No news is good news, as the cliché goes.

But last year there were both positive and disheartening news stories about girls’ and women’s rights. Today we’re looking back at five big news stories that had an impact on girls. The stories happened around the world – in countries where Plan works to improve girls’ rights and also closer to home.

1. Girls’ education activist Malala Yousufzai shot on bus home from school.

The story of Malala touched us all last year. The 15-year-old from the Swat region of Pakistan was shot for the “crime” of attending school. An outspoken supporter of girls’ right to education, Malala has just been released from hospital in the United Kingdom. In honour of Malala, the United Nations declared November 10th a day of action to focus attention on 32 million girls who are not in school.

2. Republicans in the US declare unofficial “war on women”

Rape, pregnancy, abortion and vaginas were hot topics in US politics last year. Here are just a few examples: A debate raged about whether work health plans should be required to provide coverage for contraceptives, with concerns that women weren’t being given a voice. Republican U.S. Representative Todd Akin stated that pregnancy rarely occurs as a result of what he called “legitimate rape.” Democratic State Senator Lisa Brown was kicked out of a debate on anti-abortion legislation because she used the word “vagina.” However, during the US election in November, Americans sent a clear message by voting against the “war on women”.

3. United Nations declares contraception a human right

Access to contraception dramatically improves the lives of women and girls in every country around the world. Yet, there are still many challenges to women’s right to access family planning services. For the first time, the UN Population Fund explicitly called contraception a human right in 2012. The right isn’t yet enshrined in international law, but it is a big step towards giving women control over their own bodies and lives.

4. For the first time ever, every country sends female athletes to the 2012 London Olympics

Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar all sent female athletes to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. For those countries, it was the first time women had been represented at the Games. The women represented their countries in swimming, athletics, table tennis, and judo. Bahiya al-Hamad, who competes in shooting, even carried Qatar’s flag in the Opening Ceremonies. We have come a long way – as recently as 16 years ago, 26 national teams sent no female athletes to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

5. Members of Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot sent to jail.

After staging a protest show at a church in Moscow, three members of the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot were charged with hooliganism. The band’s lyrics and performances tackle issues like feminism, opposition to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, LGBT rights and the connection between church and state in Russia. At their trial, the women spoke of their country’s inequalities. For speaking out against these inequalities, each woman on trial was sentenced to 2 years in a prison camp. Film maker Mike Lerner, whose documentary on the Pussy Riot premiers later this year, called the court case “feminism on trial” and compared proceedings to a “medieval witch-hunt”.

What do YOU think the most important story for girls’ rights was in 2012?

(Photo credit: Lorena Cupcake)

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