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March 7, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Rights Erode Before Women’s Eyes

PARIS — This year, in the International Herald Tribune’s series on The Female Factor, we thought we would look at women from all over who make a difference.
We started off in China, which is home to one in five of the world’s women, and probably tells us something about the future…
If so, it is not a really heartening picture. What Didi Kirsten Tatlow found is that rights, many of them gained in the era of Mao Zedong, are being rolled back. Representation in the top leadership echelons is virtually zero – a serious impediment to gender parity in a one-party state. Brave women like Liu Ping, who has suffered broken bones and heavy harassment since launching an unsanctioned (and unsuccessful) bid to run for her local council in southern China, are being turned away.
Even women who feel as if they are getting ahead — Didi talked to a rural immigrant who landed in Beijing at 17 and now counts herself the successful owner of a farm — face hardships.
In Britain, too, many women feel up against it as austerity bites. Services like child care — essential for any woman hoping to work after becoming a mother — are shutting down, and women who thought they had a place in the middle class find themselves clinging on tight, losing sleep over how to pay credit card bills that are the only thing that keep them going. As one woman told Beth Gardiner, it feels like a return to the days when women had no independent income of their own, and depended on their male breadwinner to come home and plonk the week’s wages on the table.
Can it really be that we are losing ground, sisters? Are Western women in fact no longer in the vanguard of progress for women, as sisters in Africa, Asia and Latin America surge past taboos in emerging economies?
Finally, we go to Russia and look at a rare figure — a Russian woman holding her own in politics. Irina Prokhorova is the sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, who just took a somewhat quixotic run at the presidency (won, of course by Vladimir Putin). Mikhail may be Russia’s third-richest man and a seemingly typical oligarch, but his sister is something else. Nine years older, Irina favors plain suits, a sensible haircut and resembles a liberal arts professor, Sophia Kishkovsky found. She is also an acknowledged expert in Russian history and culture, and in American and English literature, running a well-respected publishing house. Most notably, she stunned Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov into silence during a televised debate — and he admitted that if she was running with her brother, he would vote for her!
Could it be that a woman like Irina, or the Chinese of an earlier era, had more rights because Communism, for all its murderous failings, at least paid lip service to gender parity? As Viviane Reding, Europe’s justice commissioner, told the IHT this week, she intends to follow suit. It is no longer enough, she said, to embrace women on corporate boards. Quotas are the only thing that works, and so she will start mobilizing for new laws to ensure that women can occupy up to 60 percent of the seats on corporate boards.
Take a moment to tell us what you think. Whom do you know who makes a difference for women? Whom should we profile this year? What issues, where, are not being covered by the media, or are being covered incorrectly?
And what do you plan to do to mark International Women’s Day on Thursday? We’ll be running a profile of one of the bravest women on Earth: Aung San Suu Kyi.
Leave your questions below in the comments area to be answered by Alison Smale and the reporters of The Female Factor pieces.

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