In ‘Year of the Woman,’ what did women gain?

From the ballot box to the Nobel Peace Prize, women made 2018 a breakthrough year.  Far from slowing, the #MeToo movement exploded on the global stage, inspiring digital campaigns and street protests. Women fought for political, legal and economic equality around the world, setting the stage for another historic year ahead.

Here are five top wins for women in 2018:


#MeToo momentum grows globally: Continuing to defy naysayers, the expanding #MeToo movement generated reform — and resistance. In China, the #MeToo movement went viral, despite heavy censorship by a government that deletes posts within hours. Ignited when women from nearly 100 Chinese universities called for reform last spring, a series of open letters in July toppled harassers across journalism, television and sports. And in October, the #MeToo campaign erupted in India, where women empowered by social media and unprecedented news coverage named names — triggering resignations from a government minister and influential newspaper editors.

Also this past fall, Moroccan activists kicked off the #Masaktach campaign — meaning “I Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic. In Argentina, the #NiUnaMenos movement continued to call attention to the lack of protection for female victims of violence. With rising momentum across the globe, from Nepal to Macedonia, the #MeToo campaign and similar organizing efforts show little sign of slowing in 2019.

Women in politics: She runs, and wins, around the world: The U.S. midterm elections heralded a new “Year of the Woman” with more than 475 female candidates running for congressional seats. The historic result: Women for the first time comprise almost 25 percent of the House of Representatives. Nations around the world experienced a similar meteoric rise in women seeking and winning political seats.

Take Lebanon, which had an eightfold increase of female candidates in spring parliamentary elections. Or Mexico, where nearly 3,000 women running in the June elections produced full gender parity in parliament and the first female mayor of Mexico City. Elections in Brazil and Afghanistan included record numbers of women candidates, and in Sri Lanka — where only 82 women served in local government — an astonishing 17,000 women ran for local office in February.


Spain, Ethiopia and Rwanda also joined the dozen countries globally with gender-balanced cabinets, with women holding key ministerial portfolios such as defense, justice and trade. And the world welcomed a few new female presidents in 2018: Sahle-Work Zewde in Ethiopia, Salome Zurabishvili in Georgia and Paula Mae-Weekes in Trinidad and Tobago. Despite these gains, much work remains for 2019; there are still only 23 female heads of state or government among 193 nations globally.

Activists fighting sexual assault in conflict win Nobel: In October, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two courageous leaders fighting rape as a weapon of war: Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege. Murad, a 25-year-old Yazidi woman held captive by ISIS, advocates for fellow survivors of genocide and sexual violence in conflict. Dr. Mukwege learned of his Nobel award while performing surgery in the hospital he founded to treat rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both have tirelessly called for women survivors to be heard and have gained dignity, respect and a voice in their communities.  

Their Nobel win reflects overdue global recognition that sexual violence is not only a violation of human rights, but also a security challenge that destabilizes communities and post-conflict reconstruction. As the Nobel Committee declared in its announcement of the winners, “A more peaceful world can only be achieved if women and their fundamental rights and security are recognized and protected in war.” World leaders should take action on this strategic imperative in the year ahead.

Historic legal wins protect women from violence: Global campaigners won important legal protections for sexual violence and harassment survivors in 2018. Morocco adopted its first-ever law criminalizing all forms of violence against women, imposing prison penalties and fines for a wide range of offenses, including sexual harassment and domestic abuse. In New Zealand, an innovative employment law now provides for paid domestic violence leave, allowing survivors of abuse time off work to find new homes and protect their families. Protesters in India compelled the government to pass stricter sentences for perpetrators and mandate police to complete rape investigations.

And France banned street harassment as part of a slate of new provisions that broaden protections for rape victims — and even levied its first fine for public harassment in September. The next hurdle for these nations? Ensuring implementation of these new laws in courts, police stations and social programs.

Women and the wage gap — time to pay up: The year began with bad news from the World Economic Forum (WEF). For the first time ever, its annual report found the global gender pay gap widened. But many countries answered this wake-up call, enacting and strengthening laws to tackle wage discrepancies. The United Kingdom and Germany both introduced requirements that companies publicly release salary information, revealing embarrassing gender gaps. Companies such as EasyJet and Barclays have begun efforts to improve their numbers in response.

Malaysia sought to close the gender wealth gap by apportioning greater retirement savings for stay-at-home mothers. Australia’s 2018 budget included a significant boost in funding for parental leave, child care and STEM training for women, which could help narrow the gap in women’s wages. And Iceland passed the strictest federal wage gap law in the world, mandating that employers must prove they are paying men and women fairly, rather than putting the burden on employees to prove discrimination.  

But these kinds of successful initiatives are not enough. Without additional action, the WEF warns it will take more than 200 years to close the global gender wage gap.

Our 2019 prediction? Women won’t wait two centuries longer for equality. Undaunted by repression or backlash, emerging movements are likely to continue growing globally through digital organizing in the year ahead. In many parts of the world, it remains a dangerous act to stand up for women’s rights — or to be a woman at all. Political leaders should resolve in 2019 to show the same bravery women activists proved this year.

Meighan Stone is a senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and former president of the Malala Fund.

Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.