opportunities for new perspectives in policy, and increased focus on issues unique to women and minorities. It also provides women and minorities looking to succeed at business with more role models to motivate their progress.


History was made in the fields of entertainment, sport, and even children’s toys in 2021.

First up, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour, and only the second woman ever, to win the Oscar for best director for her film, Nomadland.[9] Next, the 2020 Olympics, which were completed in 2021, were the most gender-equal in history with nearly 49% of athletes being women.[10] The 2020 Paralympics had the most women athletes ever with 1,782 athletes. And popular toys also became more gender-neutral, with Lego removing gendered labels from their toys such as “for girls” or “for boys”,[11] and Hasbro is dropping the “Mr.” from Mr. Potato Head.[12]

While these individual wins can seem innocuous, small positives can mean a lot for women, girls, and non-binary people. It’s a lot easier to dream of achieving something if you have seen others go before you. Chloé’s win shows young non-male filmmakers of colour that their contributions can be recognized. Prior to Kathryn Bigelow’s achievement in 2010, many young women would be forgiven for thinking that they would never succeed at the highest level of film making. Kathryn broke that mould, and Chloé cemented the place of women of colour in directing.

Seeing as many women as men in the Olympics tells young female athletes that they are every bit as important as their male counterparts. After years of serious under-funding and low media coverage, women’s sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves across the world. A gender-equal Olympics has been essential to that progress. The achievements of non-binary and trans women competitors went even further to highlighting that the pursuit of sport to its highest level is for all.

And the gendered aspect of children’s toys may seem unimportant. But telling children something is not for them due to their gender is one of many ways that children are forced to fit the gender binary at an early age.  The whole point of childhood is absorbing, learning, and exploring. Limiting girls to dolls and babies, and limiting boys to trucks and soldiers, primes them to accept constraints based on gender through the rest of their life. It starts small at toys, but it goes on to, jobs relationships, and places in society. It needs to be removed from their early life to give our children the brightest possible futures.


In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard in the UK, a social movement against male violence, led by groups such as Reclaim These Streets and Take Back The Night, forced the UK government to act. In July of 2021, the government published their strategy for “Tackling violence against women and girls”.[13] The strategy is a mixed bag, with some investments that are unlikely to make a major difference such as investing in police, communications campaigns, and street lighting. Among all of this though, the government is taking some positive steps. They have announced funding boosts for specialist support services for minority groups, the development of programs to increase understanding in the causes of violence against women and girls, the establishment of a rape and sexual assault helpline, and attention to the relationships, sex, and health education curriculum.[14] It’s important that the general public in the UK, as well as the opposition party, take the lead of activist groups and now hold the government to account on delivering these promised improvements.


While abortion rights were being attacked in the US, they were being expanded in Mexico this year. In September, the Mexican supreme court unanimously ruled to decriminalize abortion in a long-fought victory for Mexican activists.[15] The decision was based on arguments for human rights and a woman’s right to choose, in a strongly worded judgment that (hopefully) will be difficult to overturn in the future. However, as always, the fight is not over. Without binding legislation securing this right, it will be possible for the government to enact further prohibitions on abortion. And without state funding to support abortion providers, women who have this right may not be able to exercise it.


The re-imposition of Taliban control in Afghanistan has had an awful impact on the rights of women and girls in the country. However, the women of Afghanistan are fighting back. In October, an all-women delegation of parliamentarians, women’s rights advocates, journalists, civil society leaders, and researchers made their way to the UN to advocate on behalf of all Afghan women. They came armed with experience, facts, passion, and practical policy proposals to convince the UN to aid the women and girls of their country and uphold their human rights.

These were not the only women speaking up in defiance of the Taliban in 2021. Activists, journalists, and other extraordinary women put their lives on the line to protest the harms being committed and report on the situation.[16][17] As recently as December, brave women have been protesting the Taliban’s oppressive rule, with one protester saying, “I want to tell the world, tell the Taliban to stop killing. We want freedom, we want justice, we want human rights.”[18]


In October through to November, a new law made its way through the parliament of Spain. The “Only Yes Is Yes” bill was passed despite strong opposition from conservative minority parties. This bill will enshrine a definition of consent into Spanish law. According to the bill, “Consent will only be understood to exist when it has been freely manifested through acts clearly expressing the individual’s will, considering the circumstances of the case.” And “any sexual attack without explicit consent will be penalized as aggression and sentencing would depend on different circumstances. Any aggression which involves penetration will be considered rape.”

In addition to this increased clarity regarding consent, the bill also provides for additional reparations and resources for victims and improved sexual education in schools. This holistic approach to the issue is what we would like to see all governments take, recognizing that punishment without prevention cannot lead to equality.


These are not the only good things to happen for women in 2021, but they represent moments of brightness in a dark year for gender equality. Our hope is that it was also a year of motivation for organisers, activists, and members of the public. 2021 was unforgettable for tragedy. Let’s make 2022 unforgettable for the right reasons.



















Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels

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