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Gilead is a Global Reality

On September 10 2019, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was released. Although Gilead and The Testaments are fictional, they hold a mirror up to the state of women’s rights today.

In the dystopian future of Gilead, women are enslaved, married off, raped, and denied their most fundamental human rights. These patriarchal and discriminatory practices in the fictional Gilead are some of the things Equality Now tackles in reality. 

Here are 7 ways that Gilead is a global reality, highlighting the importance of Margaret Atwood returning to this story 34 years later. 

Violations of women’s rights are not the stuff of fiction, they happen across the world every day. Stand with us to ensure that Gilead remains fictional and all women and girls can live safe, fearless, and free lives.

Some men are not held accountable for sexual violence

In Gilead, Commanders are not held accountable for acts of sexual violence, such as raping their Handmaids. Too often, perpetrators of sexual violence across the world are not held accountable because of gaps in the law. 

In India, marital rape is not a crime when the wife is over 18, and girls between the ages of 15 and 18 have only been protected by law since October 2017. 

In Iraq, women like Sabiha are often forced to marry the men who rape them. Their rapists not only escape punishment for the initial crime, they are then given free rein to subject these survivors to further violence. The woman or girl’s family may be the ones insisting she marry her rapist in order to restore the family’s ‘honor’. 

As in Gilead, some men in India, Iraq, and all around the world enjoy impunity when committing acts of sexual violence.

Take action today to ensure that women like Sabiha are safe and perpetrators are punished for their crimes.

Women and men are not seen as equal

When Gilead was established, women were stripped of many of their most basic human rights. In some countries around the world, women are not fully protected in their constitutions in comparison to men. 

One of those countries is the United States. The original drafters of the U.S. Constitution were all white, landholding (and often slave-holding) men. Women were never part of ‘the people’ they envisioned in the Constitution.

Many years later the Supreme Court interpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to protect women to an extent, but a special category was created for gender that offers far less protection than other protected categories like race, religion or national origin.

The Equal Rights Amendment is a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee women’s rights by putting women in the founding document of the country. 

Take action today and tell Congress that women should be fully protected in the U.S. Constitution.

Women and girls are excluded from education

In Gilead, women and girls do not have access to the same education as their male counterparts. 

Educational inequality happens around the world every day, but in Tanzania this inequality is sanctioned by the law. 

For the last 59 years, Tanzania has had a discriminatory ban that denies pregnant school girls their right to education. In the past 4 years this ban has been reinforced by various political pronouncements. It prohibits girls from accessing education, not just for the duration of their pregnancy but even after it too. 

In Tanzania, literacy rates have dropped over 20 percent in recent years and more than 55,000 girls have been banned from attending school because of pregnancy in the past decade alone. Survivors of sexual violence are being further traumatized by lawmakers who are making them pay for someone else’s crime with their futures.

Help us take action today to #LetGirlsLearn.

Women are not permitted to travel alone

In Gilead, Handmaids can only travel in pairs or be accompanied by a Guardian.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women obtaining passports, traveling, and working without the permission of a male relative. Regulations issued alongside those granting women new freedom of travel also permitted women to register births, deaths, and marriages, and to serve as a minor’s legal guardian. 

But even as the world has welcomed the weakening of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, women’s rights activists who have pushed for these reforms remain imprisoned awaiting trial, or detained without charges for their activism and peaceful protest. According to reports from prison, they have been subject to torture, sexual abuse, and other human rights violations and have been unable to contact their families or attorneys. And women in Saudi Arabia still require a man’s permission to marry or to leave a Domestic Abuse Shelter or prison.

Women’s rights are human rights and it’s time the whole world knows it. 

Women are forced to undergo FGM

In the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, in Gilead, female genital mutilation (FGM) is used as a form of punishment. 

We know that FGM occurs on every continent except Antarctica, and across all geographical, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. While the reasons for performing FGM vary, it is always rooted in the desire to control women and girls’ bodies. 

FGM has no medical benefits; but the trauma of undergoing FGM can stay with girls throughout their lives and set them up for a lifetime of health problems, including recurrent urinary tract infections, difficulties in child birth and painful menstrual periods. 

At least 200 million women and girls are living with the reality of FGM and every year an additional 3.9 million girls are at risk. 

Join us today and help end FGM.

UPDATE: In 2024, new statistics were released by UNICEF showing 230 million women and girls around the world are affected by FGM, a 15% increase or 30 million more girls and women being subjected to FGM, compared to the data released eight years ago. This figure now includes data on FGM prevalence in Asia (80 million), the Middle East (6 million), and countries which have small practicing communities and are destination countries for migration (1-2 million).

Women are forced to have children, whether they want them or not

In Gilead, Handmaids are forced to bear their Commander’s children, and birth control of any kind is illegal.

Despite being a part of the UK, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland in almost every instance, including when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and when the fetus has a fatal abnormality that means it would not survive outside of the womb. 

Unlike the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, meaning women must travel to the UK mainland, and sometimes further, to have a safe and legal abortion. 

From 22 October abortion is decriminalized in Northern Ireland. Anyone who accesses an abortion service, including abortion pills, will not be prosecuted.

Learn more about the campaign to give the women of Northern Ireland access to choice.

Some legal systems don’t protect victims of rape

In Gilead, Handmaids are subjected to rape by their Commanders, who face no legal repercussions for their actions. 

Rape is a global epidemic that will affect over a billion women over the course of their lifetime. Around the world, 35 percent of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence. 120 million girls worldwide will have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. 

Laws like estupro pose a lesser penalty for the rape of an adolescent girl than for a younger child or adult woman. Such laws exist in many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, and let rapists slip through a legal loophole that robs survivors of a chance to obtain justice. 

These laws are rooted in stereotypes that see adolescent girls as ‘manipulative’, ‘treacherous’ and ‘seductive’, who often prey on unsuspecting adult men. These attitudes follow survivors through the legal system, from doctors to prosecutors to judges, making them vulnerable to further trauma and less likely to pursue their case, if they are in the minority of women who choose to report sexual violence at all. 

Similar scenarios play out in some courtrooms and within certain legal systems around the world every day.

But you can join Equality Now to help change that. Working together, we can end sexual violence.

We have highlighted some of the ways in which Gilead is a global reality, but that does not mean it has to be this way forever. We can change it, together.